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Prevention is the new cure

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With the rising costs of healthcare globally, as well as different needs being observed across employee demographics, firms have to find new ways to cater to the varied wellness needs of employees while keeping costs down.

Jerene Ang speaks to HR experts and finds out why prevention is the new cure when it comes to the wellbeing of the workforce.

Seeing as a company’s greatest asset is its people, it only makes sense for organisations to invest in their health and wellbeing.

However, with the rising costs of healthcare globally, as well as different needs being observed across employee demographics, firms have to find new ways to cater to the varied wellness needs of employees while keeping costs down.

According to Towers Watson’s 2015 Emerging Trends in Health Care Survey: “Healthcare costs have been growing more slowly over the last several years; however, cost trends are still more than double the rate of inflation. Affordability concerns persist for employers and employees.”

Rosaline Koo, founder and CEO of CXA, agrees: “Historically, companies offered basic, ‘one-size-for-all’ health plans to all employees.

“But this has changed with Asia’s continuing talent war, worsening employee health, escalating costs and an increasing interest in wellness.”

She notes that instead of offering “one-size-for-all” plans, companies are now choosing to invest time in three areas:

1. Ensuring the money spent on benefits drives employee engagement and talent retention.

2. Launching wellness and disease prevention programmes to combat worsening employee health and rising health insurance premiums.

3. Driving operational efficiency to eliminate paper forms, multiple vendors, employee queries and day-to-day administration.

Additionally, Lim Teng Teng, regional director of human resources for SCIEX, notes: “In recent years, we have observed an increasing demand from employees to provide more comprehensive health benefits and better coverage.”

In line with this, Priyanka Kalra, Asia Pacific regional compensation and benefits lead for Cargill, notes a trend of employers expanding standard healthcare benefits of insurance coverage into more comprehensive coverage such as for critical illnesses and additional measures to enhance physical and mental wellness via preventive healthcare.

She explains: “Employers expect employees to be more engaged in their healthcare buying decisions and lifestyle choices and also adding more co-share options to increase the ownership and share costs.

“Offering choices is becoming more popular in order to meet the needs of a diverse workforce.”

George Avery, director of people operations and culture at IBM Global Business Services Asia Pacific, adds there has been more of a focus from a wellness point of view.

“We’re concerned about employees’ productivity, their health and happiness in terms of how they engage with the organisation and clients.”

He also says technology will have a bigger part to play in employee healthcare and wellness going forward.

“We have wearable technology now and our phones and the devices can now track your heart rate. Things can be expanded to be subtle reminders to people to tell them ‘hey, you haven’t gotten up, you haven’t walked around’.”

As a result, he says some companies are, in fact, using benefits and wellness as a differentiator.

Balancing costs with wellness

How much do such trends match up to the current priorities in organisations?

According to Aon Hewitt’s 2013 Health Care Survey, employers’ top priorities for improving staff health are “increasingly focused on changing human behaviour in the context of a defined wellness strategy”.

The survey found that 85% of employers have a wellness and health improvement strategy today and another 14% of them are considering such a strategy.

Avery agrees: “We have a number of wellness activities and exercise programmes that we do on-site.”

He gives the example of how a whole group of IBMers can be seen going together to take fitness classes on the first floor at their office in Changi Business Park 1 at 5:30pm on certain weeknights.

Agreeing with Avery’s earlier point about firms using wellness as a differentiator, Koo says: “Firms in Asia are starting to differentiate their health benefits programmes in order to brand themselves as employers of choice.

“They are increasingly aware the health of their employees is key to their ongoing success and that there are significant costs associated with not having a healthy and engaged workforce.”

This might be because 87.2% of employees consider health and wellness offerings when choosing an employer, as shown by a 2013 survey by Virgin HealthMiles in partnership with Workforce Management.

Lim notes that in her company, the team strives to strike a balance through a holistic approach, with medical and dental care supplemented with insurance coverage for employees as well as extending these medical benefits to their families.

It also seeks to educate them on healthy living by devising fitness programmes and health-related talks, and encouraging better eating habits by providing healthy lunches or afternoon snacks.

