There are plenty of innovative ways a canny employer can boost wellbeing in the workplace, leading to a happier and more productive workforce. Sonia Rach reports

healthy lifestyle

Research by Aon Employee Benefits in its 2016 EMEA Health Survey showed that just 37% of UK employers understand the impact of their employees’ health issues. In addition to this, UK employers appeared less likely than others in Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA) region to have a defined health strategy (30% vs 40%).

However for many organisations, this should be a necessary reality check. In 2016, wellbeing has been the buzzword, and is something that is likely to carry forward in to 2017.

The health and wellbeing market has had an eventful year as more companies began investing in their greatest asset – their staff. Many more organisations are taking a ‘prevention is better than cure’ approach: something that is leading to a tangible change in workplace culture.

“But what exactly is wellness?” asks Mike Blake, director, Willis PMI Group.

“Is it just discounted gym memberships? No, it’s more than that – it’s helping staff make the right decisions and helping them do what’s right for them with their lifestyle and their fitness. Wellbeing is about behaviour change for most people, turning bad habits into good ones.”

Pauline Iles, senior risk benefits consultant, Quantum, agrees. She adds: “In terms of behavioural practices, things that have become popular are ways in which to make the office a bit healthier. Just offering healthier choices generally – having better food options, encouraging walks at lunch time and fruit in the office.”

But are these types of strategy enough?

Despite them being great ways to keep a workforce well, there are other health-related factors to consider.

Tackling absenteeism

A key issue that has been noticeable across the workforce is absenteeism. Research by PricewaterhouseCoopers estimates that sick leave costs employers £29bn each year.

Dominic Howard, European director at Best Doctors, says: “Firms that have introduced measures such as gym memberships, healthy living initiatives and also health audits, are able to spot ill-health, or underlying health concerns early. These measures can drastically reduce short-term ill-health turning into long-term absenteeism – which is a real cost to firms.”

However, this type of measure may not be enough, and group risk products such as life insurance, income protection and critical illness cover are helping to plug the gap and growing as a result.

Sickness levels are also being affected by the increasing retirement age. The Office for National Statistics found that the average retirement age has risen steadily, from 63.8 years to 64.6 years between 2004 and 2010 for men and from 61.2 years to 62.3 years for women.

As firms deal with an ageing workforce, these benefits are becoming more relevant. Jonathan Burton, the chief executive of Health Shield, explains how health screening and audits are a big help.

“More people are off now with cancer than with musculoskeletal problems – which used to be a major reason for long-term sickness. Being able to use advanced detection techniques and to inform people about cancer before symptoms develop is key, as it could potentially save their lives.”

No longer taboo

It seems as though mental health has climbed its way up on the health agenda and has become less of a taboo topic. This year, almost a third (31%) of employees surveyed said they have experienced a mental health problem at some point in their working life, compared with a quarter (26%) in 2011.

Yet the research by CIPD found that despite this increase, most people still don’t feel that mental health issues are supported well enough at work.

Research by AXA PPP healthcare also found that bosses and managers of medium and large-sized firms believe that mental health (51%) is the biggest threat to their employees’ health over the next five years.

As more people are suffering from workplace stress, organisations have been actively trying to introduce strategies to help them.

Burton says: “Mental health has been a focus and employee assistance programmes have been popular this year. Looking at ways organisations can help notice signs of stress and anxiety earlier amongst members of their staff, which then helps them deal with any staff issues better.”

Best Doctors’ Howard agrees, and explains how employers are looking to be proactive, by trying to improve overall staff wellbeing.

“Many more employers are going for resilience training courses, which teach techniques for becoming more resistant to stress, so that people are less likely to buckle under pressure. In many cases, some stress at work is a good thing, but there’s a fine line between this, and turning into something that affects people’s ability to function.”

Caring for carers

A growing number of people – the so-called sandwich generation – are also finding themselves under increased pressure to look after parents or grandparents, as well as their own children.

At the moment, 6.5 million people in the UK are carers, with the figure expected to rise significantly, according to a Punter Southall company RedArc.

Traditional routes for healthcare rarely incorporate support processes for carers as the NHS is increasingly squeezed and private cover tends to prioritise the primary patient.

Carers often need ongoing help from a specially trained person who understands their particular needs. Support can include talking therapies such as counselling, through to practical support such as arranging respite care.

