How paternalistic should employers be around staff health and wellbeing?

Need to know:

  • A paternalistic approach to health and wellbeing does not have to be overbearing, but a shared responsibility, led by the employer to create an environment that supports staff participation in relevant initiatives.
  • Employers should use a wide selection of data sets to get a clear picture of workforce health to ensure any strategy has the correct focus.
  • Education is a key component of a paternalistic health and wellbeing approach because it equips employees with the know-how to improve their overall wellbeing safely.

Some employers are adopting a paternalistic or proactive stance when it comes to maintaining and improving their employees’ health and wellbeing. For example, luxury hotel The Stafford London is currently designing a long-term wellbeing approach that will be based on the lifestyle changes achieved during a 60-day healthy eating challenge that was conducted in February 2017.

Andy Magill, corporate wellness coach at Vitality, says: “Employers have a huge opportunity to guide employees with regards to what is healthy or how to help them make more positive choices.”

So how can employers strike the right balance with a paternal wellbeing offering to motivate improvements to employee health without appearing to be overbearing?

The changing nature of paternalism 

Cigna UK HealthCare Benefits’ 360 wellbeing survey, published in July 2017, found that 58% of UK adults believe a workplace wellbeing programme can help them achieve positive health outcomes. Beth Robotham, head of business development at Bupa, says: “A paternalistic approach sends a very clear signal to employees that as an employer, [the organisation] really [cares] about their health and wellbeing, and that’s a really important part of a successful strategy.”

However, the focus of what it means to be paternalistic has shifted, moving from a purely employer-led approach to a shared responsibility between the employer and employee, says Dr Wolfgang Seidl, partner, workplace health consulting leader, UK and Europe at Mercer Marsh Benefits. This type of approach sees employers offer a wide health and wellbeing programme that works alongside an organisational culture that encourages staff to take advantage of available initiatives, empowering employees to self-select appropriate interventions themselves. “Employers have moved on from being purely paternalistic to a point where they say it’s a shared responsibility, and most forward-thinking employers want to offer as much as they can but they then want to share the responsibility and empower the employees to participate,” says Seidl.

Strategies based on data insights 

Employee data is a useful tool that can be used to help inform an employer’s health and wellbeing strategy. A variety of data sets should be studied in order to get a clear, overall picture of workforce health to ensure that any healthcare strategy has the correct focus. Employers could analyse private medical insurance (PMI) claims, group income protection claims, absence data, employee assistance programme (EAP) data, occupational health data, and also health risk or screening assessment results if they are available. Data from staff surveys can also be used to inform an effective strategy. Data collected from fitness trackers worn by staff could also be utilised, however this would have to be on an aggregated and anonymised basis for data protection reasons.

Tim Bliss, strategic relationship manager, proactive health at Axa PPP Healthcare, says: “All of this data can be used to benchmark where [organisations] are today and help plan for where [employers] need to address specific issues and, over time, start to evidence positive health outcomes, which can be generated through encouraging employees to adopt healthier lifestyles.”

An educational foundation

One key cornerstone to a paternalistic health and wellbeing approach is education, whether this be in the form of seminars, webinars, online blogs and articles or workshops. Any education should be holistic to ensure the focus is not solely on exercise; subjects such as healthy nutrition and hydration should also be included.

In particular, education that takes place both before and during a specific health and wellbeing campaign is a useful way to proactively avoid any injuries that could occur as a result of an employer-led activity, such as a cycling challenge. This could be especially important for employees who are just starting on their wellbeing journey, and who may not have experience in exercise training or recovery.

To tackle this, employers could provide information around recommended activity guidelines, such as the NHS’s suggested minimum of 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity and strength exercises on two or more days a week. “The messaging encouraging employees to exercise more needs to be around proper guidelines,” says Bliss. “It’s not just telling people to get out and do it; it’s run to advise individuals of the right levels they need to achieve and it needs to be within certain guidelines so it’s safe.”

Engaging employees with their health

Employers looking to engage a sedentary workforce with health and wellbeing could utilise a smartphone app. This could be particularly useful for employee groups that are unable to access health and wellbeing measures during their working hours, such as bus or lorry drivers.

Apps are also a good way for employees to involve their family and friends in workplace-led activities at home, which could increase buy-in and participation. Robotham says: “I don’t think we’ve got a workplace health and a home health, so it’s really important that [employers] create tools and use data in a way that thinks about a modern workforce. [Employers] need something that will enable people to blend [health and wellbeing] into their actual lives.”

Recognition-based incentives can work to motivate employees to participate in a paternalistic health and wellbeing approach, such as recognising employees who are actively engaging with the programme by appointing them as wellbeing champions, adds Magill. They can then serve as role models to promote the initiatives further in the business.

Communicating for engagement 

The most effective way of communicating a paternalistic healthcare strategy is for employers to create their own recognisable health and wellbeing brand, says Rebecca Cox, co-founder of 9tolife and wellness director at Iris Worldwide. “It needs to be packaged up under a wellness brand, so that staff feel the [organisation] is covering every base,” she adds.

Health and wellbeing information can then be placed on a separate, central landing point, such as a website. This enables employees easy access to information that is distinct from an intranet or other corporate process, which can encourage participation. Seidl adds: “The better [employers] articulate that type of promotion, the higher the participation rate is.”

Communications delivered by senior business leaders are also key. “[Communication from senior leaders] sets the standard, but also represents that senior management are aware of the initiative and they’re buying into it, so that then immediately creates an environment whereby anything that [employees] do is positively received,” says Magill.

Other communication tools that can be used in a paternalistic approach include a demonstration of personal success stories, as well as corporate sponsorship of external events, such as obstacle courses or half marathons.

However, communications should not encourage competitiveness. “The messaging around it is more to get people to have a go than to be highly competitive because that can actually intimidate the specific individuals [who] need to be participating in more exercise and activity,” says Bliss.

The case for adopting a paternalistic view on employee health and wellbeing has its advantages; improvements in staff engagement, productivity, talent attraction and retention, are among the  common wins associated with this strategy, says Magill. Although paternalism is often associated with control, this type of approach to employee health can enable employees to have power over their own wellbeing journeys, facilitated by the employer. As Seidl says: “Paternalism is very ethical because it does help employees to flourish or to thrive.”