Health & Wellbeing: Employers need strategies for prevention and cure

How do you keep a workforce healthy – by offering fast, efficient treatment or perks that might prevent illness? Employers need both strategies, says Jenny Keefe

Helen Massie, organisational development manager at Highlands and Islands Enterprise, a state-funded development body, says: “Both types of benefit are equally important. While it would be wonderful to believe prevention could address all wellbeing issues before the first symptoms arrive, we have to take a real-world view.”

Reactive perks, such as private medical insurance (PMI) and healthcare cash plans, help workers pick up the pieces after they become ill. The aim is to treat afflictions quickly and effectively, getting staff back to their desks as soon as possible.

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By contrast, preventative benefits are about boosting health and encouraging virtuous behaviour among staff. Options include free fruit, health screenings and subsidised gym membership.

It is hoped that such enlightened initiatives will have a beneficial effect on employees’ wellbeing, and may stop health problems in their tracks.

When deciding which approach is most appropriate for their organisation, employers will need to consider a number of factors, including cost, the nature of the perk and their workforce demographic.

Reactive benefits

1. Private medical insurance

PMI has some significant advantages, says Dudley Lusted, head of corporate business at Axa PPP Healthcare. “Employees get fast access to private specialists at a time convenient to them, as well as hospitals with a private room. The insurance costs staff one-tenth of what it would if they paid for it out of their own income.”

All this is welcome news for staff, with typical take-up rates of 95%, according to Lusted. Those who opt out do so either because of the tax liability or because they are covered by their partner’s insurance.

But PMI’s advantages come at a price. It can cost around £700 a year per employee, which is why most employers restrict it to certain staff. Just 10% of the biggest employers offer PMI to all staff, and 25% of those with fewer than 10,000 staff offer it across the board, according to the aforementioned Employee Benefits survey.

But there are ways to cut the cost of PMI, says Michael Lewars, principal consultant at Xafinity Consulting. For example, employers could reduce the number of medical conditions covered or stop covering employees’ partners.

2. Healthcare cash plans

Ten years ago, healthcare cash plans were limited to optical and dental care, but in recent years, providers have started to include cover for anything from massages to acupuncture. Matthew Judge, director of Jelf Employee Benefits, says: “In a difficult economic period, cash plans are a valuable benefit for staff that do not receive PMI.”

Cash plans can cost as little as £1 a week per worker, but most employers opt for levels of £2 to £3 a week, says Judge.

But there are some downsides. “Staff need to understand cash plans are not PMI,” he adds. “Also, although some policies reimburse workers 100% up to a set level, many will refund only 75% or less, so people must contribute to every claim.”

Employeess also need to be organised, remembering to keep receipts and to claim.

3. Employee assistance programmes

EAPs not only help to sort out problems before they become serious, but they cost minimal amounts of money, typically £8 a year per worker. They can also help protect employers from litigation about stress and other work-related issues.

However, EAPs also have their downsides. For example, however impressive a programme is, employers should consider if employees will actually use it. Rob Woollen, corporate wellness manager at employee wellbeing consultancy Rightway, says: “Although all EAP providers maintain client confidentiality, many employees feel uneasy about calling, assuming their boss will find out what they have said.”

Employers should expect take-up rates of 3% to 10%, he says.

Jeremy Campbell, Ceridian’s director of human resources outsourcing, says communication is also vital. “A scheme’s success depends on a good introduction and regular promotion. Employees need to be continually reminded of the support that is available. For this reason, an EAP works well within office-based environments with internet access.”

4. Dental insurance

James Kenrick, corporate healthcare adviser at Hewitt Associates, says: “It is now quite difficult to find an NHS dentist. Dental insurance is a benefit that employees could use twice a year. Not only would it boost their oral health, but they would value it highly.”

Dental insurance costs approximately £100 to £200 a year per employee, depending on the quality of cover.

Preventative benefits

1. Free fruit

Jessica Colling, product director at health and wellbeing provider Vielife, says: “If there is free fruit onsite, people are more likely to reach for a healthy snack.” Take-up is often high. “An easy way to introduce it is to swap biscuits for fruit at meetings. I have yet to hear someone complain about tucking into a strawberry rather than a cookie.”

Employers should not expect dramatic changes, says Rightway’s Woollen. “The drawback is, this sort of perk tends to attract those who are already likely to use it.”

2. Gym membership

Employers have three main options here. They can pay the whole gym membership fee, subsidise membership, or offer an on-site fitness centre. The cost of offering gym membership depends entirely on the extent of a scheme. Corporate discounts at a local gym could be free to negotiate, but membership of a swish London gym could cost £100 a month per employee.

However, getting staff to join gyms can backfire, warns Swann. “As a benefit, gym memberships are not proven to reduce absence or enhance workers’ health. Gyms might also contribute to conditions such as musculoskeletal strains and sprains.”

3. Health screening

Basic screenings can be offered in the workplace, while more comprehensive body MOTs take place at local clinics. Cost varies from £25 for a quick cholesterol check to £500 for a full screening.

“Screenings encourage workers to take responsibility for their health,” says Hewitt’s Kenrick. “This benefits the employee and leads to a more productive workforce.”

4. Wellbeing events

Another option is to hold wellness days or wellbeing events to educate staff, for example on simple diet and fitness tips. Events can include health checks on allergies and cholesterol, for instance, and experts can run workshops on issues like alcohol, sleep and coping with stress. A typical health day for 100 employees costs about £30 a head. “These fairs give access to employees who may ignore free fruit and gym memberships,” says Rightway’s Woollen.

Case Study: Aecom

Energy-efficiency consultancy Aecom believes that achieving a balance between preventative and reactive benefits is the secret to obtaining a healthy workforce.

Lorraine Kaloczi, payroll and benefits manager, says: “Traditionally, the emphasis has been on reactive wellbeing benefits, mainly private medical insurance.

“However, we are now more preventative focused and are constantly looking for ways to encourage our employees to adopt a healthier lifestyle.” On the reactive side, all Aecom’s 2,860 employees receive private medical insurance and access to an employee assistance programme. They can also opt for dental insurance through a flexible benefits scheme.

Preventative perks include free fruit, health screenings and corporate gym discounts. Workers also have access to a Bupa health site, which offers tips on everything from diet to how to quit smoking.

“It is important to take a holistic approach to wellbeing,” says Kaloczi. “We identified the benefits needed to keep people well, and then considered what to have in place to ensure that should someone fall ill, the appropriate policies are in place to support their recovery.”

More articles on staff health

Click on the links below for more sections:

Health & Wellbeing: Comment by Debbie Lovewell, deputy editor

Health & Wellbeing: Providers braced for the demands of swine flu

Health & Wellbeing: Interview with Mike Izzard, chairman of the Association of Medical Insurance Intermediaries

Health & Wellbeing: How to prove perks’ cost-effectiveness

Health & Wellbeing: Flexible working can reduce staff absence

Health & Wellbeing: How to rein back private medical insurance costs

Health & Wellbeing: Musculoskeletal disorders need a formal strategy