Health plans are an option and can be offered on an employee- or employer-paid basis, and work well alongside other health benefits such as private medical insurance, in support of an organisation’s overall health and wellbeing strategy.

An employee-paid health cash plan is cost-neutral for employers, with the staff member paying for their plan, usually via payroll. With family cover options, these have become increasingly popular.

Glowing smile

Alongside the standard group risk products, dental care has risen in popularity. Quantum’s Iles says: “This is a benefit that the younger generation will want to engage with more, due to the popularity of ‘the perfect smile’ in the media and with celebrities”.

She continues: “Good dental hygiene is essential because those with poor dental health have a higher risk of other serious health issues such as infections that can get straight into the blood stream.”

Most dental provision involves a visit to a private dentist – and this isn’t always cost efficient. Willis PMI Group’s Blake says: “As a result of this inconvenience, it’s a benefit that staff are more likely to take up, and is one that employers can use to differentiate themselves from another organisation.”

The rise of technology

Technology over the past few years has started to play an even more significant role in people’s daily lives and how they manage their wellbeing.

New, wearable applications on the market are trying move away from the idea that wellness is something only the super-fit can pursue.

They can demonstrate how small improvements such as walking more and sleeping better can improve overall wellbeing, and help tackle obesity too.

According to the Daily Telegraph, NHS England says around £16bn a year is spent on the direct medical costs of diabetes and conditions related to being overweight.

UK wellbeing is becoming quite seriously affected by this, and employers need to consider taking action to improve the 9-5 office job lifestyle, and the use of wearable technology encourages individuals to stay active and fit.

Howard says: “This type of technology is helping a third area really boom right now and transfer to the workplace – the use of wearable fitness technologies, like Fitbits and similar devices. By recording people’s daily activity and showing how they’re reaching certain fitness goals, staff can see the impact small changes can make.”

Furthermore, market intelligence company IDC suggests that by 2019 demand for these devices will have reached 155.7 million a year. Wearable technology has become a trend in the workplace and more employers are offering these to staff.

But it hasn’t stopped there. As a result of the rising tech world, the health innovations that allow diagnosis and GP appointments through an application have also been a huge success.

Burton says: “People are leading busy lives, so giving them access to online consultations and the ability to order prescriptions online has been a big advantage to both staff members and to their employers.”

Having to take a day of leave just to visit the doctor is not a desirable option for most people, so often they just don’t go. In the long run, this can lead to absenteeism – especially if it is a long-term illness.

Dr. Umang Patel, clinical director at Babylon, emphasises the need for digitalisation: “The digital health sector has experienced phenomenal growth this year and is slowly transforming everything we know about traditional healthcare.

“Given the pace at which the sector is growing, it’s likely that in 2017 we’ll see the onset of health benefits that are powered by artificial intelligence and machine learning that use predictive analytics to predict and prevent illnesses.”

How does this reach employees?

Of course, this is all well and good but like any benefit, if it isn’t communicated effectively to a workforce than it might as well not exist. As Howard says: “communication is that key mantra – making it timely, appropriate and inspirational. There’s no point communicating a plan at the wrong time of the year, or to the wrong people, and without much fanfare.”

Quantum’ Iles believes that different communication solutions need to be used because people learn in different ways. “You have to have something on the intranet that makes people want to go on it. For example, a monthly competition that encourages people on to it.”

But speaking to employees before implementing any policy is the best approach, according to Willis PMI Group’s Blake.

He explains: “You need to build an interest group and actually start with a benefit they want instead of just throwing something at them. Having done that, it needs to then be communicated from the top.”

Often, a benefit can be undersubscribed but Best Doctors’ Howard believes that setting regular diary reminders to push and re-push benefits throughout the year will increase take-up. He says: “You can’t really ever over-promote.”

Healthcare has jumped to the top of the agenda for many employers because without good health and wellbeing, there will always be a drop in productivity. Ensuring staff are happy and well is a significant factor in improve overall business performance.

As Dr Patel says: “Everyone is engaging in health. Facebook’s head Mark Zuckerberg and Pricilla Chan have just announced that, through their foundation, they are aiming to ’cure all diseases in our children’s lifetime’.

“Does that sound so mad? I mean, we can put people on the moon.”