When a particular human resources practice that has proven
its worth in the US makes its way to these shores, one common response if the
practice proves itself to be valuable is for organisations to say: “We were kind
of doing that anyway”. The concept of ‘wellbeing’ still sounds odd to many in
the UK but its potential to help reduce absenteeism, boost staff morale and
enhance employers’ standing with employees is more than a soft issue. Anything
that purports to do all that, and rather more cheaply than most other
mainstream, well-recognised employee benefits such as company cars, pensions and
various insurance-related perks, should interest the corporate world.
Many still believe the term is little more than a faddish invention of the
benefits industry, but a number of major companies have sophisticated wellbeing
offerings. The main driver for the creation of the wellbeing movement in the
benefits industry is the enormous expense associated with the provision of
healthcare in the US. This forced major employers to start investing in the
health and wellbeing of their employees before they got sick, in order to bring
down the costs of healthcare provision for staff after the fact.
“There is no doubt that wellbeing came across the water from the US and it
had a very good reason there for coming into existence,” says Wayne Pontin,
business development director at healthcare and wellbeing consultancy the Jelf
Group, who adds that the concept has gathered steam in the past five years.
“Clearly, if you can improve the overall health of your employees, you reduce
your medical expense spend,” says Pontin.
This is assuming the employer provides medical health insurance as a benefit;
in the US, healthcare insurance tends to be a highly valued and widely used
benefit. The testing of various wellbeing schemes by US companies has benefited
the UK corporate world to the effect that the stronger, more useful and more
efficient ones are now common among companies in the UK, including everything
from gym membership, regular health screening, stress monitoring and counselling
to nutritional advice and cafeteria menus that reflect good nutritional
practices, diet advice and even personal trainer expenses.
Perhaps counter-intuitively, Pontin says the recession has bolstered
corporate wellbeing provision as those employees who were not culled the
valuable ones are being treated more carefully now. “A number of companies
have had to downsize and are under even more pressure than before to improve the
health and wellbeing of their remaining staff.
Since they need all hands to the pump, it is critical for them to cut down on
sickness and absenteeism,” says Pontin. Everything about wellbeing programmes
works to boost staff morale and get people feeling better about themselves and
their overall health that, at least, is the theory and surveys of staff with
wellbeing programmes in place tend to bear this out, says Pontin.
Another key point in favour of wellbeing programmes in a recession is that
they are considerably cheaper to introduce than other sorts of benefits. “If you
take a death-in-service insurance package, that works out at about 0.7% of
payroll, while a full-blown private medical insurance will cost about 1% of
payroll. However, to introduce a wellbeing package costs less than 0.4% on
average,” says Pontin. Rolling up all three means that for just over 2% of
payroll, the employer gets a well-rounded package of health and wellbeing
measures to provide across the board to employees.
“What we find is that gym membership is particularly valued and employers
using bulk-buying can get monthly gym membership discounted to about £25 per
month for each employee, which is much less than you would pay for monthly
membership in most big city gyms,” he says.
In fact, he says there has been a noticeable upsurge over the past 18 months
in UK schemes providing a package of gym membership, health and stress
screenings and personal trainers as part of a designated wellbeing benefits
package. And more new products in this area are appearing all the time.
Something that has recently been launched in the UK is a benefit known as
protection plan. One of the main providers is US Preventive Medicine, operating
as iHealth in the UK.
The basic theory is that since five main diseases heart disease, cancer,
strokes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (better known as bronchitis or
emphysema) and diabetes are responsible for more than two-thirds of all deaths
in the UK each year, providing employees with comprehensive screening for these
conditions on a regular basis is good for the employees and good for the risk
and expenses management of the company. Early identification and clear health
risk assessment programmes both increase employee health and, from the company’s
perspective, lead to a decrease in sickness and absenteeism.
iHealth recommends companies take an integrated approach to healthcare: those
not so comfortable with touchy-feely subjects may wince, but the company has set
this out in its ‘four quadrant’ framework with its four interacting categories
being ‘inside’ (how you feel about things, your subjective stress levels);
‘outside’ (your physical assessment, the state of your body and behaviours); the
‘individual level’; and the ‘collective level’ (the culture, beliefs and
practices around you, the environmental, workplace and home aspects).
Employers select from a range of packages for staff, including various
imaging and testing programmes, to identify the sources of pressure on the
individual and map out strategies to keep them well balanced, bodily and
mentally. Anyone in doubt as to the importance of employee wellbeing need only
look at the recent spate of suicides at France Telecom many of which were
blamed on workplace stress.
Another recent trend is employee assistance programmes specifically designed
to reduce absenteeism from stress-related causes. Companies can buy an employee
assistance programme as a package that includes a sliding scale range of
features and benefits for employees, says Phil Taylor, managing director of
employee benefits provider Health Assured. From the employer’s standpoint, this
kind of benefits package is more than just a ‘nice-to-have’ for employees it
also serves the employer as a primary defence against claims by employees
suffering, or claiming to suffer, from workplace stress-related illness.
Taylor points out that for the employer, the service can begin at pre-employment
stage through pre-employment screening of candidates. This is emphatically not a
discriminatory practice, Taylor argues, because even where the employee suffers
from some recognised disability, pre-employment screening is vital: it is about
helping the employer to understand that particular individual’s needs and the
kinds of reasonable adjustments to the workplace that might need to be made to
accommodate the individual if they are employed. Taylor points out that this can
also help guard the employer from legal action at some later stage for having
negligently disregarded the individual’s special requirements (for example, you
don’t put someone with chronic back trouble in an area that involves constant
lifting of moderately heavy objects, such as stacking high shelves).
Online management of employee benefits is gaining popularity. “All employees
in the programme are encouraged to go to our website and fill in a health
assessment. This is confidential, but it allows our staff to respond if problems
are flagged up,” explains Health Assured’s Taylor. “We also provide the employer
with anonymous information on the general state of health of the workforce,
which can help to formulate further preventative strategies.” Health Assured is
an example of a company that offers an online stress coaching tool for
employees to define the degree of stress they are experiencing in their work,
while a further level of functionality it offers ensures employees who are off
work for stress-related causes are visited by an occupational health nurse, who
will explore with the employee what needs to be done to overcome the difficulty
and get them back to healthy working.
“This is a very good line of defence for the employer, but it does need to be
part of a joined-up approach to stress reduction,” says Taylor. The service
provides a telephone helpdesk for staff to ring for support, and if the support
staff feel that it would be necessary or beneficial for that staff member to
move from telephone support to a face-to-face meeting they will be referred to
qualified stress counsellors. The cost of this for the employer works out at
around £10 per employee a pointless expense or a trivial sum compared with
some of the extremely large, headline-grabbing awards made by employment
tribunals and courts in stress-related litigation.
One of the key points for both management and employees to grasp about wellbeing
benefits is that apart from those elements of the package whose function is
obvious, such as gym membership, employees will need some help and guidance
understanding how a wellbeing programme will benefit them.
From the employer’s side, they can also help to identify hidden problem areas
in the company’s processes and practices that might be generating unfair and
unnecessary stress. If an employer is genuinely interested in cultivating a
reputation as the employer of choice in their sector and takes staff motivation
and workplace morale and satisfaction seriously, then wellbeing benefits will
rank alongside work-life balance and flexibility as a valued part of its
offering to attract and retain good staff. What you do not want is a wellbeing
programme that ends up looking to the staff as if Big Brother is watching their
waist line, or looking to pick weak links for redundancy fodder.
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