Providing employees with access to wellbeing benefits such as exercise classes, health checks, free fruit and information on nutrition and relaxation can reduce absence, improve staff morale and drive up productivity. But, with wellbeing still being a relatively new concept in benefits, gaining management and employee buy-in isn’t always guaranteed.
Management buy-in is essential for the success of any programme. Diana Nye, commercial director of Vielife, says that she has worked with companies where employee participation is between 60% and 70% in all departments apart from one, where the manager has rubbished the wellbeing programme and take-up was less than 10%.
“Health and wellbeing programmes are much more ethereal than benefits such as private medical insurance and employee assistance programmes so people don’t really understand why they should support them. This will get easier as more data becomes available on the return on investment these programmes can generate but it can be a leap of faith for some,” she explains.
One way to win over sceptical finance directors is to gradually introduce the elements of a wellbeing programme. “Run a health risk assessment across the company to identify where there are any major issues. By investing intelligently, you will be able to achieve the improvements with the largest financial impact,” Nye explains.
As well as convincing the board, for the best results, line managers also need to be brought on side. To ensure managers help to promote the company’s wellbeing initiatives to staff, Stuart Gray, managing director of Portus Consulting, recommends incorporating this into their key performance indicators. “If employees are healthier they are less likely to be absent so make reduced absence levels one of the manager’s objectives. If they have an incentive to achieve it, they are much more likely to buy in to the strategy,” he says.
Although management might control the budgets, it is also essential to ensure employees buy in to any strategy that is implemented. As these initiatives are still relatively new, even the most well-intentioned programme, if implemented incorrectly, could be viewed as a means of bullying employees or worse, as a way of determining which staff are the least healthy and, therefore, are potentially the most suitable candidates for a redundancy programme.
Without employee buy-in, any investment in these programmes is pointless. Alex Bennett, head of healthcare consulting at Aon Consulting, explains: “Employee engagement is essential as, if people don’t change their behaviours, it is difficult to see how they can improve their underlying health.”
Thorough research among employees before putting together a programme is prudent. Surveying staff to find out what they are interested in and what they would like their employer to provide not only ensures that the programme is going to be used but also helps to make them feel part of it when it is introduced.
As well as carrying out a general survey to gauge the popularity of the different wellbeing options that could be implemented, a health risk assessment can be a good way of paving the way for such a strategy. These assessments can be run online and, although each employee’s results are confidential, general information can be provided to the employer. Jill Pollack, head of corporate solutions at Bupa, says: “This will help identify high-risk factors so the programme can focus on these.”
An organisation that finds nutrition is particularly poor across its workforce, for example, could implement a number of strategies such as introducing healthier food in an on-site canteen, providing employees with free fruit, setting up consultations with a nutritionist and supplying staff with information on healthy eating to address the issue.
A bit of well-intentioned bribery can also work well. “Some of the most successful initiatives appear to be where free mountain bikes, fit bugs or even a car are provided as part of a concerted campaign,” says Bennett.
Employers could also consider entering every employee that completes a health risk assessment in to a prize draw in order to boost take up.
Charity-based incentives can also work well. Paul Avis, corporate development manager at Ceridian Lifeworks, has seen organisations offering a donation to charity for each health risk assessment that is completed. “Gaining a 90% employee take-up can be achieved initially but gaining second and subsequent online visits is notoriously challenging,” he says.
Once a programme is up and running, it is important to keep promoting it to achieve maximum results. “A health and wellbeing programme shouldn’t be a one-off event. If you do this, you’ll get short-term results but to actually change people’s behaviours and improve their health the programme needs to be sustained,” says Pollack.
There are a number of ways that employers can keep employees’ interest in a programme alive. Making an employee who has embraced the programme a health and wellbeing champion can be particularly successful, says Avis. “Someone who has acted on the programme and had success, for instance, losing weight, stopping smoking or taking more exercise, can provide a real boost to those who are not sure whether to engage with the programme,” he explains.
