Keeping a workforce happy, healthy and productive goes beyond just offering private medical insurance. Sam Barrett suggests some cost-effective alternatives


Healthier employees are happier and more productive. But, while it’s possible to spend thousands of pounds giving them access to everything from health screenings to mindfulness sessions, some of the most effective wellness initiatives can be incredibly low cost.

“Employers often think of private medical insurance when they think of workplace health,” says Paul Bloomfield, business development director at Aon Employee Benefits. “But as well as being a relatively expensive benefit, it’s designed to help employees when they’re unwell.

“It’s worth taking a step back and thinking about what else you can do to support their health and wellbeing.”

There are certainly plenty of products that meet this objective. One that regularly appears on the list of low-cost must-haves is the healthcare cash plan. With a price tag of £1 or less a week per person and access to a wide range of benefits, these score highly with employers and their staff.

As an example, Health Shield’s Essentials company-paid plan starts at £1 a week and gives employees a range of annual benefits, including £60 each for optical, dental and chiropody; £200 for specialist consultations and scans; £160 for physiotherapy and other types of therapy; and £80 towards health screening.

Including everyday benefits such as dental, optical and physiotherapy means most employees can claim at least a couple of times a year and, unlike medical insurance, they don’t even need to be ill to get the benefit.

As well as helping them with the costs of staying healthy, Fiona Lowe, head of HR, people development and strategy at Westfield Health, says: “People like the fact that they can claim for so many different things,” she says. “It can make them feel more valued by their employer.”

Plans are evolving, too. Although initially packaged to provide cash for hospital stays, the latest additions to plans include wellbeing benefits such as hypnotherapy and sports massage; gym membership discounts; and virtual GP services.

With waiting times increasing, Brian Hall, managing director of BHSF Employee Benefits, says that these GP services have met a growing need.

“Employers are constantly telling us about employees having to take a day off to see their GP as they live a one-and-a-half hour commute away. With a virtual GP service they can access a doctor 24 hours a day and even have prescriptions delivered to their office or home.”


Rather than take out an insurance product, investing in a fitness challenge can also be a low-cost way to improve employees’ health and wellbeing. As well as walking challenges such as Global Corporate Challenge and 10,000 steps, where teams are pitted against each other to walk the furthest, companies can also take advantage of their workplace to really encourage employees to become healthier.

For example, encouraging people to use the stairs rather than the lift is the philosophy behind StepJockey’s health and fitness initiative. It provides signs, which are placed near the stairs and lifts to outline the health benefits of walking.

Employees then download a free app that they use to scan these signs every time they use the stairs, and they can also take part in challenges such as climbing the equivalent of Everest or doing the Tour de France.

Paul Nuki, co-founder and chief executive of StepJockey, says it is the combination of a simple change and the gamification around the challenges that work.

“We find that a few people will start out switching the lift for the stairs and then, once their colleagues see the benefits, everyone does it,” he explains. “They really appreciate the health benefits but also the time it saves: on average, not having to wait for the lift saves around two minutes a day.”

The cost of this type of initiative vary. For example 10,000 steps offers a 10-week challenge, which includes everything from the pedometer to all the marketing literature and virtual medals for £23.69 per employee.

With StepJockey, there’s an initial set-up charge to cover the signs, which Nuki says is roughly £1,000 for a five-floor staircase, with optional challenges starting from as little as a couple of pounds a year per employee.

He adds that most employers will actually make money as a result of the initiative. “After a year or two most will have recouped the cost through the health benefits, the time saved and reduced electricity consumption from not using the lifts.”


Another product that can deliver incredible value for a small price tag is an employee assistance programme (EAP). Although you can pick them up for less, the UK Employee Assistance Professionals Association says an average benchmark cost of a full EAP for an organisation with 100 staff is around £14 per person a year.

For this, employees can have 24-hour access to a confidential information and support service with face-to-face counselling if required.

EAPs also cater for a growing number of issues. As an example, while they have traditionally been used for mental health problems, according to Hall the latest areas to fall under an EAP are eldercare and emergency childcare.

“Employers can see what’s happening to employees when they’re in work but there are plenty of things that are outside the workplace that will affect their productivity,” he explains. “Giving them support mechanisms that will help them build resilience is becoming increasingly important.”

Although there are plenty of value-for-money options to choose from if you are looking to beef up your wellness programme, it’s not always necessary to spend more money to see improvements in employee health and wellbeing.

Bloomfield says many companies already have everything they need. He explains: “There’s a lot that can be done with existing healthcare benefits, especially as many of them include added-value extras that are often completely overlooked.”

For example, many cash plans and group risk insurances include an EAP, and several will also offer a second opinion service, such as Best Doctors. “These are valuable benefits: employers should be promoting them more,” Bloomfield adds.


Similarly, it’s not always necessary for the employer to foot the bill for health and wellbeing benefits. Hall says the workplace is a great place to just distribute them. “Although the employee will be paying, they’ll benefit from much lower prices than if they had to buy them directly,” he explains, giving as examples group life prices that start from as little as £1 a week and cancer cover for £2 a week.

This approach can work particularly well with products where there are options to upgrade cover. For example, it’s common for an employer to pay for the basic £1 a week level of cover on a cash plan and then allow employees to pay extra to increase the benefit or add dependants. This allows them to have meaningful cover at a referential price.

What’s more, there’s nothing to stop an employer putting together its own health and wellbeing programme.

Matthew Judge, director of Jelf Employee Benefits, explains: “There are plenty of health-related challenges you can introduce to the workplace, such as pedometer and weight-loss challenges. Think about the culture of the business and ask staff what they’d like to do. It is possible to improve employee health and wellbeing without spending very much at all.”


Everyone’s wellbeing can benefit from simple changes in the workplace.

Switching from bacon butties and biscuits to water and fruit in meetings sends out positive health messages, with some employers taking this a step further and ditching the meeting room chairs too. “Standing and even walking meetings are becoming increasing popular,” says Hall. “All of these switches help to change the workplace culture.”

But, whether you call in the experts or pull together your own programme, communication is key to improving the effectiveness of any wellness initiatives you implement. Constantly promoting the benefits and initiatives you offer will drive up participation and help to improve health and wellbeing.

Many of the providers can support a communication programme. “We provide management tools on our website to help employers put together a wellbeing strategy,” says Westfield Health’s Lowe.

“We also have lots of health information organisations can use if they run awareness weeks or want to focus on a particular health issue.”

Some providers will even come into the workplace, either to promote their product or, where the numbers allow, to run wellness fairs for staff. “Talk to your health and wellbeing providers and see how they can support your communication programme,” adds Bloomfield. “There’s plenty you can do with a little bit of imagination.”