Need to know
- Employee data can help create a tailored, personalised approach that encourages engagement with wellbeing-boosting benefits.
- Employers should use health information to influence benefits strategy to ensure packages are fit for purpose.
- Data usage should be safe and well communicated, while also couched in real conversations and context in order to provide a full picture.
The modern world thrives on data, from social media algorithms to tracking consumer behaviours, and revolutionising the field of health, wellbeing and resilience. The early days of pedometers have evolved to smart devices fully equipped to track everything from sleep to heart health, mental wellbeing to diet.
With an ongoing push for employers to build resilient workforces, it makes sense to harness this rising tide of data in order to make benefits work.
A data-led message
Using data in order to help build healthy, resilient habits is not a new concept, but it might more often be thought of as the preserve of the individual. From tracking calories or steps, through to monitoring sleep and mood, seeing the numbers gives people a tangible framework through which to understand, and improve, their health and resilience.
The good news for employers is that, because these elements are such a normal part of life, they are relatively easy to transfer into the workplace, with numerous organisations offering their staff smart watches as part of their package, or implementing pedometer-tracked step challenges in order to shake off the stresses of a sedentary office lifestyle and build resilience.
On the mental health side, apps such as Headspace or Moodkit can help individuals track their mood and develop healthier habits through things like cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).
By offering access to these kinds of services to staff, an employer can nudge its employees towards more resilient, healthy practices, while data around an employee’s background and history also allows for tailored wellbeing benefits.
The evidence is clear that a generic message around healthy practices is far less likely to grab the attention of previously disengaged individuals, than a nudge that fits with their wants and needs.
Astrid Varalda, HR director for Europe at Gympass, says: “Trainiac by Gympass recently presented data which shows that when providing more bespoke, personalised apps and offerings, employee engagement increased.
“For instance, employees that had little to no prior engagement with their employee wellbeing packages, completed an average of 36 workouts in a 90-day period when matched with a personal trainer and workout plan that reflected their individual needs.
“The research highlighted that a personalised approach to corporate health and wellbeing directly impacts how engaged the employee is with the product and service.”
Influencing benefits provision
Employers should also consider how to use health information in order to influence reward and culture across the entire organisation; whether tracking the effectiveness of a specific benefit, to deciding what areas to focus on in the future, as well as ensuring that the needs of employees are being met in a real and tangible way.
“Most often or not, benefits packages are offered as a tick-box exercise and rarely meet the needs of the employee, subsequently resulting in low take-up and engagement,” says Varalda. “Alternatively, a personalised and data-led approach to wellbeing takes into consideration the subjective and relative needs of employees and responds to these in a holistic and well-thought-out benefits package.”
To this end, Healix Health Services, which uses data to provide bespoke healthcare plans to employers, looks at claims incidents and behaviour in order to help form future benefits strategy. For example, if an employer sees numerous staff being declined claims for a certain issue not covered by its policy, it might consider covering it, but more importantly, providing preventative support.
Keira Wallis, head of clinical services at Healix Health Services, says: “Employers can use that to create a more holistic strategy for employee health and wellbeing. And, ultimately, we hope that that’s also going to lead to fewer costly payments, making it a more sustainable offering to employers.”
There are some basic starting points for employers, such as collecting anonymised usage data from private medical insurance plans or sick leave trends, as well as take-up data on certain benefits, such as gym membership or wellbeing-focused lifestyle perks. However, there are others that might not seem so obvious, but are worth considering.
While employers might dismiss employees’ sleep as outside of their remit, it is important to remember that good sleep is key to day-to-day resilience, and can be heavily influenced by the working environment, and vice versa.
Mike Gradisar, head of sleep science at Sleep Cycle, says: “Sleep is made up of so many components: how long it takes to fall asleep, how much time we spend awake at night, how much sleep we get, and how refreshed we feel in the morning. All of these experiences can have different causes.”
Programmes such as Sleep Cycle, which analyses sleeping patterns and sets alarms to wake the user up during their lightest sleep phase, use data to help with resilience and productivity in the workplace.
