Developing a personalised health strategy for employees with vastly different backgrounds and needs can be helped by integrating information from a wide range of different sources. Sam Barrett looks at employers’ options

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Technology is transforming workplace health and wellbeing. People can do everything from tracking their steps and sleep patterns to logging their sickness absence and booking a check-up with a virtual GP. And, with these interventions generating valuable data that can be used to inform a workplace health strategy, this technology could be helping to shape the healthcare of tomorrow.

It’s a move that’s already underway. “analysing employee health data can help an employer determine which issues they need to address,” explains Colin Perry, head of corporate marketing at Simplyhealth. “as more data becomes available, it will be possible to gain a much more detailed picture of employee health.”

For example, where absence data shows that employees are suffering a high level of musculoskeletal complaints, an employer might introduce more access to physiotherapy and arrange for interventions such as ergonomic workstation assessments and lifting training to help prevent future problems.

Among the employers already using data to shape their health strategy is Danone UK. It offers its 1,300 employees an annual health screening with Bluecrest wellness, with an experienced GP analysing the anonymised data on its behalf. “this highlights the issues that are relevant and would benefit from more attention in our health and wellbeing strategy,” John Mayor, head of rewards at Danone UK & Ireland, explains. As an example, he points to health campaigns his company has run in response to findings around vitamin D deficiency and obesity.

The range of sources of health data is growing rapidly, too. Alongside traditional data such as records held by HR, which covers details including an employee’s age and attendance record, and the claims experience on products such as medical insurance and group income protection, employers can access aggregated data through benefits such as employee assistance programmes and medical insurance.

Anonymous data is also available through initiatives including health screening and health risk assessments, giving a good snapshot of workplace health. And the next wave of data, which will come from health and fitness trackers, will give employers a much more detailed overview of employee health.

DATA POWER

Valuable on its own, being able to integrate all of this data will be a game-changer for workplace health, according to Mark Witte, principal at Aon Employee Benefits. “At the moment, the data employers use is very back-end: it might show you some trends but essentially the employee is already off work and ill,” he explains. “Bringing in new data to create a more detailed view of employee health will shed light on their activities and behaviours long before they’re off work sick.” Having this insight is particularly useful for tackling the risk of chronic conditions such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer.

These are increasingly regarded as being linked to lifestyle factors, and where data shows employees could be heading towards these conditions, employers can introduce targeted interventions. These could include interventions targeted at smoking cessation, healthy eating information and exercise classes to encourage healthier behaviours. “Life expectancy is increasing but we’re finding that the quality of life isn’t always present in those extra years,” explains Dr Chris Tomkins, chief operating officer for Proactive Health at Axa PPP healthcare. “Adopting healthy behaviours can have a significant impact on the number of quality years people live.” Tackling the risks associated with these chronic conditions has many more knock-on effects. With healthier employees, productivity and engagement often increase, while sickness absence reduces.

This will become increasingly important as more employees stay in work at later ages. As well as the financial benefits generated in these ways, employers could also see savings on their health benefit spend. Gary Peace, corporate sales manager at The Health Insurance Group, explains: “By targeting the issues affecting the workforce, both today and in the future, healthcare spend will be more intelligent. Medical insurance is a reactive benefit so by improving health an employer can reduce the number of claims and control the cost of cover.”

USING PROTECTED DATA

There are several barriers preventing employers from reaching this position. The sensitivity of the data means that data protection is a major issue. “People do get nervous about their data being used, especially when it’s something as sensitive as health,” says Witte. “This is a challenge that will only increase in May when the General Data Protection Regulation is introduced.”

Perhaps because of this stumbling block, the infrastructure isn’t yet readily available to enable employers to integrate the data. There are no technology solutions on the market that pull all data sources together and, with the insurers only offering a subset of the benefits that generate data, there’s little incentive for them to develop an all-encompassing solution.

Even collating the data within an organisation can be challenging. Data integrity can be an issue, especially when it comes to employee health. Rather than reveal the nature of a health problem, it’s not uncommon for an employee to mask it behind conditions such as headaches and stomach upsets. “Tracking the number, duration and reason for employee absences can provide insightful results, but the data must be accurate, cleansed and captured effectively,” says Nicky Dunderdale, director of digital at Pyson, part of the Punter Southall Group.

In addition, data can be spread across different departments. For instance, human resources might handle absence data while insurance claims information is held by the reward team. This can add further complexity when pulling data together. Using data in a more joined-up way can also be a tricky sell. Perry says there needs to be benefits for all three parties – the employer, the employee and the provider – for this approach to be successful. “There are clear advantages for both the employer and the provider in terms of being able to better understand the risk, but the employee benefit is less clear,” he says. “As well as making it more difficult to access the data, this could make employees suspicious about how it might be used.”

OVERCOMING THE OBSTACLES

While there are plenty of obstacles, the potential benefits available for those employers who can integrate their employees’ health data should make it possible to overcome them. For starters, the right workplace culture is essential. Where people feel supported by their employers they are much less likely to be suspicious about their data being used to shape the health and wellbeing strategy. Likewise, by having an open and supportive culture, the probability of masking a health problem behind one of the catch-all conditions is reduced, too.

Creating the right culture isn’t easy, but Peace says the simplest way is to start from the top. “Having senior management buy-in is essential,” he says. “Where employees can see that management take health seriously they are much more likely to follow their lead.”

Alongside a supportive culture, the way health data is used can also help to ease employees’ concerns. This could be something as simple as highlighting the fact that the company is introducing a new menu in the canteen and offering free gym membership in answer to issues found in an employee health assessment.

This also helps to address Perry’s concern that there are no incentives for employees. “If an employee can see that the outcome is a healthier lifestyle, they will be much more comfortable about sharing their data,” he explains. This shift has already been seen in other areas. For instance, when location services were introduced on mobile phones, initially there was a rush to turn them off to retain privacy. But, when leaving them on potentially meant a free coffee or a discount in a shop, they became a standard, always-on, feature.

ALL TOGETHER NOW

Using an independent benefits consultant to amalgamate the data can also help to overcome employee nervousness. This also ensures there are no issues bringing together data from different insurers and health initiative providers. Some of the benefits consultants are already managing this data for their clients. For example, Aon is investing in analytics to build tools that enable employers to look at the amalgamated data.

Witte explains: “There is so much data available in this space, so we’ve created tools that can visualise it. This enables our clients to be able to see instantly where they might have health issues in their workforce and take the necessary steps to address them.” Similarly, at The Health Insurance Group, Peace can bring together the various health data streams for a client and present them on a dashboard. “It can really help them make decisions about their health and wellbeing strategy,” he adds.

Furthermore, outsourcing the management of this data to a third party also fits well with the data protection regulations. Dr Tomkins explains: “The European Commission has already indicated that it’s not keen for employers to hold this type of data. Using a neutral third party will overcome this issue.” With more health data becoming available, finding ways to bring it together in ways that will benefit all parties is essential. Taking these steps should put these benefits within reach of more and more employers.

This article is featured in Reward’s Rewarding Tomorrow’s Workforce research report. CLICK HERE to read the full report.

 

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