A flexible benefits strategy can make healthcare engaging for a wider workplace demographic, says Raman Sankaran, sales and marketing director at Simplyhealth


A flexible benefits programme can be a great way to provide health and wellbeing benefits to employees. But while this can encourage employees to engage more with their own health and wellbeing, employers must take a proactive approach to benefits communication to reap the maximum reward.

Flexible benefits have certainly taken off over the last few years. With the cost of the technology falling and more employers implementing a platform to support their pension auto-enrolment requirements, demand for flex keeps growing.

As an example, in independent research commissioned by Simplyhealth in July 2015, 51% of corporates surveyed said they offer all their benefits on a flexible basis. The advantages offered by flexible benefits have also helped to create this demand. Allowing employees to choose the benefits they want can lead to greater employee engagement, in turn improving productivity as well as helping an organisation to attract and retain key members of staff.

The flexibility on offer also suits changes in the workplace. The removal of the default retirement age means more older people are choosing to stay in work, creating multi-generational workforces, with employees at different ages and stages of their lives. By offering a range of benefits through flex, every employee can select a package that suits their needs. The one size fits all model clearly no longer fits.

Employees really appreciate this flexibility too. For example, our research found that 91% of employees believe it’s better to have benefits on a flexible basis.

Flexible health and wellbeing

The ability for employees to pick the benefits they want has made health and wellbeing a particularly popular addition to flexible benefits programmes. Our research found that 58% of companies offer benefits to maximise health and wellbeing. In addition, 55% of corporates currently offer health and wellbeing benefits. Employees want health and wellbeing in their flexible benefits programme. Our survey found that almost two thirds (60%) of employees see health and wellbeing benefits as one of the top three most appealing employee benefits and the most appealing optional benefit.

Different needs across a workforce also means it makes sense to use a flexible benefits programme to offer health and wellbeing benefits. Across the workforce there are likely to be employees of different ages and at different life stages. For example, some employees may value childcare vouchers if they have a young family, other employees might prefer benefits such as dental insurance or an everyday health plan that they can use on a regular basis. But while there’s clearly plenty of demand from both employees and employers, the type of health and wellbeing benefit that’s offered will affect an employee’s engagement with their own health and wellbeing. To encourage them to really engage, it’s important to offer a benefit that they can use as often as possible.

Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately for the employee, many health benefits don’t fulfil this criteria. Products such as critical illness insurance and income protection provide a valuable safety net but most employees would hope they wouldn’t ever need to use them. Similarly, although an employee is more likely to claim on their private medical insurance, they’ll only ever engage with the product when they’re ill and need treatment.

Everyday healthcare

Conversely, with their focus on prevention rather than cure, an everyday health plan gives employees access to a range of benefits for everyday health and wellbeing. These could include a check-up and treatment at the dentist; an eye test or a new pair of glasses; a trip to the physiotherapist to sort out a spot of backache or a sports injury; and even an online GP consultation, to save a long wait to see the family doctor.

By enabling employees to claim money back for all these everyday healthcare expenses, it also encourages them to be more proactive about their health and wellbeing. The fear of a large bill can easily put someone off going to see their dentist or making an appointment with a physiotherapist. Knowing their everyday health plan will take care of at least some of the costs can mean they get treatment quickly, avoiding worry and preventing the problem from getting worse.

This also benefits employers. As well as being appreciated for providing employees with a plan they can use at least once or twice a year, by enabling employees to seek help with health problems at an early stage, an everyday health plan can help reduce absence from work. These two factors help to ensure a more productive workforce and environment.

To support the growth of health and wellbeing benefits on flexible benefits platforms, Simplyhealth is launching an everyday health plan specifically for flex. Although our plans have always been available for inclusion in flexible benefits programmes, the new product is designed to meet the needs of both employers and employees with flex benefits. The product has been developed as a result of extensive research with both employees and employers. One of the key findings of the research was that the way we describe the plan needed to be simple and easy to understand. This has helped with the overall communications around the plan and means employers and employees know exactly what is covered.

The service proposition is also a key part of the new product. Employees are able to manage their own plan online, doing everything from checking their benefit allowances and changing their personal details through to submitting and tracking a claim.

The plan has also been designed to benefit employers. It can be implemented easily onto any platform and can also be tailored to reflect the employer’s own benefit programme.

Enhancing engagement

But, while it’s getting easier for employers to add health and wellbeing products to their flexible benefits platforms, to achieve maximum engagement and improve the return on investment for the employer, it’s essential to ensure they are promoted effectively throughout the year.

Partly because the shop window for flexible benefits is usually only open for a month at a time, our research shows that employees spend on average as little as 11 minutes a year on their flexible benefits portal. Given that this can cover everything from arranging holidays to their pension and life insurance, employers need to make sure their communications to employees are as engaging as possible.

This is where the benefit providers can help. Many, especially in the health and wellbeing space, can provide communications support throughout the year relating to health and wellbeing which can act as a reminder to employees of the benefits that they have available. This also allows for the opportunity to promote added value benefits available to employees as part of the plan, encouraging them to log onto their account, check their benefits and make any claims online. With employers and employees finding everyday health and wellbeing more important, we developed an online portal, myWellbeing, which gives employees access to GP services, counselling and health and lifestyle advice.

Broader communications

Another important point to note is that although benefits portals can hold plenty of information, with the average time spent on the benefits portal so low, it’s sensible to have a multichannel strategy for communications. Depending on the nature of the workforce this could include anything from posters and emails to face-to-face presentations.

Again, some of the health and wellbeing providers can offer support in this area. For example, at Simplyhealth, we have a national team of worksite marketing specialists who are happy to go into companies and talk to employees about everyday health plans and the benefits they offer.

While these face-to-face sessions can be much more engaging than an occasional email or a promotional page on the benefits portal, it’s also important not to overlook online channels. Employees expect to be able to engage with their benefits at a time that’s convenient and appropriate for them so it’s essential that they can access everything they need online.

As well as having a multi-channel communications strategy, it’s also important to think about when you promote the benefits as there can be key times to do this. For example, with everyday health plans, as well as increasing promotional activity during and particularly towards the end of the flex window, it can also be sensible to flag up the benefits on a plan around six to eight weeks before the end of the benefits year. This reminds employees they have the plan and can encourage them to take advantage of the benefits it offers.

After all, finding ways to increase take-up and usage of the health and wellbeing benefits in a flexible benefits programme is beneficial to both employees and their employers. As well as helping to improve employee health, employers can also benefit, with increased productivity and engagement leading to a much healthier business.