Health and wellbeing strategies are often seen as one of the softer, fluffier workplace initiatives that employers can offer their staff. But a healthier, happier workforce means higher productivity, which is why HR and benefits professionals need to learn how to persuade their finance directors of the merits of such a strategy.
If you read nothing else, read this…
- Health and wellbeing strategies can help employers to tackle sickness absence and high employee turnover.
- But finance directors expect to see a clear return on investment from these strategies, based on empirical evidence.
- Assessing an organisation’s health and wellbeing benefits spend is a good place to start collating data.
First, HR and benefits professionals must understand what motivates finance directors. Richard Colver, head of healthcare and wellbeing at JLT Employee Benefits, says: “They are accountants. They look for quantifiable proof of a return on investment. HR and benefits professionals need to bear this in mind when presenting a case for a health and wellbeing strategy.”
Given finance directors’ accountancy-based skillsets, not surprisingly, data is king. Andy Aldana, senior health and wellbeing consultant at Thomsons Online Benefits, says several sources of data can be used to show how an organisation would benefit from an investment in employee health and wellbeing.
“Employee health affects an organisation in a number of ways, so [HR and benefits professionals] should look for data on sickness absence, turnover and engagement, as well as claims statistics from their group income protection and medical insurance policies,” he says.
“This information can show how the organisation is performing and will highlight any key areas of concern.”
An online health risk assessment can also be used to collect data on employees’ health. Such assessments are relatively low cost, but are often included free with products such as health cash plans and medical insurance. The data, which is anonymous, will highlight any health risks within a workforce, which can help HR and benefits professionals to target their strategy.
It is also sensible for them to benchmark their organisation against its peers. For example, they could compare their sickness absence data against that of similar-sized employers, or ask their medical insurer for comparable data on organisations in the same industry.
It is also important to collate data on an employer’s existing health and wellbeing spend. Chris Evans, senior consultant at Buck Consultants, says: “The budget will often fall across different departments. For example, medical insurance and group income protection might sit with benefits, while the spend on flu jabs and health risk assessments is with health and safety.
“By bringing it all together, HR and benefits professionals can identify any duplication and show how they could optimise the spend.”
Return on investment
It is essential, but often difficult, for HR and benefits professionals to show the return on investment (ROI) they would expect from any health initiatives.
Research on the financial benefits of a health and wellbeing strategy is plentiful in the US, where health and wellbeing programmes have more of a track record.
Jessica Colling, solutions director at Vielife, suggests HR and benefits professionals in the UK should consult research, such as The impact of a health promotion program on employee health risks and work productivity, by Peter Mills, Ronald Kessler, John Cooper and Sean Sullivan, published in the American Journal of Health Promotion in September 2007.
“This demonstrates an ROI of 6.19:1 as a result of the reduction in risk and improved productivity,” she says. “This is an indication of the potential, but I would tend to start with a more conservative figure. A return of 2:1 would be regarded as significant by most finance directors.”
HR and benefits professionals could also consider creating hypothetical case studies to demonstrate the ROI for initiatives they would like to introduce. For example, if they would like to roll out employee health tests, they could calculate the cost to the organisation of an employee developing a chronic condition, such as diabetes or heart disease.
Statistics on the probability of these types of condition can be obtained from health charities. For example, figures from Diabetes UK show that one in 20 people in the UK has diabetes, with the probability of having the condition increasing with age and weight and across certain ethnic groups. More specific information about an organisation’s risk profile could be revealed by an online health risk assessment.
JLT’s Colver also recommends enlisting the support of insurers for this exercise. “Employers should ask insurers for average claims data for a condition and details of how it might affect premiums,” he says. “This will help demonstrate the value to the business of preventing chronic conditions in the workforce.”
While it is possible to show that many health initiatives will improve employee health, the drawback when presenting to a finance director is that it may take time for some of the results to materialise. For example, encouraging staff to eat a healthy diet and to exercise can cut the risk of developing heart disease and cancer. But because these diseases might not manifest themselves until an employee is aged 40 or more, a finance director might be reluctant to introduce it to a workforce with an average age of 25, particularly if the organisation has a high staff turnover.
Where this is the case, there are some faster returns that can help to win finance directors over. Vielife’s Colling says: “Tackling issues relating to sleep and stress can lead to the biggest improvements in productivity and sickness absence.”
Employers should also consider the traction their existing benefits can offer.