“Once we improve sleep, then it’s also worth measuring other aspects of our lives to witness further improvements,” Gradisar explains. “For example, mood often improves after improved sleep. Even work productivity can rise up to 10% when sleep is improved. It really is the source for everything we do when we’re awake.”
From sleep, to mood, to sickness absence and insurance take-up, there are numerous starting points for employers to consider. However, ideally any effort to improve resilience should start with speaking to employees themselves, by gathering data through staff surveys.
Looking at what employees want has shown some interesting trends over recent years, showing a shift to a more holistic understanding of health, wellbeing and resilience, says Varalda.
“It’s more important than ever to have regular and real data that checks in with employees on their overall health and wellbeing throughout the year,” she explains. “This needs to look not only at whether they are healthy or not – it’s not just about whether they are getting up from their desk and taking lunch breaks – it’s about their overall life health.”
Indeed, Anna Freeman, founder and chief executive officer of money fitness app Zavfit, has made it her mission to marry the idea of physical and mental health with that of financial wellbeing. For Freeman, an employer that truly wants to create a resilient workforce has to understand that these things are deeply interrelated, particularly as the world moves further into a period of high living costs and inflationary pressures.
“One of the leading causes of mental health problems globally is worrying about money,” she explains. “So from day one, what we wanted to do was create a product where we would create evidence-based health outcomes. If I’m giving my product to someone, I know I can say, ‘this will reduce your stress, we’ve proven it scientifically,’ and how we do that is through behavioural change.”
For money habits to truly contribute to overall health and wellbeing, they should not focus on saving, but help staff use their money in a way that fosters positive wellbeing in both the short and long-term, ideally with a personalised approach.
“Saving is good, but for some reason spending has been given a bad name, and people have a lot of guilt around it,” Freeman adds. “We need a balance between the two. We need to spend on ourselves in order to look after ourselves sometimes.
“The way we use our money is no different to diet and exercise, in that we want to do the right thing, but we don’t always know what the right thing is for us. At Zavfit, we believe that everybody’s wellbeing is unique, and the way they want to use their money is also unique. So, our app will help understand their wellbeing and how they use their money, and it promotes using money in a way that is consciously thinking about health, so it gives purpose to spending.”
Similarly to mental wellbeing apps, employees should also be given the chance to monitor their ‘money moods’ and use data to truly examine how they feel about their spending. In a world where mindfulness is the word, this can help employees spend on what will boost their wellbeing, while saving on those things that do not.
Responsible, transparent, communicative
In any conversation about data, the subject arises of security. Employees might well hesitate when giving over personal information, particularly about health and mental wellbeing, to their employer.
Providers in this area are held to high standards in terms of General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), and take great pains to anonymise data, not just by removing employee information, but also by considering less obvious identifying markers or trends.
“That’s something that we work on very closely, because we’re very aware that with data comes responsibility,” Wallis explains.
To get employees comfortable, employers should focus on communication, explaining how and why the data will be collected, examined and used, with a clear commitment to anonymity. It is also important to give staff the option not to engage.
Finally, while the world of data-driven benefits is going from strength to strength, with employers able to drill down into the minutiae of everyday life in order to create the best culture for their staff, the fact remains that there is only so far that data can go.
This is something that is a central tenet for Healix, which aims to provide a clinically-grounded context for all the data and analysis it sends back to employers.
“The clinical team will provide insight and context, so that we’re able to have conversations with clients to ensure that the services they’re offering are really fit for purpose, and are there for the benefit of the employees,” she says. “With all the data we gather, it’s not just quantitative: the key thing is being able to contextualise it to make it meaningful and useful.”
As Varalda concludes: “Data is only numbers, wellbeing is subjective. [One] can’t accurately assess the human experience based on data alone. Numbers can help inform decision-making, which is great, but more importantly, employers and businesses need to have conversations and talk to their employees about what is and what isn’t working for them in the workplace and in their life.”