Keep spending levels in trim

To the uninitiated, providing a comprehensive wellbeing programme for staff may seem like an expensive business, but there are a whole host of low-cost options available, says Jamin Robertson

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In July this year, Tony Blair delivered a speech from a series entitled ‘Our Nation’s Future’, in which he stated that it is the role of government, employers and individuals to commit to a healthier future, to revitalise modern sedentary lifestyles and to reduce the strain on the NHS.

According to The health survey for England 2004, published in December 2005, the outlook is bleak. Some 23.6% of the male population and 23.8% of women are classified as obese under body mass index (BMI) calculations. The statistics make for sobering reading considering that in 1993 the figures stood at 13.2% for men and 16.4% for women.

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A number of employers are keen to do their bit to help encourage employee wellbeing. If not motivated through pure altruism, they at least realise that a health and wellbeing programme can communicate the benefits of regular exercise and healthy living, which, in turn, may then have an impact on issues such as sickness absence rates and productivity.

But despite the best of intentions, many organisations may consider that they lack the funds to provide staff with a comprehensive wellbeing programme. Fortunately, there are plenty of low-cost options available, so just as individuals can make great progress for the cost of a pair of trainers, organisations should be able to make a difference without breaking the bank.

Affordable options include products such as healthcare cash plans, which allow employees to claim cash back on everyday health services such as dental and optical treatment. Employee assistance programmes (EAPs), meanwhile, can provide telephone and face-to-face counselling, and information services, which can help to alleviate stress

Many employees will also be willing to pay for certain perks themselves, so any discounts employers can negotiate will undoubtedly be much appreciated. Often gyms will readily offer employees discounts on fees if offered through a group scheme.

Bicycles-for-work schemes may also be attractive, if offered through a salary sacrifice arrangement that produces tax breaks for staff and employers.

Simply providing access to on-site treatments such as massage therapy can be beneficial to staff wellbeing, and help to boost motivation. In addition, a discussion with company caterers may be all it takes to be rid of fat-laden menu options.

Often, all employees may need is a little encouragement and information about why they should be taking greater care of their health. Holding company-wide health fairs, where providers are invited along to demonstrate their product to staff, can be a cost-effective way of imparting health information, as well as, helping to communicate the benefits that are available for staff.

Employers that have spent time negotiating discounts on voluntary healthcare benefits for staff should consider promoting these perks in this way so that the cost of the time spent sourcing them does not go to waste.

Encouragingly, there appears to be greater awareness among employers of health issues. According to Employee Benefits/HSA healthcare research 2006, 59% of employers admit they have a role in encouraging staff to keep fit, while 23% offer healthy eating options in the staff cafeteria, up from 15% in 2005. And subsidised gym and sports facilities are provided by 19%.

Public sector organisations are expected to respond to government pledges to combat poor health, despite often having only a shoestring budget available. Last summer, for example, the Kingston Council in Surrey set up a range of exercise classes for its staff, beginning with the 50 employees in its sports and recreation department. It now plans to extend the initiative to all 2,000 employees. In a deal with the adjacent Kingston College, trainers instruct council staff between normal classes.

Sandie Barker, sports and recreation development officer for the council, explains that the 10-week programme included Pilates, body combat sessions, indoor cycling and circuit training. Sessions took place at lunchtime and after work, and employees were asked to contribute £2 an hour toward the costs.

"We want to keep it going, as we want to keep the workforce productive. We’re now looking at dietary advice," Barker adds.

The Rugby Football League (RFL) also provides a package of low-cost health and wellbeing benefits. It employs 85 staff who referee, administer and work in developing the sport.

Sue Sheard, HR consultant, believes the initiatives have contributed to the organisation’s low absence rates, which are invaluable given the small size of its workforce.

"These initiatives are really cost effective in terms of supporting an ethos of a healthy workplace. There’s a legitimate business reason for doing it. We need our people to be here [as] we don’t have large numbers," she says.

For employers that wish to gain a clearer picture of their workforce’s health, online health assessment programmes can provide a cost-effective way of achieving this. James Kenrick, practice leader, corporate healthcare consulting at Hewitt Associates, explains such schemes can generally be provided for about £60 per employee per year. Communication and the addition of incentives then help employers to make the most of their financial investment.

An initial assessment will measure participants’ height and weight, and gives an analysis of their activity levels and lifestyle. Recommendations are then formulated based on the results. Employees engage with the programme throughout the year and keep track of their progress.

"Employees can improve their lifestyle. The advantage to the employer is you get anonymous reports. This starts to give employers a picture of the health state of the people in their employ," says Kenrick.

Employers can then earmark areas of need for future funding. "The scheme might tell me my people are leading a pretty sedentary lifestyle, or that I have a high number of smokers. I might then sponsor (relevant) programmes," he adds.

To encourage maximum take-up and thus get the best results from such programmes, employers may choose to use incentives such as retail vouchers to reward good results.

"Or, if the company has a flexible benefits scheme that includes private medical insurance and a healthcare cash plan, those that engage with the health programme might be rewarded with better cover," Kenrick adds.

While the price tag of an online assessment programme may be unpalatable to some employers, Kenrick believes the pay off is a more focused health and wellbeing strategy.

"Sophisticated employers will be happy to spend to get the benefits. If 70% of staff are engaged, in a year’s time, the logic follows they will be more healthy, productive, and likely to be more motivated," he says

Case study: The Rugby Football League

The RFL is the governing body of Rugby League in the UK, and administers 450 clubs and 40,000 players. It employs 85 staff that referee, administer and help develop the sport.

The RFL offers a private medical insurance policy, an employer-paid LHF healthcare cash plan and a bikes-for-work scheme. About 90% of staff have used the cash plan. The organisation also offers tai chi, massage and stress reduction therapies, while staff can obtain employer funding to take part in sporting pursuits such as the Three Peaks Challenge.

The RFL closely monitors sickness absence levels and conducts return-to-work interviews. It credits these measures with its low average sickness absence rate of two days per employee per year.

Sue Sheard, HR consultant, says: "The return on investment would be the cost of absenteeism. If you take a look at the national average, we’re well below that."

She claims the benefits underline a caring corporate culture. "Most organisations limit (benefits) to senior managers and then scream when they’ve got problems with staff. When interviewing people, we talk about our family-friendly policies. We say ‘these are the benefits we provide, but in return, we expect [employees] to attend work regularly’."

Case Study: Procter & Gamble

Procter & Gamble’s Newcastle Technical Centre conducts at least two low-cost health initiatives a year for its 320 employees who are involved in research and development.

This year, it held a sports tournament that was timed to coincide with the football World Cup. Employees were invited to compete in football, rowing, archery and team building events, and received pedometers to encourage them to walk further.

Kathryn Glendinning, occupational health adviser, says: "In any one week we had about 90 people taking part in various activities." The total cost of equipment was £270.

Earlier in the year, the company also held a non-alcoholic cocktail evening to encourage responsible drinking.

These initiatives played a part in P&G being awarded the Legal & General and British Heart Foundation title ‘Healthy Employer of the Year’, and £3,000 to be invested in an on-site fitness room.

"We’re trying to get across the value of regular exercise. It keeps people healthy and happy, morale is high, and it encourages team work," says Glendinning. The company also ensures employees who undertake regular business travel receive targeted information on health and safety abroad.