In a world where every penny counts, Sam Barrett explores how an employer can create an effective strategy to keep their staff healthy and happy, even when funds are tight

wellness on a budget

It is important to safeguard employee health and wellbeing, as it helps to drive up engagement, reduce absence and improve productivity. And while it’s possible to spend thousands of pounds on everything from private medical insurance to on-site gyms, significant results can be achieved with a small budget.

A variety of health and wellbeing products are available with price tags of £1 a week per person or less. “Where the employer pays, you can take out a dental or a health cash plan for around £4 a month per employee,” says Colin Perry, head of corporate marketing at Simplyhealth.

“People appreciate help with everyday health costs, and as everyone should be able to claim at least once a year, they’ve a high perceived value.”

For example, at the £1 a week level, a dental plan will provide 100% reimbursement for NHS dentistry. Given that band one treatment, which covers a check-up and scale and polish, costs £20.60, and band two treatment (covering fillings, root canal work and extractions) costs £53.90, this contribution can encourage employees to look after their dental health.

For a similar price it’s also possible to provide health cash plans. Although these also include some dental benefits, they offer a broader range of assistance, including eye tests and money towards glasses, physiotherapy and, on some occasions, even alternative therapies such as Indian head massage and Reiki.

As an example, on its Essentials plan at £1 a week, Health Shield offers annual benefits including: £60 a year towards dental; £60 for optical; £160 for therapies such as physiotherapy and acupuncture; £200 towards specialist consultations; and £80 towards health and wellbeing and health screening.

Many cash plans also come with a range of added value benefits that can be used as much as the person likes. These can include employee assistance programmes (EAPs), virtual GP services, health assessments and wellbeing information.

If your budget won’t stretch so far, there are cheaper options, with some of the benefits included on a cash plan available on a standalone basis.

One of these is a virtual GP service. For example, for £30 a year per staff member, Babylon Health will provide unlimited access to GPs by phone or video call. Employees can arrange an appointment within a few clicks and speak to a GP within an average of 46 minutes at any time between 08:00 and 20:00.

Simon Kelly, chief sales officer at Babylon Health, says the convenience of having an appointment while at work or at home in the evening helps everyone.

“The average waiting time to see a GP is 13 days, and many people would also need to take time off to see their doctor,” he explains. “During this time they might worry about what’s wrong, which can affect their work. There’s also the potential for strain on other staff members if they have to cover for them.”

Another service that offers low-cost employee support are EAPs. These provide confidential information, support and counselling by phone or online, covering areas as diverse as debt and childcare through to health issues and stress. Full services also include face-to-face counselling where necessary.

The cost depends on the number of people you have in your workforce and the type of service required. As an example, a business with 500 employees will pay around £8 a year per person for a full EAP.

Health and wellbeing hubs are also available. For example, The Health Insurance Group has launched an online platform, ViaNabo, to support employers. This is aimed at companies with between 20 and 250 staff members and includes an EAP, health information such as nutrition advice, and discounts on a range of health and wellbeing products such as dietary supplements and gym membership.

After a one-off set-up fee of £1,250 and an annual hosting charge of £600, the core benefit management module, which includes health information and discounts, costs £6 a year per employee, with the EAP module costing a further £9 a year.

“The platform can form the basis of a health and wellbeing strategy, allowing employers to communicate regularly with staff about everything from financial wellbeing to nutrition and sleep,” explains Carol Porter, head of commercial at The Health Insurance Group.

But while any of these products can help to introduce and reinforce a strategy without breaking the bank, the experts focus on the importance of workplace cultures. “Workplace wellbeing is all about creating an environment where people thrive,” says Patrick Watt, corporate director at Bupa UK.

Support from senior management is essential to create this culture. Wayne Campbell, managing director of employee health and wellbeing specialists Healthy Performance, explains: “Senior managers need to be the first in the queue for any health check or challenge. Doing this sends out the right message.”

He also recommends recruiting health champions. “These could be people who are already active or interested in their health,” he adds. “With some training and support they could set up a group that focuses on a specific health area such as walking, running or weight loss and encourage other colleagues to join up.”

There are also plenty of free health and wellbeing resources. Apps are worth considering, especially if most of your employees have a smartphone, and many health charities can provide support and information. As an example, the British Heart Foundation has a health-at-work toolkit covering topics such as healthy eating, stopping smoking, mental wellbeing and taking more exercise.

It’s also worth running a benefit audit to establish what resources you already have that could complement your strategy. Products such as life insurance and group income protection will often include a free EAP or second medical opinion service, and you may also be able to access health information from an existing provider.

Simplyhealth’s Perry explains: “We send regular communications to companies to help them with their initiatives. In addition, our mywellbeing hub includes plenty of information that employers could use, such as healthy recipes and advice on getting active.”

With so many free and low-cost resources available, a small budget needn’t be a barrier when it comes to encouraging healthier lifestyles. Campbell agrees: “Be creative. All you really need is some time and imagination.”

Top tips for workplace wellness

  • Ask employees: Use an employee survey or health risk assessment tool to find out which initiatives they want. This saves money and improves buy-in.
  • Offer variety: No one initiative will engage every person, so offer several different ones at the same time.
  • Set an example: Get senior managers involved and make sure your culture allows your workforce to lead a healthier lifestyle. No one will be more active if they feel they can’t get up from their desks.
  • Promote: Regular communications will remind everyone what’s available. Also consider branding everything, so employees recognise it as part of a health and wellbeing strategy.
  • Keep it fresh and fun: Link your initiatives to different health campaigns such as Movember and Dry January and consider challenges to motivate your staff even further.