We may have to wait for reliable ROI figures for employee wellbeing programmes but that does not mean best practice is not evolving quickly. Edmund Tirbutt reports
Anyone who doubts that employee wellbeing is climbing the corporate agenda will find no shortage of statistical evidence to prove them wrong.
For example, according to Aon Employee Benefits’ 2015 Benefits and Trends survey, 75 per cent of employers deemed it their responsibility to positively influence staff health and wellness behaviour; and in the 2016 Aon EMEA Health Survey, the figure was 94 per cent.
Bupa UK head of business development Beth Robotham says: “Wellbeing strategies are fast becoming boardroom led and owned and, based on this trend, wellbeing could easily follow the diversity agenda, becoming embedded in an organisation’s DNA.”
As interest in wellness grows, so too does the scope of the sector. The data mix can now include feedback from comprehensive health screenings and it can look well beyond just physical health.
Kirsten Samuel, managing director at employee wellbeing solutions provider Kamwell, says: “The most effective initiatives will also consider mental wellbeing and psychological, emotional and spiritual health. They’ll consider employees’ wellbeing in terms of security of finances, how they feel about relationships at work and the contribution people make to our community and environment.”
There is also a clear trend emerging in the direction of ‘avoiding the boring and obvious’.
JLT Employee Benefits group risk and healthcare director Adrian Humphreys says: “It’s too easy to tell people not to smoke or drink and to have their five-a-day but why do what the Government has failed on? We are fatter and less fit than 20 years ago and have had 20 years of the Government patronising us.
“There’s much more that can be done that’s more fun; people love competitions in the workplace and you can do lots around biotech. Companies should not be just offering bowls of fruit and ordering people around.”
There is also a growing appreciation of the need to ensure that increased knowledge of wellness issues is translated into changes to personal habits. One of the biggest challenges is persuading people to spend less time on their computers and iPhones.
EnergiseYou managing director Oliver Gray advises encouraging employees to avoid technology during the last two hours before going to bed and the first hour after waking, to take lunchbreaks away from their computers and iPhones, and to give themselves short technology breaks throughout the day – with longer breaks at weekends and during holidays.
He says: “The big shift is taking people from knowing things to living them, and this could require workshops and webinars. Being literally plugged in to technology all day is probably the biggest drain on energy. It’s affecting people’s sleep by over-stimulating the nervous system, which affects energy levels and in turn leads to less exercise and attention to diet. We are more likely to eat carbohydrates after a bad night’s sleep.”
The increasing dimensions of the wellness sector clearly add to the complexity of attempting to measure its return on investment. Although such data is plentiful in the US where improving the health of employees has a direct correlation with an employer’s workplace PMI bill, it has yet to emerge in the UK.
Humphreys says: “Everyone likes to volunteer figures based on US stats but it’s meaningless for the UK as we have the NHS. In the US, if you don’t work you don’t have healthcare, so you will listen more to your employer and do more.
“In the US, pretty much every employee every year fills in a health risk assessment that monitors baseline health. Employers are trying to introduce this here but people are more reluctant to fill it in.”
EAPs are likely to prove trailblazers in the UK, with the results of ROI research commissioned by the Employee Assistance Professionals Association from The Work Foundation due to become available this autumn. The data is expected to help sell EAPs by confirming the contributions they make to wellbeing.
It would be unsurprising if other products and services followed suit, competing fiercely on the quality of their wellness provision. But it is debatable how much we could learn from such competitive exercises.
Aon Employee Benefits head of broking & health and risk proposition Matthew Lawrence says: “We need to look beyond ROI relating to individual benefits. Data needs to be used to understand risk and build an informed and targeted health and wellbeing programme, embracing areas such as workforce segmentation and personalisation.
“Furthermore, while some employers will look at health and wellbeing through an ROI lens, increasingly we are seeing greater employee engagement as a key objective for many health and wellbeing programmes.”
Pamela Gellatly, CEO at business wellness experts Healthcare RM, says: “The reason it’s hard to measure ROI is that the wellness industry is mainly selling products. Even lifestyle tends to be measured only in the short term but, to get ROI, the industry needs to look at the long term. I feel the future lies more with holistic providers than with added-value services.”
Some of Healthcare RM’s clients have decided to make health and wellbeing integral to everything they do. So when an employee goes off sick, Healthcare RM will do an assessment and look at the underlying causes. It will also monitor the impact on the client of everything from sickness absence and healthcare plans to occupational health and fitness for work.
Gellatly continues: “We will be measuring ROI and, once this approach becomes more common practice, there will be a lot of ROI data available.”
However, while such internal holistic data could be useful for companies in monitoring their own progress, it is questionable how applicable industry-wide averages would be because wellness programmes are becoming increasingly bespoke.
Robotham says: “Successful wellbeing strategies align to the culture of the business and any new initiatives that ignore this tend to fall flat after the initial launch. The key is identifying the support that employees need, and needs are based on specific health risks and more holistic factors, including physical, psychological, social and financial aspects.”
Aviva assistant medical director Dr Subashini M points out that, in the US, there have been studies comparing similar companies. She believes the UK could do something similar but stresses that companies should start by asking themselves what they want to measure and achieve.
She says: “You start measuring what you feel is the relevant outcome for the company and employees, and make sure it’s embedded within the culture. There must be leadership involvement and opportunities to engage. Lots of large companies are already taking these steps.
“I would guess we will have meaningful industry-wide ROI data on wellness in a couple of years. It should help to get people’s attention to think about a wellbeing strategy within their organisation.”
IN FOCUS: BIOBEATS ADDS NEW DIMENSION TO MEASURING WELLNESS
BioBeats, a digital health and artificial intelligence company founded in 2013 to create corporate and personal wellness solutions, is now able to analyse stress patterns provided by data from wearable devices.
Employees have their data anonymously monitored and this information is put into a biometric machine-learning platform that delivers actionable cohort insights in addition to helping individual employees take control of their own stress management, wellness and healthy living objectives. The BioBeats platform can integrate with HR systems and productivity suites, delivering insights into workforce wellbeing and productivity.
BioBeats chief science officer David Plans says: “Some wearable devices give enough data to analyse sleep patterns and the employers we are dealing with are using it for overall wellbeing and for trying to spot signs of fatigue before people burn out.
“We are looking at ROI from an occupational health perspective and expect to have data by the end of this year. We have seen some very successful results so far and are anticipating ROI data to be a positive sales tool. It is underpinned by rigorous academic evidence.”
IN FOCUS: HEALTH SCREENING ENTERS WELLNESS MIX
Comprehensive health screenings, which have typically cost around £500 and involved employees having to travel to hospitals, have traditionally been regarded primarily as an executive perk. But the emergence of more affordable and accessible formats is providing valuable anonymous data.
This can be used to track trends, identify more specific health issues and monitor the impact of wellbeing investment by measuring developments such as reductions in the number of smokers, lower BMI and fewer cases of higher blood pressure.
For example, Bluecrest Wellness, which entered the UK health screening market in 2012, now offers high-quality bespoke screenings – including ECGs and mental health assessments – for around £150 a head either via mobile teams at the employee’s place of work or at 2,000 clinics nationwide.
Bluecrest Wellness managing director Peter Blencowe says: “We enable employers to screen an entire workforce and to receive free-of-charge anonymous health data that enables health risks to be compared at different company locations. You can’t make screening compulsory but you can get take-up rates of around 60 per cent.”