Similarly at IBM, the team wants staff to know they are cared for, and that they should have a balance across multiple areas such as work, being active, family time and personal interests.

He admits these are the “values as an organisation that we hope staff have”.

“We make sure they have access to knowledge that they need to empower themselves to make sure they know what the right balance across all those is.”

Therein lies the challenge of making sure they are aware of managing their own workload, as well as ensuring managers are educated in terms of looking out for people who are not in the right balance.

“I think people are very dedicated to their work and it is very exciting to them. The things that we do with our clients are very transformative and they are very passionate about it. When you are passionate about something, you spend time on it,” Avery says.

Besides the balance of time, another challenge is the cost of implementing employee wellness benefits.

Koo observes that Asia, with its rapid growth and ongoing war for talent, rapidly ageing population, middle class expansion and early onset of illnesses, has experienced years of double-digit growth in insurance premium costs because of worsening employee health.

Kalra agrees, stating that in her opinion, the three most pressing challenges firms face are “balancing value with rising healthcare costs; managing expectations of different demographics; and catering to diverse employee groups with varied priorities to make sure employees are all well covered”.

Let’s talk about policies

Knowing about the challenges and priorities are good, but how much of this actually gets put into action? What are some of the more interesting policies out there, and which areas do they cover?

Apart from providing a variety of medical benefits, as we talk to HR professionals about some of the more recent employee healthcare and wellness policies they have in place, we found most companies have some sort of committee or club in charge of promoting wellness.

Lim reveals that at SCIEX, it has a recreation committee consisting of 20 volunteers from various business units, that sets up, develops and executes activities targeting the areas of general health, mental health, and wellness interventions, across the entire year.

Cargill has something similar called the workplace health committee to help plan health initiatives for staff across the organisation, with active representation from managers and employees.

“Some of the initiatives include creating groups to encourage an active lifestyle and healthy activities. They also arrange health talks, on-site health screenings and such. Employee families are very often encouraged to join these activities,” Kalra says.

Adding to that, Avery reveals the IBM club is for staff to “spend time doing non-work related things together like charity”.

“There are also a number of running events for them to get together and go running. People with similar interests can find others with that interest and come together.”

Additionally, IBM has something called wellness month, through which tips are provided on health, parenting and elder care to all Singapore employees, alongside on-site vaccination programmes.

With the rising costs of healthcare, initiatives such as wellness clubs or committees may partly be an effort to bring down the cost of traditional healthcare benefits, with prevention rather than the cure, being the focus.

According to SHRM’s 2015 Employee Benefits Survey, more companies are offering preventive health and wellness benefits.

Some perks include wellness resources and information (80%), general wellness programmes (70%), health and lifestyle coaching (46%) and preventive programmes specifically targeting employees with chronic health conditions.

Most HR experts we spoke to are on the bandwagon when it comes to preventive healthcare.

Lim says: “Prevention is definitely better than a cure, as the saying goes.

“Many of our physical activities and lunch workshops on mental wellbeing are devised to help prevent the onset of major illnesses, managing emotional health, and educating our employees on healthy living, eating and lifestyle.”

Kalra adds: “Initiatives such as on-site health-screenings, joint weight management programmes and such, are to help employees improve their health and wellbeing, as well as to take preventive measures rather than focus on a cure alone.”

While most such programmes cover more of the physical health aspects of wellness, it does not just stop there. Wellness is about the mind and the body and many of the HR experts we spoke to feel the same way.

With stress levels increasing globally, what are HR professionals doing to counteract this problem?

“Ultimately, clients want their employees to be physically and mentally healthy to ensure peak performance and productivity,” Koo says.

Kalra agrees, adding: “We have an employee assistance programme which includes an anonymous hotline for employees to reach out if they need help.

“At the same time, mental wellbeing/stress assessments are conducted and talks are arranged throughout the year to help our employees focus on a healthier lifestyle and gauge any issues which need attention.”

Avery says IBM has a similar approach.

“If someone is feeling stressed or anxious or showing signs of depression, we have a fairly robust employee assistance programme that allows them to talk to qualified professionals about what they’re going through and about the steps they should take in order to address that.”

