Employers’ key challenges in supporting employee health and wellbeing

Employees’ reluctance to take responsibility for their own health and wellbeing is one of the key challenges facing employers that are striving to manage staff and health and wellbeing, according to the exclusive Employee Benefits/Lorica 100 Club research 2014, published in June.


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  • Employees’ reluctance to take responsibility for their own health and wellbeing is one of the key challenges facing employers.
  • Employees want reassurance, rather than workplace support, to increase their awareness about potential threats to their health.
  • Younger generations expect to have access to a workplace wellness programme.

More than a quarter (28%) of 54 respondents to the research survey that answered the question about their current employee healthcare challenges gave this as their answer. Attendees at the Employee Benefits/Lorica 100 Club thinktank debate in April were able to relate to this concern.

Ian Hodson, reward and benefits manager at the University of Lincoln and one of five attendees at the roundtable, says: “We find that if we do initiatives such as offering a Wellpoint health monitoring machine, the younger generations certainly buy into that because they’ve almost had it drilled into them that health and diet is important, whereas we find that to get staff in their 50s to take an interest in starting to monitor their health is really difficult. Our challenge is reprogamming them to be interested, but addressing that inertia is really hard.”

Staff want reassurance

Attendees agreed that employees currently want reassurance, rather than workplace support, to increase their awareness about potential threats to their health.

For example, Hodson says University of Lincoln staff signed up within minutes for osteoporosis checks that he organised last year, but they have shown little interest in a talk on bowel cancer. “To get buy-in from staff is difficult,” he says. “It’s almost like there’s a fear factor. Staff are quite happy to come along and be checked and want to be told they don’t have something. They just want to be given the all-clear.” 

Hodson says this situation makes it difficult for him to create a wellbeing education plan for the 80% of his workforce that are not engaged.

Ed Airey, UK reward manager at insurer RSA, thinks employees are simply not yet ready to tackle ways to prevent future health problems. “I think they are quite scared to think that far ahead, so they bury their head in the sand, particularly those who aren’t in great health and who probably know this is the case but don’t want to hear it,” he says. “It’s a bit like someone who’s in loads of debt: they are unlikely to open up their credit card bills.”

Diabetes is a major threat

The Employee Benefits/Lorica 100 Club research 2014 reveals that diabetes is the biggest potential threat to employee health for most employers (43%), with musculoskeletal complaints the biggest current threat, cited by 44% of respondents.

Attendees agreed that the struggles of the National Health Service (NHS) are contributing to employees’ reluctance to take responsibility for their own health.

Jackie Buttery, head of reward at law firm Eversheds, says: “The NHS primary care system is not helping, because we all know how impossible it is to get a GP appointment nowadays, so staff sit with something wrong and let it fester. They then get into that mindset of starting to live with things; then they become chronic and then it goes too far beyond the point where they want to admit that something is wrong.”

Medical costs are a barrier

The cost of healthcare products and services makes it difficult for employers to support their employees’ health and wellbeing and help plug the NHS service shortfall. In fact, most respondents to the Employee Benefits/Lorica 100 Club research 2014 (69%) cited the cost of health and wellbeing benefits as the main challenge in managing staff health and wellbeing, with more than three-quarters (85%) agreeing that government tax breaks on health and wellbeing products and services would help them plug the NHS service gap.

Hodson thinks the government missed a trick when it introduced the Employment Allowance in April 2014, which allows employers to reduce their Class 1 national insurance (NI) contributions by up to £2,000 each tax year.

“The government put a lot of marketing into this on TV with the message that employers could reinvest the money into our workforces, but it wouldn’t have been the worst initiative in the world with which to get staff buy-in around wellbeing,” he says.

Reinvest NI savings

Hodson says the government should have considered pushing employers to reinvest their NI savings in health and wellbeing strategies by running a strong national campaign to encourage them to do so. “It would have been a really good way for the government to get a statement out there that it was going to support employers with their wellbeing programmes, particularly smaller employers where health and wellbeing is perhaps not high on the agenda,” he adds.

However, there are many low-cost healthcare benefits available that offer employers a good return on investment, such as a health cash plan, which children’s social work organisation Cafcass launched for its staff last year.

Daryl Maitland, senior HR business partner at Cafcass, says: “Traditionally, we were tending to spend money on staff who were off sick, trying to get them back to work, but this meant we were spending 80% of our wellbeing provision on 20% of the workforce and we wanted to turn that on its head. [The health cash plan] has worked very well for us: it paid for itself in six months in terms of reduced sickness absence through the year.”

Employee expectation

Adam Brooke, vice-president, employee benefits (UK) at JP Morgan, believes a comprehensive health and wellbeing strategy is essential for employers, whatever their budget.

“It’s not just a case of employers having to put a strong argument to their finance director any more; it’s expected that they have a wellness programme,” he says.

Hodson adds: “Generation X is coming in expecting [a wellness programme] to be something we have in place, and that is how they will judge what we are like as an employer.”

Brooke feels employers are starting to get the message, and one recent trend he is seeing is the appointment of workplace doctors, on an annual salary, to create and manage employers’ wellness programmes.

But Hodson says employers must ensure their wellbeing programme aligns with their organisation’s business objectives. “Organisations have to work out their plan and what the connectivity is because a lot of organisations offer a lot of different things that don’t connect because it’s just been a case of trying them and seeing what works.”

RSA’s Airey says employers also need to take a more integrated approach to health and wellbeing strategies. “Employers are starting to move away from very siloed approaches, such as gym membership here and something else over there, but a lot of factors need to combine for staff to be healthy in mind and body and it’s quite a challenge to do that,” he says.

Healthcare provider can help

Eversheds’ Buttery says employers need the help of healthcare providers to integrate and streamline their approach, and to maintain their strategy’s momentum. But she thinks this may take time to happen, not least because of the evolution needed across the market, such as provider consolidation.

“There are so many one-man-bands in the health and wellbeing space, so how do employers choose between person A and person B?” she says. “It’s like searching for a needle in a haystack.”

Buttery says it is hard for HR professionals with a broad remit to navigate the provider market, and the challenge is exacerbated by providers’ general lack of market nous.

JP Morgan’s Brooke says a lack of provider nous around employee engagement is causing him particular problems. “There is one provider that has gone from saying that for 80% of our workforce we need to find new ways of engaging, but we should not financially incentivise them to buy into the programme, to six months later saying that it has looked at this again and now thinks we should do so. And that’s just one provider, so I don’t think providers know the best way to start engaging.”

Not all staff come into the workplace

The evolution of working practices, such as the growing take-up of flexible working and organisations rolling out global expansion programmes, is making it even harder for employers to engage with their workforce.

Hodson says: “We are all falling into the situation where fewer staff are coming into a workplace now, for whatever reason, so our wellbeing initiatives that involve staff walking through the front door are no longer appropriate.”

Such initiatives include fresh fruit at office receptions, desk drops and payslip attachments.

Hodson says such efforts do not work at his university, particularly for academic staff who are workplace-based for only 28 weeks a year, with the rest of their time spent on research projects around the world.

This means many employers may need to go back to the drawing board to create a health and wellbeing strategy fit and flexible enough to support their current and future workforces.