A growing number of employers feel they have a role to play in promoting employee wellness, and there are good business reasons for doing so, says Nicola Sullivan
The introduction of Dame Carol Black’s system of fit notes and fit-for-work services is likely to shake up or prompt a review of employers’ healthcare provision. The fit note system, which became law in April, turned the concept of sick notes on its head, with workers now being assessed for what they can do at work rather than what they cannot.
Just 8% of respondents believe fit notes will have no impact on their organisation’s healthcare provision. In comparison, almost two-thirds (64%) feel they will have to offer greater flexibility to enable staff to return to work, such as offering more flexible working hours.
In addition, 60% of respondents say they will have to review their return-to-work or rehabilitation programme, and just over a third (36%) believe they will have to provide access to more occupational health services for staff.
Although approximately two-thirds (65%) of employers believe they should be partly responsible for encouraging wellness among employees, a greater proportion of respondents say the medical profession (80%), the government (75%) and individuals (75%) should be most accountable.
The percentage of employers that believe they have a role to play in promoting wellness among the UK population has continued to increase, however. The 65% that believe this to be the case this year is a substantial rise on the 54% that said the same in 2009 and 49% that did so five years ago.
When it comes to encouraging staff to do the right thing concerning their health and wellbeing, respondents continue to view achieving a sensible work-life balance as the most important issue. Motivating employees to reduce stress is also high on the agenda for respondents, followed by encouraging staff to eat healthily, keep fit and undergo health screening.
Most employers cite improving the health and welfare of employees as their primary objective in offering healthcare benefits. There are undisputable business benefits to gain by ensuring staff are healthy, such as reducing sickness absence, which respondents list as the second most important objective, followed closely by improving workforce productivity.
However, getting employees back to work as soon as possible seems to have slipped down employers’ agendas.
This year it came fifth in the list of top objectives, cited by 24% of respondents, compared with 35% of respondents who listed it as a top aim in 2009. Back in 2004, 44% of respondents considered a swift return to work a key priority.
This appears to fly in the face of the government’s objective to get as many people back to work as possible. It also suggests employers are becoming increasingly focused on preventing sickness absence and the business benefits this brings. The fact that 60% of respondents say healthcare perks have helped them get people back to work quickly after an absence could also indicate employers are on top of this issue, and are therefore focusing their attention elsewhere.
Employers continue to be reasonably successful in achieving other aims, with more than half saying they have improved the welfare of staff and have succeeded in reducing sickness absence levels.
The recession inevitably put more pressure on employers to cut the cost of offering benefits. In response, almost half (46%) of respondents reviewed their providers to get a better deal. However, more than a quarter (29%) said the downturn had had no effect on their healthcare spend. Perhaps this was because organisations were making savings in other areas, such as through pension cuts and redundancies. They may also have been keen to protect healthcare perks to ensure staff with increased workloads were healthy and able to cope.
In the next 12 months, many employers intend to renegotiate deals with providers and get the best value from their package by communicating it effectively to staff. As well as reconsidering which healthcare benefits they offer (cited by 20%), 13% of employers will put more emphasis on benefits to tackle stress, such as an employee assistance programme (EAP) or other forms of counselling.
Some will review the fees or commission paid to brokers or providers and 13% of organisations intend to rebroke insurance benefits.
A number of factors are behind employers’ decisions to continue to both offer and procure new healthcare benefits. The reasons that feature prominently after cost are the range of benefits offered and demand from staff, illustrating that healthcare perks are perceived as highly valued in the workplace.
In addition, 36% of respondents are reluctant to stop offering benefits they have always provided. This may indicate how healthcare benefits have become entrenched in many employers’ reward packages.