This programme allows staff to seek assistance without approval from the company, meaning staff do not have to approach their bosses if they don’t feel comfortable doing so.

Avery adds: “Obviously if someone wants to share something with their manager, we take that very seriously. The manager gets engaged very quickly and talks about how we can help this person and how to address workload shifts and things like that.”

Lim reveals that to take care of its employees’ mental wellbeing, SCIEX’s recreation committee holds mental health lunchtime workshops with its employees.

“For example, in the past, we have had certified psychiatrists come in and talk about how to manage stress level, etc. In addition, the company often organises small-scale events for employees to socialise with one another.

The never-ending debate

The execution of healthcare policies brings us to the age-old debate of engaging vendors or managing this internally. To that, Kalra notes Cargill does a bit of both.

“We do engage vendors for certain healthcare programmes such as insurance, while continuing to provide certain benefits in-house such as outpatient medical.”

Similarly, Lim uses vendors and manages it internally.

“We engage and work with an external provider to develop and refresh a range of general health-related activities, sports contests, and mental wellness programmes yearly.”

Other things it works with vendors to carry out are contests related to promoting good health. The free health screenings the recreation committee brings in annually for employees are also managed by vendors.

“Internally, our committee members organise various sports events in which our employees can participate in, in a bid to promote an active and healthy lifestyle.”

So, what are the pros and cons?

Lim says: “An external vendor offers a wider professional perspective and a considerable network of healthcare professionals whom we can leverage on.”

Additionally, she notes: “Having a vendor who is working with other companies can help us to lower costs through economy of scale when engaging the professional trainers as well as determine if our healthcare programme is balanced and if it abides by the Health Promotion Board’s guidelines.”

However, when the need to change vendors arises, Lim observes, “there is quite a bit to transition and it takes a while for the new vendor to adapt to our culture and how we work”.

Another debate among HR professionals is the Millennials and if there really is a generation gap in their interpretation of health benefits.

“The Millennials, through social media and the internet age, want instant gratification,” Koo says.

While traditional insurance programmes provide adequate challenges, “fringe benefits are more valued than insurance: gym memberships, lifestyle perks, work-life balance, additional vacation leave, etc”.

Lim also observes a shift in wellbeing needs in her company as more young people join.

“For example, the young workforce has a more Westernised lifestyle and attitude, and they are big on work-life balance.”

She says the company’s approach has been modified to meet the needs of the Millennials.

An interesting approach used includes the addition of birthday leaves and two floater leaves per year for employees, above their annual leave, to meet their personal needs.

However, Avery believes the generations aren’t really that different in terms of the way they access information.

“For example in Singapore, when I take the bus to work and everyone in the bus, no matter what age they are, is on the phone.

“I think that the generations have a slightly different view of getting information in terms of what they trust, but I think that everyone is going to access it in exactly the same way.”

While making sure his employees have access to the knowledge to manage their wellness, Avery notices: “The questions and content to me is different, but the way in which they are going to access it and find it is going to be the same.”

What’s next?

Kalra feels the future of healthcare will focus more on joint ownership by employees of their healthcare and wellbeing in addition to wider coverage, and more choices offered, with increased cost-sharing to contain and control employer costs.

She also believes there will be more communication between organisations and employees, allowing them a better understanding of what their options are.

Avery’s vision of the future of employee healthcare is largely driven by technology.

“We are going to see more wearable technology being used, whether it’s through your phone or an actual wearable watch or device.”

Currently, individuals have some health information on their wearable devices which they can plug into the computer.

He feels the next phase will be to electronically share that information with doctors, allowing them to be able to identify trends based on one’s medical history.

He also talks of employees being able to see the doctor through FaceTime chats instead of going to a clinic.

“It would be like an office visit and they would be able to ask you questions and so you would have an interaction with a human. Then they could decide at the end whether they could take a course of action or you needed to come in for more tests,” he explains.

The future for employee healthcare looks promising, what with the current and planned policies HR experts have in mind. It will be interesting to track these trends and find out how they benefit both the waistline and bottom line.



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