Vladimir Lenin once observed that there are decades when nothing happens, and weeks where decades happen.
The comments have frequently been used to describe the rapid changes brought about by the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, and they certainly reflect the speed at which services have evolved in the group risk sector in recent months.
Market trends that were gaining ground before Covid-19 — including the gradual switch to digital, a shift towards more flexible working patterns, and a renewed focus on wellbeing and mental health — have become the ‘new normal’ virtually overnight.
Consultants say this this has led to significant product innovation, particularly in relation to the range of support services now offered as part of a group risk proposition.
But this product enhancement has gone hand in hand with technological changes, helping clients access core and ancillary benefits via digital channels.
Looking to the year ahead advisers say the pace of change may slow somewhat. But they say challenges remain, not least in helping clients can make the most of these enhanced propositions, and ensuring products continue meet the evolving needs of a workforce, which is moving from a health crisis to dealing with the serious economic repercussions of the pandemic.
Aon principal Mark Witte says the group insurance industry has enhanced their core insurance proposition by offering an ever- expanding range of added value services in recent years.
He says: “This trend has been ongoing for some time and services such as EAP’s or wellbeing portals are now commonplace.” He points out that over the past year the introduction of digital GP services have become widely adopted by many group risk providers.
These offered access to primary healthcare services by phone, or online, at a time when many people struggled to make face-to-face appointments with their own GP. A lthough man y w ere introduced as a ‘temporary’ enhancement, their popularity means they are likely to become permanent features and one of the most valued support services, even when GP services return to normal, thanks to the convenience and out of hours access they offer for employees.
Towergate head of group risk David Williams says: “The free virtual GP services will continue because their usage by employees has gone through the roof.
“Canada Life introduced their virtual GP within the ‘WeCare’ proposition as a pilot scheme in the early stages of the pandemic (May 2020) but that was quickly turned into a permanent offering a few months later.”
Williams says the virtual GP is one of several services provided as part of an insurers’ wellbeing proposition. Looking ahead he says that other support services are likely to be as valued in the coming year, particularly those supporting mental health conditions.
“Many of these offer round the clock access to mental health professionals or personalised support as needed.”
There is agreement from both providers and consultants that mental health support will increasingly be a key part of any group risk proposition.
LEBC public policy director Kay Ingram says: “Group risk insurers do seem to be providing employers with more tools to help them deal with the increased mental health issues employees are experiencing during the pandemic.“
She points out that Zurich recently held a seminar ‘Talking Taboos: Suicide’ which was run for their group risks clients. Ingram says the insurer has a qualified mental health practitioner to run these course which offer practical preventative support to employers and scheme members.
“Other courses offered by Zurich cover issues such as anxiety and depression and includes help for managers in supporting employees with these conditions,” she adds.
Line manager training has always been important Ingram says, but this will become more critical in an environment where employees are increasingly working remotely. This in itself can add to mental health problems. It also presents greater challenges in terms of identifying and supporting those affected.
She adds: “If the post-Covid world is going to see remote working become the norm, then these types of services will become more important and providers are beginning to adopt them.
“Canada Life have recently announced its We Care service will be a permanent feature for their CLASS clients so will extend beyond the pandemic. The 10 counselling sessions offered as part of that service is market leading and much needed at the present time.”
Canada Life strategic proposition director Paul Avis says that the coronavirus has worsened what was already a mental health epidemic. He points out that financial stress, redundancy, the isolation from working from home and potential ‘burn-out’ (with people failing to switch off from work) can all add to mental health problems. In additional many people will also have lost close family members and friends, and this can increase depression and anxiety.
Looking ahead he says it is clear that enhanced EAPs, virtual GPs, or more comprehensive mental health support will all be seen as an increasingly important part of a group risk proposition.
Assessing relative value
Avis says there is a clear need for advisers and benefits consultants to compare these various support services offered by different providers.
This becomes more important as these services proliferate, and are offered by more providers on a variety of products, from group income protection to PMI and cash plans.
