The coronavirus pandemic may have resulted in a re-energised focus on health and wellbeing, but the economic consequences of the lockdown have put pressure on some companies’ ability to provide comprehensive employee benefits. As a result many corporates are looking to deliver ‘more for less’ when it comes to a full range of health and wellbeing benefits.
Consultants and insurers attending a recent Corporate Adviser virtual roundtable agreed that the employee benefits industry needs to adapt to this
new reality as companies across the UK return to on-site working.
But many delegates said that rather than re-visiting the menu of benefits offered, it may be more effective to look at how these various benefits are delivered. This could help deliver ‘more’ for both employers and employees, without increasing costs.
Isio director Andrew Craig said there is a need for better integration of the range of employee benefits that are now offered, and argued this is a particular challenge for many larger corporate clients.
He said: “The particular challenge is the integration of wellbeing with other employee benefits. Historically, particularly in bigger organisations, wellbeing and benefits are divided and sit in very different parts of the HR function.”
Those on the panel agreed that a more integrated approach could result in far better engagement with the products and services already offered, delivering value for both the employee and employer.
Craig reported that one of the most common complaints he hears from employers is that they offer an excellent package of benefits but they are rarely used by employees.
“It’s not about tweaking the design of these benefits. The challenge is how to help employees understand and engage with what is already there. Historically I think we probably haven’t done very well on this as an industry,” he said.
This will become ever more important he added, as the industry shifts towards more flexible or tailored benefits, which he said could create more complexity and potentially lead to even less engagement.
Mercer client strategy leader Emma Bassett said it was crucial to get the communications right around employee benefits in order to address this issue.
“Effective communications is often the missing piece to the puzzle. In my mind there’s no point in investing in consulting, or new technology, or a wider range of employee benefits without a proper communications strategy. Without this corporate are wasting their money as engagement is likely to be low.”
Barnett Waddingham senior wellbeing consultant Laura Matthews agreed, and says organisations need to be “smarter” about the way they offer employee benefits.
“It is about communicating the benefit to the employee. It’s not just about promoting a confidential telephone counselling line, but communicating how this could help employees, what issues could be discussed and when and how employees can access this service.”
She said both employers and employees need help navigating their way through the ever-growing web of benefit options and support services. “I think organisations sometimes need to take a step back and look at the range of core benefits and ancillary services.”
She argued organisations need to think about what services would be particularly valued by employees and how best to promote them.
Effective use of data can help support these strategies, she said. At its most basic level this can give consultants, and corporate, a better idea of which services are being used and by whom. For example are older or younger employees accessing certain benefits.
WPA managing director, major corporate schemes, Brian Goodman said that data analytics can be a critical tool in supporting engagement and ensuring health and wellbeing benefits are relevant for staff.
“It’s important that corporates measure and analyse the information they have, whether it relates to sickness and absence or other issues.”
He pointed to the Health and Safety Executive report from November last year found that there were 480,000 workers suffering from MSK (Musculo-skeletal) injuries last year, of which 152,000 were new cases, having significant ramifications in terms of days lost through sickness and increased costs for business.
“By delving down into the data it is possible to create strategies that address these issues and can reduce the problem and help people more effectively.”
Craig agreed that effective data analysis is an important part of any benefits strategy. “It about setting objectives about what you want to achieve and understanding how you are going to measure and manage these. I’m not sure that’s something that has been done well in the past.”
Basset supported this view, and said effective data management is particularly important for organisations offering more flexibility around working from home post-lockdown. “Data is the golden nugget. It can help with engagement and communication. It also helps create a sense of control for organisations and helps them meet some of the issues created by employees working from home.”
As she pointed out, organisations want to know what employees are doing, and whether they are being productive. “Usually in a workplace they will be able to see this for themselves, but out of necessity organisations have had to give employees more freedom and lose a bit of this control. But effective data management can help them understand not only what employees are doing, but by looking at data points to do with wellbeing this can also show how they are coping on a whole range of issues.” This, she said, can be important in helping create a healthy and productive workforce.
One direct consequence of the pandemic has been the rollout and rapid take up of a whole range of digital services that have been used to deliver different health and wellbeing benefits. These services are also helping to generate more data, to further improve employee benefits.
HealthHero commercial director David Jennings said his organisation had seen a “significant spike in digital demand” since the start of pandemic. Some of these services were available prior to the start of 2020, but there was often a reluctance to use them, he said. This changed though with the closure of many primary healthcare services, such as GP services, for face-to-face appointments.
“This is a change that is here to stay as its been embraced by consumers, corporates, insurance partners, clinicians and GPs. They have adapted to and adopted these new digital services which will definitely be part of the ‘new normal’”, he said.
Jennings added that it is the combination of digital convenience with human expertise that has been behind the success of many of these services. Mobile apps and online consultations help facilitate easier access to a range of specialists, be they physiotherapists, mental health specialists or GPs.
Goodman said that many of these services have proved to “very robust” and even when primary services open up more widely there is still likely to be demand for these remote services used as an additional convenient alternative.
Those attending the event agreed that while digital capability and effective use of data will be increasingly important, it is still potentially too early to say what the long term effects of this last year will be on the employee benefits sector.
Craig said: “Over the last 12 months it’s been about surviving lockdown, and putting certain systems in place to facilitate this.
“With a lot of organisations, and certainly within our own, the focus has been on working from home, and in terms of wellbeing the focus has been on issues like social connection, inclusion and engagement.
“As organisations start to move back into on-site working it’s difficult to predict what comes next. This though is where data can become really critical. As we move into the next stage it needs to be an iterative process, where we provide some initial guardrails which give a broad framework and then start to collect feedback to see how organisations need to adapt.
“This is a journey we all need to go on together, but data is absolutely critical within that process.”
Jennings argued a key part of this is ensure a holistic approach is taken, which combines communications, data management, technology with a relevant benefits packages.
“Sometimes when I look at the benefits packages that are being offered today I’m reminded of watching five-year olds play football,” said Jennings. “The kids are all running about the pitch but are not integrated at all, they don’t understand they all have different roles to play.
“Many firms might have 10 different benefit propositions that are all trying to do the same thing.” He said greater clarity can lead to more effective communications and result in higher levels of engagement.
As the pandemic subsides there is an opportunity for corporates to look against at their health and wellbeing benefits to ensuring they are supporting staff effectively and so delivering a return on investment for employers.
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