An effective wellbeing strategy has many benefits for employers, says Chris Jessop, managing director health services (UK and Europe) at Axa PPP Healthcare
Writing on the eve of publication of the latest in a long line of government-sponsored sickness absence reviews this time led by Dame Carol Black and former British Chambers of Commerce supremo David Frost, ostensibly to find a better way for government, employees and employers to share more fairly the cost of preventing working-age people who may become ill or injured from becoming long-term ill-health benefits claimants I cannot help but think that the health, work and wellbeing debate is, at last, coming to a head.
With musculoskeletal disorders and psychological problems, especially stress, anxiety and depression, continuing to top the polls as major causes of long-term sickness absence, arguably due in part to the NHS’s continuing struggle to treat these conditions in a timely fashion, and obesity and its attendant co-morbidities (diabetes, hypertension, musculoskeletal disorders and so on) continuing their relentless rise, the health and wellbeing of working-age people remains one of the biggest issues facing employers.
It is all part of the inexorable increase in demand for healthcare services, driven by an ageing population and increasing availability of, and demand for, new, and often expensive investigations and treatment, and employers should not be surprised if this and future governments turn increasingly to them to do more to ‘heal thy own’ and help to shoulder the financial burden of employee health and welfare.
The current economic climate leaves employers with little room for sentiment or gesture policies when it comes to providing wellbeing benefits. But for many employers, wellbeing is still poorly understood and, although they may want a piece of the action, they do not always think carefully through what they want to achieve. This can lead to an ineffectual, woolly approach, with services selected and offered on a tick-box basis and, consequently, little service utilisation or engagement limited to those already committed to the wellbeing cause. It is a classic case of preaching to the converted, with little or no impact on those with most to gain.
To have significant impact, wellbeing strategies should be informed by clear objectives that focus on reducing health risks and managing health outcomes. To achieve this cost-effectively, it is essential to risk-stratify the employee population and to employ suitable, evidence-based tools to drive behavioural change of individuals within specific groups. Targeted solutions should then be offered to those most in need, especially where lifestyle-related conditions, such as obesity, diabetes, hypertension and musculoskeletal issues, are evident.
Implementing a wellbeing strategy is also an iterative process and employers should continue to track the impact of their interventions and modify them as appropriate. Data on user preferences and priorities can, for example, be gleaned from the likes of intelligent web portals, onsite health risk assessments and other service providers, such as occupational health, primary care and health screening, to help employers to guide and refine their strategies.
From an employer’s perspective, the benefits of an outcome-focused wellbeing strategy are many. Provision and regular promotion of initiatives and resources should lead to greater engagement and, through better engagement and delivery of targeted interventions, a significant reduction in individual employees’ health risk profiles. This, in turn, drives commercial benefits, including reduced insurance-related costs and improvement in levels of sickness absence and presenteeism. Having an effective wellbeing strategy can also improve the employer brand and, as an integral part of a benefits package, help to recruit and retain good people.
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