Putting a price on health

Stress and sickness can be an expensive problem for employers that employee assistance programmes claim to solve. Debbie Lovewell asks whether they live up to these claims.

Employees can stop working at their full potential for a whole host of reasons, be it worries about caring responsibilities, money issues or simply feeling a bit under the weather. With today’s fast pace of life frequently pulling individuals in numerous different directions, the pressure is on employers to ensure their workforce consistently operates at maximum productivity.

Tony Urwin, general manager of Bupa Employee Assistance explains: “If someone is very stressed and distracted by something, they will spend all of their time on it.”

Besides the obvious business gains, maximising staff productivity may have additional advantages for employers in the future. The good news for intermediaries is that although not likely to happen immediately, the government is thought to be receptive to industry proposals that would see smaller employers receive tax breaks if they offered products that helped boost employee productivity.

One option for organisations looking to take action now is to provide access to an employee assistance programme (EAP) or counselling service. At its most basic level, an EAP offers telephone-based and/or face-to-face counselling for employees, which can also be used as an early intervention mechanism to identify stress and refer staff to specific programmes designed to tackle the issue.

EAPs can often be extended to include information services to provide debt counselling, legal advice and assistance with personal issues such as sourcing emergency care for children or elderly dependents. Providing employees with an outlet to discuss their worries with a qualified professional can help them to solve any problems much more quickly than if left to their own devices, which will inevitably increase productivity.

Wolfgang Seidl, executive director at the Validium Group says: “EAPs improve productivity by attending to employees’ emotional and information needs. They really do have an impact beyond what they cost.”

Where an EAP helps an employee to source services to help ease any burdens in their personal lives, this will remove the need for them to do so themselves during working hours. It may also reduce the likelihood of employees worrying about any future problems if they know assistance is readily available. “If you are looking at care provision, for example, we can spend anything from 24 to 48 hours of work time researching care in a particular area,” says Urwin.

Offering a service that carries out such searches on employees’ behalf therefore, can save a significant number of working hours that may otherwise have been lost. It can also create a greater sense of loyalty among staff if they perceive their employer is taking steps to ease pressures placed on them outside of work, which can contribute to enhanced performance.

As these products can help staff to achieve a better work-life balance and cope with any personal crises that may arise, they may also reduce absence levels, particularly in the short term, which is beneficial for employers.

Some wellness products also help to reduce longer-term absences. Return-to-work or rehabilitation programmes, for example, can help facilitate employees’ return back into the workplace once they have gone off sick. Seidl explains these are typically designed to help staff who have been absent from work for up to two years and are often held by psychologists who are trained in cognitive behavioural therapy.

Kevin Dewhurst, sales and marketing director at First Assist says: “In long-term ill-health cases, part of the problem delaying the return to work can be psychological issues.”

Employees who are absent for a significant length of time can be extremely costly for an organisation, particularly if they are on paid leave. Salary aside, an employer will typically have to pay out for extra staff to cover their role, as well as recruitment costs if the employee ultimately decides not to return. So it makes sense to have a scheme in place, which can help rehabilitate employees back into work sooner rather than later.

A number of wellness products, such as EAPs, can also provide management information that can help employers identify where, and the nature of, any potential issues are likely to develop, so they can work to reduce the likelihood of them occurring.

Others are extending the range of types of situation they can help employees with. Legal & General has just added an online facility to its face-to-face EAP package which gives access to 700 pages of information designed to help employees through different life stages, ranging from buying a house to eating healthily. “This service comes with the face-to-face arrangements at no extra charge,” says Linda Baker, market development manager, group protection at L&G.

In order to better demonstrate the impact of such products on employee productivity, a number of EAP and wellness product providers now conduct internal research among their clients to obtain an idea of the effect that using the product can have.

A customer satisfaction survey carried out by Bupa found that 46 per cent of those who had received counselling in the last six months said it had improved their productivity at work. More than half said it had stopped them taking time off work.

But despite coming up with such statistics, most working in the industry agree it is virtually impossible to prove that a single product, such as an EAP, on its own can boost levels of employees’ productivity. This can make it difficult to demonstrate the return an employer stands to gain by investing in such benefits.

Elliott Hurst, senior consultant at Watson Wyatt explains: “If we look at EAPs, it’s really difficult to conclusively prove an EAP will improve employee productivity or absence. What it can do is form part of a broader, more strategic programme, where an employer may help an employee who is running into difficulty. In isolation, I don’t think any of the products are easy to prove a quantifiable return on investment.”

By looking at factors such as a reduction in absence levels, increased productivity and lower healthcare costs, organisations may be able to demonstrate the overall return of their wider wellbeing strategy. Offering wellness perks such as discounted or subsidised gym membership, and workshops covering topics such as relaxation, for example, may encourage employees to adopt healthier lifestyle habits, which, in the long run, may improve their overall health and wellbeing. This can reduce the future cost of benefits such as private medical insurance as claims reduce. Healthy employees are also likely to perform better.

Providing such benefits, even less costly options, can also boost employee engagement, which will almost certainly have a positive impact on productivity. “You might do a base level health screen and that’s very visible. The content might not be very deep, but it’s very visible,” says Hurst.

If staff feel their employer cares about their health and wellbeing, this may also help to reduce staff turnover. This then translates into further savings for the organisation in terms of lower recruitment costs.

However, these products will only produce such results if employees are aware that they are there and make use of them. Clear communication, therefore, is essential, not least because there is still often thought to be a stigma attached to using EAPs and counselling services, which will affect their utilisation rates. “You really have to look to promote the scheme and make sure you get good management information from providers,” says Dewhurst.

The challenge for advisers is to ensure they offer clients wellness products that are most suited to the needs of specific organisations, in order to obtain the best possible return for their money. In order to do so, it is necessary for them first to gain an understanding of what an employer means by the term ‘wellness’ and what it wants to implement in order to boost productivity.

Hurst adds that while providers have to put some kind of metrics against their products to help with sales and marketing, employers and advisers should instead look at what is right for each individual organisation.

So while EAPs and wellness products can be a factor in driving employee productivity, the lack of any hard evidence to prove they can be made to pay for themselves means tailoring a strategy to suit each organisation is vital if it is to obtain the biggest bang for its buck. n

Focus – Government incentives for employee wellbeing

“Smaller employers often use the size of their organisation as an argument for not offering an EAP for staff”
Wolfgang Siegel, executive director, Validium Group

Employers that take proactive steps to promote wellness issues to employees could stand to gain financially if the Government gives the green light to several proposed schemes. Firstly, the Government could offer employers cash incentives to ensure their staff are healthy as part of its strategy to tackle the country’s obesity epidemic. Proposals put forward by the Department of Health in January plan to create greater incentives for individuals, employers and the NHS to prioritise the long-term aim of improving health. It has suggested that this could include offering financial incentives for employers that wish to encourage healthy living among their workforces.

In addition, the Government is also thought to be considering industry proposals to offer tax incentives to small and medium-sized organisations that offer products to boost productivity among their workforce, for example, by reducing absence levels, rehabilitating staff back into the workforce following illness or by improving employee engagement. Wolfgang Seidl, executive director of the Validium Group, says this would be a positive step as he believes smaller employers often use the size of their organisation as an argument for not offering an employee assistance programme for staff.

Elliott Hurst, senior consultant at Watson Wyatt, adds: “Government and NHS objectives are to become more preventative. They’ve got to do something to change the health risk profile of the UK population.”