Company-provided healthcare benefits and wellbeing programmes can aid employee engagement if communicated well and can boost an organisation’s profits too, Sam Barrett reports
Healthcare and wellbeing benefits can bring advantages to both employees and employers by reducing sickness, cutting absenteeism and increasing productivity.
Medical insurance, for example, gives employees access to private treatment, which may mean they are treated more quickly and are off work for less time than if they waited for an NHS appointment.
Despite the obvious commercial benefits, employees also place a high value on healthcare packages. Ann Greenwood, director of business markets at Bupa, says: “Employees really appreciate healthcare benefits. Medical insurance is usually ranked in the top-three employee benefits, often just behind the pension scheme.”
Research conducted by health consultancy Vielife found that there was an 8.5% improvement in the performance of employees who received help with their health and wellbeing. As a result, employers received an annual return on investment of £3.73 for every £1 spent. Clive Pinder, managing director of the company, says: “Healthy employees are on average 20% more productive than unhealthy ones.”
However, the way healthcare benefits are delivered and communicated can make a huge difference to the degree to which they engage staff with the organisation. Joyce Roberts, head of sickness absence management at Axa PPP healthcare, explains: “Employees shouldn’t feel that these benefits are being forced upon them or you run the risk of creating a Big Brother culture.” To overcome such problems, she recommends surveying staff to find out whether they are receptive to health and wellbeing benefits before implementing them and making it clear that any initiatives, such as cholesterol testing, are voluntary.
Employees are also likely to switch off if they are bombarded with a range of healthy lifestyle benefits and too much information at once. Few people lead totally healthy lives, so it can be difficult to know where to start when making improvements.
Malcolm Emery, chairman of Wellness Technology, explains: “If you give employees a load of healthy living benefits and tell them to pick, it’s virtually pointless. Start with an assessment so they can see where they need to make changes. This also makes it much easier for them to get results.”
Interactive, online assessments are particularly popular and are offered by many providers. These can be accessed by staff at a time that’s convenient, and they provide instant analysis so that employees can see how different lifestyle changes could affect their overall health, as Bupa’s Greenwood explains. “Our personal health profiler gives employees a picture of their health broken down into four areas – stress, sleep, nutrition and fitness. Staff can then set health goals, such as losing some weight before a holiday or giving up smoking, and they will receive email support and advice on achieving these goals.”
Although these assessments are confidential, the provider will give general feedback to the employer. Depending on the size of an organisation, this can be broken down into results by age, gender, and division or across the whole company. This data can help an employer to identify key health issues in the organisation and tailor broader health and wellbeing initiatives to the findings.
When companies put together a strategy, it is important for them to consider factors such as the age of different employees, because this can make a difference in getting staff to engage with the programme. “Up to age 35 the main focus is on wanting to look good, so benefits such as gym membership and exercise programmes will be most appreciated,” says Emery.
He adds that priorities change as people get older, with women usually becoming more pre-occupied with long-term health issues between the ages of 35 and 45, while men generally don’t worry about such issues until they reach about the age of 45.
The way companies communicate their programmes will also affect engagement levels. Ann Dougan, marketing director for Cigna Healthcare, says: “Don’t bury your health benefits in the joining pack. If you offer physiotherapy benefits then tell employees it’s there and when it can be useful. Also, remind them that dependents are covered – if that’s the case.”
Many organisations provide benefits such as massages, subsidised gym membership and free fruit, but fail to promote them as a complete health and wellbeing package because they were introduced by different staff members over a period of time.
When promoting healthcare benefits, it helps to think about the complete range on offer, explains Axa’s Roberts. “This gives a more co-ordinated approach and increases the value of the health benefits you offer.”
For many people making an improvement to their health is a reward in itself, but employers should still congratulate employees that do achieve significant improvements. “Done subtlety, a reward for the effort can help to reinforce the value of the benefit,” adds Emery.
In the US, employers engage employees with their health and wellbeing programmes by taking a different tack, as Dougan explains. “Some employers [in the US] incentivise by offering additional benefits if an employee follows a wellbeing programme, while others penalise those employees who don’t by excluding them from the medical insurance scheme. Health and wellbeing programmes are a lot more common in the United States, but I don’t think this sort of penalty would ever catch on in the UK.”
Whatever tactics an employer decides to use, the value of any health and wellbeing benefits should be continually promoted to employees to enable them to see the advantages of participation.
CASE STUDY: Axa PPP healthcare
Axa PPP healthcare launched a confidential online health assessment for its employees in spring 2006.
It did this after a survey found staff would like the benefit, with 93% of respondents saying they would be happy to get such support.
The online health assessment gave each participant information about their current health and advice on how they could make improvements. Anonymous data was also fed back to the company, helping it to structure the rollout of other health and wellbeing benefits, including health roadshows, healthy eating initiatives, and an interactive walking programme, which enabled staff to chart their progress along a virtual Hadrian’s Wall.
Mark Moorton, HR director at Axa PPP healthcare, believes employees are more engaged as a result of the programme. “Sickness absence has reduced by 18% and our employee engagement survey shows a four percentage points improvement. It’s also encouraged more social activities with employees getting together and supporting one another in events like [the Cancer Research] Race for Life.”