As well as highlighting the success of some of the participants it’s also essential to tailor the programme and any communication to suit the audience. Employees respond to different approaches, for instance, while support groups can work well for activities such as weight loss, exercise and smoking cessation, a more introverted employee might prefer to have information delivered online.
Gender and age can also influence how communications are received by staff. When British Telecommunications wanted to improve the health of its male workers, for example, it worked with awareness group Men’s Health Forum, to provide information about exercise and diet in an online format.
Employers should not be concerned about over-communicating details of the wellbeing strategy. “One big pack a year isn’t enough. People forget what is available or take it for granted, so remind them as often as you can,” says Nye.
She also recommends revisiting elements of a programme as employees’ life journeys mean that their health and wellbeing requirements can change dramatically. The birth of an employee’s first child or a premature death in their family, for example, can both prompt someone to reassess their own health situation.
Refreshing a programme on a regular basis is also important as this helps to make it more interesting. New themes and objectives can reach out to different sets of employees, while also presenting a good opportunity to remind everyone about what is available. “Some of the medical insurance companies are promoting their online health and wellbeing services but these are too static to appeal to employees who wouldn’t already be interested in their health anyway. You need to vary what you cover and the way you cover it so the programme has as broad an appeal as possible. This will deliver long-term benefits to both employees and the business,” explains Gray
Gaining management buy-in
The financial evidence
- Wellbeing strategies are still in their infancy in the UK so evidence of their efficacy is scant. However, across the Atlantic, organisations have been running schemes for years, and evidence of their success is mounting:
- In a comparison of Canada Life employees, who had benefited from a fitness programme that had being running for 12 years, against a control group from an insurer in the same location, absenteeism was 1.3 days less a year, equivalent to 0.13% of payroll. This equates to a financial return on investment of 4.8 units for every one unit spent.
- A multi-component health promotion programme resulted in a reduction of 0.36 days absence a month and a mean increase of 0.79 on the work performance scale. Annual return on investment from this is in the region of £3.73 for every £1 spent. (Vielife/Institute for Health and Productivity Management’s Health and performance research study based on employees at Unilever)
- Employees who were moderately active and exercised for at least 20 minutes a week had US$285 less annual healthcare costs than sedentary employees. (Study of General Motors Corporation and International Union, United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America members)
- A study of health-risk factors in employees aged over 40 years in Minnesota found that smoking increased medical care costs by 18% (former smokers had charges 25.8% higher), physical inactivity increased them by 4.7% and obesity by 1.9% for every unit the employee was above their healthy body mass index.
Case Study: QCV
QVC introduced a wellbeing strategy for its 2,100 staff in Merseyside and London following consultation with its employee committee, the QVC Forum, in 2006.
Kelly Morgan, head of HR at the shopping channel, says: “Our parent company in the US had been running health and wellbeing programmes for several years and we wanted to run something similar in the UK. When we told the Forum about it, they thought it was a good idea and wanted to know more about what could be done.”
Suggestions about what could be included in the programme were presented to the Forum and these were then discussed with employees. These discussions generated a number of ideas. “Feedback from the Forum led to us introducing a Weight Watchers programme. This was really successful with 25 employees signing up and one losing 2.5 stone. This has really helped promote the service as there’s nothing more powerful than when an employee stands up and shows what they’ve achieved,” explains Morgan.
A smoking cessation programme was also a popular request, with 40 employees signing up, of which 12 successfully gave up cigarettes.
Morgan is also careful to ensure the strategy is kept alive, refreshing it every quarter. For example, 2007 kicked off with a ‘New Year New You’ theme, which covered a broad range of health issues. This was followed in March with a more holistic theme of Mind, Body and Spirit.
“We have had a good take-up for all the programmes we have introduced. We ran a cancer awareness programme which included sessions with a consultant and this was over-subscribed so we will look to do more of this,” says Morgan. The initial buy-in for the programme as well as the ongoing endorsement has translated into positive results for the business, she adds.