Wellbeing and health management have become hot topics recently. From a social responsibility perspective, of course companies should care about their employees’ wellbeing. But is this simply a good thing for society, or should companies take action for business reasons, such as reducing employee absenteeism and increasing employee engagement? If the latter, can we quantify the return on investment? We asked some Swiss Life Network Partners and clients for their input.

We began with Unum, the UK market leader for long- and short-term disability insurance, and the largest claims payer, other than the government, to absent employees. In the opinion of Andrew Potterton, Head of Proposition Development of Unum, absence is a key reason why employers need to pay attention to preserving and restoring their employees’ physical and mental health.

In the UK, there is a six-month waiting period between the start of absence and when benefits begin. Statistics show that once the six-month mark is reached, the chance of employees returning to work is slim. Replacing a contributing employee is costly, as absenteeism, re-hiring and re-training add up to roughly GBP 30,000 per case. So it is essential to find ways to get absent employees back to work as soon as possible, and prevent absence in the first place.


Intervention and prevention lower costs

Andrew Potterton describes several Unum programmes for corporate clients. For example, four weeks after absence starts, Unum’s vocational specialists become involved to ensure that the absent employee has someone to turn to who can help them gradually return to work. As Andrew Potterton explains: “Early intervention has a lot of advantages for employers in terms of premium reduction.”

Prevention is another key area. Andrew Potterton stresses the importance of management education here, especially for line managers. Unum’s analysis shows that far too many claims for sick leave involve an employer/employee relationship issue. The early signs of sickness are also frequently missed by line managers. Because of this, Unum has introduced free educational programmes for corporate clients with income protection policies, to increase managers’ awareness and get them engaged early on. Areas of focus include absence management, stress awareness, and helping employees return to work after cancer diagnoses.

Through these programmes, Unum has also discovered that if there is a strong employer/employee relationship and ongoing dialogue when employees have health issues, they are usually more resilient and try to return to work earlier. Thus from a cost perspective, employers benefit greatly from focusing on the wellbeing and health management of their employees.


Focus on implementation

Patrick McGinn, Head of Sales Americas of Aetna United States has had similar experiences, especially regarding strong employer/employee relationships and ongoing dialogue. Using its in-depth knowledge of health analytics, Aetna brings its experience and innovative wellbeing programmes to other parts of the world, but always with careful adjustments.

“Absenteeism management and back-to-work programmes lower healthcare costs and increase productivity in the long run. They are very valuable programmes. However, we must pay attention to implementation,” stresses Patrick McGinn. “Different parts of the world think and react differently. No matter how good a programme is, if cultural habits and local practices are not respected and taken into account in implementation, this will hinder its success.”


Employee engagement is vital

“Is there a clear return on investment on wellbeing programmes?” asks Bronwen Jones, VP Administration, at Time Warner. “I’m often asked this question, and I have to admit that it’s difficult to single out the impact of a wellbeing programme on health costs, as we’re also doing a lot of other things to reduce these. But we do see amazing results from the programmes.”

Time Warner found that 95% of its healthcare costs in the US were spent on fewer than 15% of the employee population. Clearly they needed a programme that focused on this 15%. Inspired by a CNN programme by Dr Sanjay Gupta featuring triathlon training, the company set up programmes to encourage employees to participate in wellbeing activities. In 2012, Time Warner provided 5,000 step counters for employees at a nominal price (USD 20 instead of USD 100). The goal was to encourage staff to increase their daily activity levels. The company also promoted a triathlon in Malibu California, which employees had to pay to enter, but had a trainer and training programme provided by the company.

In 2013 the same wellbeing programme was launched in the UK. Employees were sceptical at first, but slowly started signing up. Fifty triathlon spots were filled, all the participants trained for and completed the triathlon, and one was even selected to fly to California to participate in the Malibu triathlon.

This generated numerous conversations within the organisation. Employees even started communities for it. The positive experience spread, encouraging more people to participate in wellbeing activities. Within a year, the number of Time Warner employees using the step counter increased from 5,000 to 10,000. The HR department wanted to introduce it globally, but did not wish to impose it. Senior management was highly supportive, however. A UK managing director travelled to Australia to promote the activities. Whether due to the support of very senior people, or just the power of word of mouth, 100% of the employees took it up. Today, thanks to word of mouth, wellbeing activities take place in seven countries: Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, UK and the USA.

“The really positive thing here is employee engagement,” says Bronwen Jones. “It’s amazing. I couldn’t have imagined such strong involvement and sense of ‘competition’. For example, we have a walking contest in each country. The UK beat the USA the first year it was introduced, and Germany beat the UK this year. People talk about it on Facebook and other channels, they’re prepared to talk on camera without being asked, and the atmosphere is contagious. People do change. In the beginning, the employees who participated in this programme were usually fit already. But people who have never done anything like this have also started.”

A great example is an employee in London who lost 19 kilos by participating. This is exactly the type of employee that Time Warner wants to get involved. What’s more, employees feel that the company genuinely cares about them, and are proud to have Time Warner as an employer.

In Time Warner’s experience, although no figure is attached, there is an obvious increase in employee awareness, through word of mouth and watching the actions of colleagues, of the benefits of wellbeing and participating in such programmes. It is neither static, nor financial, nor mandated by the company. Instead, it is self-initiated, active, and influential, as employees build a Time Warner community with a “fit” culture.


Wellbeing programmes work

One thing is clear: when companies set up wellbeing programmes this should not only be because they are a good thing, but also because they support other strategies, such as productivity, employee engagement and retention. This is vital in order to make them sustainable and with the appropriate level of priority. A productive and engaged workforce is what every company wants. Wellbeing programmes are an important way to make this happen.