Health and wellbeing: Strategy must be well planned and adaptable

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  • Think about the organisation’s values, because wellbeing encompasses a number of areas, including physical, mental, emotional, family, career and financial health.
  • Assess the workforce, looking at factors such as age and lifestyle, as well as management information from benefits such as any employee assistance programme, absence management and private medical insurance scheme.
  • Review the wellbeing strategy regularly, making changes and introducing new ideas to maintain employee interest and target new parts of the workforce.
  • Obtain employee feedback on wellbeing initiatives and encourage staff to put forward their own ideas for future activities because this will help to boost results and improve employee engagement.

Case study: Axa strategy maintains a healthy mix

Health insurance firm, Axa PPP Healthcare introduced a wellbeing strategy in 2008. To determine the structure of the strategy, it assembled a steering group comprising clinicians, HR and employee representatives. Various data sources were also analysed, including occupational health, claims from the private medical insurance scheme, and management information from the sickness absence reporting system.

Ian Clabby, employee engagement manager at Axa PPP Healthcare, says: “This helped us identify areas we could target and, by having a wide range of employees involved, including some that were market-facing and could bring in external observations, there was a healthy level of enquiry.”

Central to the strategy is an educational thread, providing information to staff on a different theme each month. Some of the themes covered so far include bowel cancer and how to stop smoking.

Awareness events are also run throughout the year. These have included a Hawaii Day, held in January to highlight the winter blues; and an annual Wellbeing Wednesday, when local alternative health practitioners are invited into the office.

Although it has been well received by employees, Axa’s wellbeing strategy is still evolving. As well as tracking results, such as absence data, the steering group meets each month to assess the strategy and discuss new initiatives and ideas.

“To have just a set strategy is probably counterproductive,” says Clabby. “We are always looking at ways to make our wellbeing initiatives relevant and engaging to employees.”

An effective health and wellbeing strategy can bring many rewards, but it needs careful research and planning, plus the ability to change and adapt, says Sam Barrett

A wellbeing strategy can deliver many benefits. As well as nurturing healthier, happier and more productive employees, it can also improve an organisation’s reputation among current and potential customers, as well as help to make it an employer of choice for recruits.

Over time, an effective wellbeing strategy can also bring about a reduction in the cost of benefits such as income protection and private medical insurance (PMI).

But to reap these rewards, it is essential that a wellbeing strategy not only fits an organisation’s philosophy and values, but also that it stays fresh and engages as many employees as possible.

Andrew Supple, health and productivity consultant at Buck Consultants, says that before putting a wellbeing strategy together, an employer must consider what wellness means to the organisation. “Wellness covers many things,” he says. “As well as the traditional areas of mental and physical health, it can also include financial and family health, work-life balance and, in the current climate, even career health.”

Fitting in with employer’s culture and values

Some measures will fit an organisation’s culture and values better than others. For example, a manufacturing company might focus on keeping employees physically healthy, while an accountancy firm offering lots of graduate training places might want to look more at career health.

There are some anomalies, too. Jenny Hawker, head of health management consulting UK at Mercer, says that although it might seem logical for financial services firms to want to foster their employees’ financial health, this is not always a priority. “You tend to see more focus on financial health in lower-paid industries where money is tighter,” she says. “They have more need for it than the City high-fliers.”

As well as aligning a wellbeing strategy with what is important to an organisation, workforce demographics can also help to determine the areas it targets. James Kenrick, healthcare practice leader at Hewitt Associates, says: “Really get to grips with workforce demographics. Understand the age profile, sex, lifestyle, the type of work they do and the issues they have, and look at any management information [available], such as absence data, employee assistance programme feedback and claims information on private medical insurance. This will give a good picture of the issues employers might want to address.”

Understanding their audience will enable employers to package initiatives to suit their employee profile. For example, if they have a young or active workforce, gym membership may be more attractive than it might be to an older workforce.

Employers should also consider whether they want to go further than just looking after their employees, says Hawker. “As well as focusing on employees, think about whether you also want to improve the health of dependants, customers and the community generally. This will influence the type of initiatives that employers choose to implement.”

Set up a steering group

Another vital factor to improve the success of any wellbeing strategy is buy-in from both management and employees. Eugene Farrell, business manager at Axa Icas, recommends forming a steering group to help achieve this.