He says that to date advisers have typically focused on the price, and the terms and conditions of core insurance benefits. “Consultants need to look at the depth, breadth and quality of the support services and how easy they are to access,” he says.
This will involve understanding what third-party companies may be offering some of these services. Cavendish Ware associate director Roy McLoughlin says these additional support services help add value but he maintains they should not be the prime reason for recommending one proposition over another.
“Ultimately it is the core insurance benefits that are key. This is the reason firms want this cover, and the events of 2020 have highlighted the how important this cover is. Consultants need to be careful that the various bells and whistles that are being added do not take over.”
He points out that there has been a standardisation of some of these additional benefits in recent years, with EAPs for example becoming ubiquitous.
Witte says there is a danger that a proposition with the longest list off added extras is seen as offering better value. He says: “However impressive solutions can sound in a sales pitch, they only live up to the billing if they go on to truly add value. It needs to do what it says on the tin.
“What works for one employer may not matter so much to another. And with all players across health and protection markets offering many variations on a theme, the employer can often be swamped by choice.”
He adds: “If we acknowledge that providers will continue to look to add services and connect these to themes we see as relevant to modern times, then we have to acknowledge that real innovation will need to extend beyond simply bolting on more products.
“Employers and their advisors need to place more focus on working through the options available to pin down those services that will target the biggest health challenges facing their organisation. And a greater emphasis needs to be placed on understanding and measuring the value of this action. Is current strategy helping to create and sustain a resilient workforce in these turbulent times?”
Ingram agrees that one of the challenges for consultants in the year ahead will be to designing holistic benefits packages, which identify the most appropriate services for the employer and their workforce.
She says: ”There’s some overlap with the additional added value services offered by the PMI and group risk insurers. The private medical insurance market has offered a virtual GP service for much longer than the group risk market. Employee benefits consultants need to identify gaps and overlaps in a client’s benefit package to ensure that they get the best use of the resources available to them and the best return on their benefit spend.”
Ingram says that a consultant’s job isn’t just to recommend a comprehensive benefits package, it is to ensure that this is communicated effectively so these additional services are fully utilised, benefiting both employer and employees.
Williams agrees that an ad hoc approach, where they may be duplication of some of these services is far from ideal. “Consultants should help employers take stock of what services each employee benefit provider is supplying, to ensure that they have a single solution for each workplace issue.
“This is important for two reasons: firstly, employees need to know exactly where to turn for each issue, and secondly employers need to be able to view usage statistics accurately from one source and determine the effectiveness of each benefit. This really reinforces the importance of companies looking at their benefits as a whole, not in isolation.”
Avis says that this is being supported by both structural changes in the industry and technical innovation.
Moving into 2021 he expects greater take up of online benefits platforms. “With more people working from home employers have to think about getting employees to engage with benefits. Online benefit platforms can be very effective, particularly if they have details of financial benefits and support services in one place.” Avis says until now it has only been larger employers who have been able to offer custom made online benefit platforms to staff. But he says structural changes in the industry have opened the door for providers to offer simple off-the-shelf products opening the door to more flexible benefit options for smaller companies.
Williams agrees that these product innovations need to be supported by smarter use of technology. He says: “As more employers put digital support services in place it would be interesting to see how internal HR systems/platforms could be used to promote the digital wellbeing services at exactly the right time. “For example, when an employee phones in sick and the HR system is updated to create an absence entry for that employee, the system could also send the employee a reminder about the virtual GP and other support services available via SMS.”
Witte says that as providers continue to look for ways to differentiate their proposition, there may be a broader way of thinking about innovation in the year ahead.
He says: “To resonate with the key ‘people-risk’ issues affecting employers in the months and years ahead, innovation could also mean a commitment to sustainable pricing in the face of ageing populations and potential future health trends.
“This would also involve meaningful manag emen t information relevant to that employer to help better understand risk and value to inform future decision making, and ensure propositions resonate and engage an increasingly diverse workforce.”
Support services will continue to be a key part of any group risk proposition he says, but they will increasingly be tailored to ensure they reflect the values of the client, their business and their employees.