It goes without saying that a happy and healthy workforce is also a more productive one. Sam Barrett looks at what employers can do to boost the overall wellbeing of their staff

health cash plan

Initiatives such as Fit for Work, the Public Health Responsibility Deal and the City of London’s Business Healthy programme all encourage employers to become involved in the health and wellbeing of their staff. But, with a large proportion of the workforce failing to take ownership of their own health themselves, employers must ensure they connect with these staff members to change unhealthy behaviours and reap real benefits.

A lack of engagement is often down to the way wellbeing initiatives are packaged.

“Employers introduce gym memberships and free fruit and expect everyone to get fitter and healthier,” says Carl Chapman, head of workplace health at Barnett Waddingham. “The trouble is this type of thing only really appeals to employees who are already going to the gym or eating fruit. If you really want to change behaviours you need to introduce something that will mean something to those who aren’t necessarily leading the healthiest of lives.”

In addition, some health and wellbeing initiatives fall flat because they don’t actually provide the support that is necessary to make a change.

Dr Chris Tomkins, chief operating officer for Proactive Health at Axa PPP healthcare, says he’s seen instances where an organisation offers free health screens to all its staff but those with the most significant health risks fail to turn up.

“They know they’re unhealthy but the last thing they want is for a health screen to tell them this,” he explains. “Instead they want solutions that will help them improve their health. You need to create a dialogue that everyone can relate to.”

Reaching all employees

Because what’s likely to work varies between organisations, Chapman recommends starting out by surveying employees to find out what they would like to be included in a health and wellbeing programme.

“Structure your questions appropriately so you don’t get a free-for-all,” he says. “Providing you don’t allow requests to be too specific, for instance asking for a certain type of wearable technology, this will give you some good insights into what employees might like, and gain their buy-in when they see their suggestions put in place.”

Chapman suggests it’s also sensible to look at any health data such as absence statistics, management information from the employee assistance programme, and claims data for products such as medical insurance and group income protection.

This will highlight any particular problems that may be affecting employees, for example high levels of stress or musculoskeletal conditions, and enable you to introduce interventions to tackle them.

Although carrying out this type of programme might identify some common issues, Michelle Rae, head of product management at Cigna Healthcare, says companies still need to remember that employees respond to different initiatives.

“You have to take a segmented approach to health and wellbeing to target everyone,” she says. “You might see differences between younger and older employees or those at different stages in their lives, so reflect this in your programme.”

Similarly, she recommends going back to basics with your health information and tools. “Don’t assume everyone knows everything. By providing a broad range of educational material, everyone will find something to be included and be able to access what they need to make changes,” she says.

Another key component in helping employees to take care of their health is to make it part of the organisation’s culture. Mike Blake, compliance director at Willis PMI Group, recommends getting business leaders and key influencers on board to set examples to the other staff.

“Make health part of your company’s value statement, as this will also help to change the culture,” he adds.

Product reach

Some health and wellbeing products can help an organisation achieve this. A good example of this is a healthcare trust. These can contain all sorts of benefits, including some that may be unique to the company, for example fertility treatment or sports massage.

On its own this can help make it relevant to employees, but Chris Cannon, business development manager at Jelf Group, says branding it can set a trust apart from other healthcare benefits.

He says: “The trust can be branded as the company’s, which creates ownership. This helps to drive savings for the employer as people do think twice before claiming, but it also helps to create more engagement.”

For organisations with smaller budgets, a health cash plan can be useful. Starting from £1 a week or less, these can be rolled out to the whole workforce without breaking the bank. Importantly though, because they provide a range of everyday health benefits, including dental, optical and physiotherapy, everyone is likely to use their plan.

For example, while an employer can expect around 10% of its workforce to submit a medical insurance claim during the course of a year, Peter McAndrew, sales director at Health Shield, says that on average an employee will make three cash plan claims every year.

“Being able to claim for everyday health expenses reminds staff that their employer looks after them. We’ll also run health and wellbeing days for our clients, bringing in a practitioner such as a massage therapist or a nurse to run simple health checks. This can help people to take steps to improve their health.”

Don’t underestimate fun

While specific products are likely to be the backbone of your health and wellbeing strategy, introducing an element of fun into a programme can be an extremely effective way of encouraging employees to make healthy changes.

All sorts of initiatives enable this gamification, with team challenges proving particularly popular. Examples include the Global Corporate Challenge where, over 100 days, employees compete in teams of seven to walk the furthest; or Axa PPP healthcare’s Weight Loss Safari, where staff diet in teams to lose weight equivalent to anything from a meerkat to an elephant.

Dr Tomkins explains: “The great thing about these challenges is you’re creating something that’s socially inclusive and motivating, with the added bonus that it’s also benefiting employees’ health.”

While these programmes can be fun to start with, over time a bit of variety is essential. Health Shield’s McAndrew says his firm is looking to roll out an option that helps employers set up challenges. These would change each month or so and include everything from walking and weight loss challenges to smoking cessation.

He adds: “You usually see a spike in interest when you introduce something, so by changing regularly you can keep it fresh.”

It’s also important that no one is alienated or that any sense of being unhealthy is inadvertently reinforced. Chapman says plenty of variety will help, as each challenge can appeal to different sets of employees, as well as preventing the same people from winning every time.

“Mix up your teams or pitch the super-fit against the super-fit so everyone has a chance of winning,” he adds.

Rewards are also important with this type of gamification as they encourage employees to keep going, but these should be chosen carefully.

“If you offer financial incentives you can change the way employees participate, as they’ll look to maximise their value rather than improve their health,” explains Dr Tomkins. “Recognition can be a more effective way to reinforce positive change.”