“To get the most out of the strategy, employers need to involve different parts of the organisation, including HR, occupational health, employee representatives and management,” he explains. “Get the board to be seen to be taking part. This topdown, bottom-up approach will improve employee engagement.”

Once employers have drawn up their strategy, it makes sense to give it a decent launch to employees because this will help with initial engagement. Health fairs, where employees can find out more, possibly taking tests or being given free massages or treatments, are an effective launch device. The costs can be pared down by asking PMI or employee assistance programme (EAP) providers to help.

Branding the strategy can also work well. For example, Hewitt Associates’ wellbeing programme is called Be Healthy With Hewitt. “This gives the programme an identity,” says Kenrick. “All sorts of initiatives are included in our strategy but, as they are all branded, employees instantly know it is something to do with their health and wellbeing.”

Whether or not employers give their wellbeing strategy a big launch or a jazzy brand, what is more important – and more difficult to achieve – is keeping the momentum going.

One of the most common reasons wellbeing strategies fail is when they are not maintained properly. “Employers cannot just plonk a wellbeing strategy in and do nothing else,” says Farrell. “If they do that, they will only attract people who are already doing the healthy things they are promoting. It will not change behaviour and, if the employer later takes it away, this could have a detrimental effect.”

To help keep a strategy fresh, plenty of variety is suggested. Some organisations have different monthly focuses for their wellbeing strategy. David Dolding, head of consulting at Lorica, recommends that employers have at least two different campaigns lined up for the year. “Plan for the year,” he says. “Think about what you want to achieve, then put together an effective communication package to support it.”

Wellbeing information on flex platform

For example, employers could include wellbeing information on their flexible benefits platform (although this might incur a charge) or make it a focus on their intranet site. “Think about how much employees visit these areas and, if they are not core, supplement the communication programme with posters, flyers, and so on,” says Dolding.

Employers can also liven up their strategy by packaging it in different ways. Competitions can work well, for example. These could be something simple that takes place within the organisation, such as a weight-loss campaign or a walking challenge, or employers could take part in an organised event, such as Cancer Research’s Race for Life, or a local walk or run.

For instance, Hewitt Associates participates in the Global Corporate Challenge, a corporate health initiative that last year involved some 100,000 employees from about 1,000 workplaces in 55 countries. In the challenge, each team of employees uses pedometers to clock up enough miles to walk around the world over a 16-week period. Kenrick says: “It is a great competition and we find our employees do not only look at how they are doing overall, but they rank themselves against other teams from the company. We are looking to get between 30% and 40% of our employees involved.”

As well as pitting staff against each other, another way to keep a wellbeing strategy alive is through workplace champions. These are employees who have successfully changed their behaviour because of the strategy, for instance by losing weight, giving up smoking or getting fitter, and are happy to share their story with others. “Champions can create huge amounts of energy around a wellbeing strategy,” says Axa Ica’s Farrell. “They really help to inspire other employees.”

Charity events can boost profile

Publicity can also help, both boosting the organisation’s profile and giving employees recognition for their achievements. This can done through company newsletters or, for major initiatives such as charity events or work within the community, by involving local newspapers or trade publications.

It is also sensible to keep tabs on the behaviour that employers are seeking to address. Mercer’s Hawker recommends running an online health risk assessment each year, to check whether the strategy has brought about any improvements and to identify areas that might need addressing. “Share the results,” she adds. “They will be anonymous, but it can be very motivational to show employees that things have improved.”

Even more important is gathering feedback from staff. Steering groups can oversee what is going on, but the most successful campaigns actively encourage employees to come up with ideas. “Speak to employees and find out what they want,” says Lorica’s Dolding. “If something did not work, ask them why. Get lots of feedback and ideas, so that the strategy does not stagnate.”

But although all these elements will help to keep a wellbeing strategy fresh, Hawker’s magic ingredient for ultimate success is to make it fun. She worked with one organisation with 5,500 employees that ran regular sessions with a personal trainer in a park opposite their offices.

“It was extremely successful and many of the employees also took advantage of additional one-on-one sessions with the trainer,” says Hawker. “It is really important to make it fun. Employers will get much better results if their employees actually enjoy taking part.”

Read more from the health and wellbeing supplement