Louise Flowers, head of claims management at Lorica Consulting, says many employers overlook free benefits, such as health information and discounted gym membership.
“If employers can put some time and effort into promoting these freebies, they will start to see improvements across their workforce,” she says. “This could help persuade their finance director to make more budget available.”
Another quick win could come from employers’ existing health benefit providers. For example, Buck Consultants’ Evans says a group income protection insurer will consider giving a discount where an effective health and wellbeing programme is in place.
Talk the talk
While finding the evidence to support an investment will help to secure a finance director’s support, the way HR and benefits professionals present their case is also key.
Fiona King, rehabilitation manager at Legal and General, recommends using hard cash illustrations wherever possible. “Sickness absence figures are often presented as a percentage, but this can be fairly meaningless to a finance director,” she says. “This should be turned into a monetary value, which will make it much more effective. HR and benefits professionals should also think about other finance director-friendly language, such as key performance indicators, productivity and evaluations.”
As well as the jargon, finance directors will also consider proposals that link to broader business objectives.
Evans explains: “It’s not enough just to think about improving the health of employees. If [HR and benefits professionals] can show how health improvements will enable the business to achieve its goals, they will be much more likely to get their finance director’s support.”
Case study: JP Morgan overcomes challenges to win finance director buy-in
JP Morgan is well known for its extensive health and wellbeing strategy, Wellness Works, which includes information on improving staff health, weight loss programmes and fitness challenges.
But when Adam Brooke, vice-president, employee benefits (UK), set out to introduce the initiative in 2010, he faced the same challenges many benefits professionals encounter.
“We had always offered health screening to employees over the age of 40, but we wanted to open this up to all employees,” he says. “This would be a significant expense to the business, and we had to justify why we wanted to do it.”
To build a case for the investment, Brooke pulled together data from JP Morgan’s existing screening programme, occupational health and medical insurance to show how early detection affected other benefits.
“We were able to demonstrate that where screening picked up health conditions early, there were significant savings as well as improved outcomes for employees,” says Brooke. “Treatment costs would be reduced and, for some conditions, lifestyle changes would be sufficient to prevent it developing further.”
Brooke also spoke to the organisation’s screening provider, Nuffield Health, to gain further support for the plan. With more employees having health screenings, it would be possible to have a full-time physiologist providing an on-site service, helping to reduce the cost per employee.
There was also an element of good fortune, says Brooke. “We invited a member of the management committee to chair our wellness committee and the finance director for the EMEA [Europe, Middle East and Africa] region offered to do it. We were really lucky this happened because he was able to see exactly what we were trying to achieve.”
Even with the finance director’s support, Brooke says the early meetings were fairly intense. “We had weekly meetings during the initial six months where we would be grilled on everything,” he says. “It’s much more relaxed now, but we still run things past finance. It takes time to build the trust, but it’s worth it.”
Viewpoint: Employers must decide which metrics they will use to collect and present their data
As a charity that specialises in promoting the idea of health and wellbeing to chartered accountants and their employers, we are often asked about providing evidence that health and wellbeing strategies can have a measureable impact on a business and its employees.
A vital first step is for employers to understand what relevant metrics are telling them. They should look at absence and turnover figures, referrals to occupational health specialists, and employee engagement and satisfaction scores.
For example, we have recently completed research that shows that 32% of chartered accountants admit to experiencing feelings of stress on a daily basis, with twice as many taking time off work due to stress in 2013 as the previous year. This latter statistic would catch the eye of a finance manager.
Proof of effectiveness
Having established that issues exist, employers need to prove that the adoption of their health and wellbeing strategies can have a positive effect on staff.
Employers may consider referring to research such as the World Economic Forum’s paper, The Wellness Imperative, Creating more effective organisations, published in 2010, which demonstrates that if health and wellbeing are actively promoted in the workplace, organisations are 2.5 times more likely to be a top performer in their market sector.
Such information should give employers all the information and confidence that they need to be able to talk to their finance department about structuring a health and wellbeing strategy and putting in place well-defined objectives.
Employers should consider how they will measure strategy success, the frequency of the reviews that they will conduct and their required budget.
Ultimately, employers need to be able to persuade their finance directors that promoting health and wellbeing within their organisation is just another way of pursuing the old maxim that a happy workforce is a productive workforce and that this assertion should, and can, be measured and proven.
Lucy Whitehall is wellbeing manager at the Chartered Accountants’ Benevolent Association