Future Strategy 2006 – Healtthcare

Stress is fast becoming a blight on our clean, bright 21st century lives, and advanced thinking is needed to tackle its onslaught, says Sam Barrett

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Looking after the wellbeing of employees is good for the health of a business but with new challenges looming, employers may find their healthcare packages require a thorough check-up.

The workforce of the future could face a very different set of health problems than those faced by today’s employees. Medical advances are such that cures may be found or vaccinations developed for some serious illnesses. For example, stem cell research could result in cures for a range of diseases including cancer and heart disease. But, while developments in science could improve the health of the nation, our fast-paced lifestyle is definitely having the opposite effect.

Stress has already emerged as one of the side-effects of our high-speed, high-tech lives. It is a huge problem for employers. Sophie Corlett, director of policy at mental health charity Mind, says: "With stress, not only does the individual suffer, but the cost to business is enormous. It’s estimated that 10% of the UK’s gross national product is lost annually to job-generated stress [as referred to in the book Work Psychology: Understanding Human Behaviour in the Workplace]. It is imperative that more employers recognise the problem and take action."

Mind is urging employers not only to recognise the problem but to also take steps to help reduce the stress levels of their staff. It recommends that employers adopt and implement formal policies on stress and mental health in the workplace. The charity is also asking employers to make a number of practical changes, such as introducing a flexible hours schemes, enabling staff to work from home, and proactively discouraging employees from working excessively long hours.

External support is also recommended. "Providing staff with access to counselling or stress management training, as well as openly demonstrating awareness and understanding of stress and mental health issues, will help employees deal with stress before it forces them to take time off work," advises Corlett.

Peter Bye, director of communications at the Association of Medical Insurance Intermediaries, believes more and more employers will turn to products such as employee assistance programmes and stress counselling to help tackle employees’ stress. "These do help tackle stress in the workplace but they also offer employers protection from stress claims," he explains.

Rising levels of obesity in the UK is another major health issue for employers. Obesity is linked to all manner of diseases including heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and osteoarthritis, and it’s also bad news for business.

The National Audit Office (NAO) estimates that 18% of the population was obese in 1998, and that this percentage could rise to more than 25% by 2010. It also estimates that obesity resulted in 18 million sick days in 1998, costing the economy around £2 billion.

While employers can’t police what employees eat, they can play a part in influencing lifestyle. This could include the provision of healthier canteens and exercise facilities and greater promotion of healthier forms of transport such as walking and cycling.

Employers are also faced with increases in the cost of medical insurance.

Medical inflation, which is one of the factors behind premium increases, is between 8% and 9% a year and with advances in treatment and drugs this shows no signs of abating.

But Philip Blackburn, senior economist at market research company Laing & Buisson, says: "Medical inflation isn’t so much of an issue for employers at the moment as this is such a competitive market the insurers are prepared to offer a good deal to get a company on its books." He adds that in the last few years premium increases have been just above inflation.

While the market remains so competitive, insurance premiums will be manageable. But in the longer term though, rising costs of care could put traditional medical insurance out of reach of many employers.

"Although premiums aren’t rising as quickly as in the individual market, there is pressure on insurers to offer more affordable options," says Blackburn. Insurers have responded by putting together more menu-based schemes that allow employers to pick the cover that suits their requirements and budget.

With products evolving, Bye believes medical insurance will ultimately lose its tag of being just a perk for the board and become an important tool for employers to reduce sickness absence. "We’ve seen this trend already with schemes that focus on securing fast treatment for employees who are unable to work as a result of their medical condition," he explains, pointing at schemes from Axa PPP Healthcare and Patient Choice.

Self-insuring is also set to increase. Laing & Buisson’s Blackburn says the trend towards medical expenses trusts will continue in the next few years, but warns that a scheme needs to cover at least 500 people to make it economical.

This rising cost of healthcare may also eventually lead to a shift in employment patterns; with Bye suggesting that employers faced with increased costs will be under increased pressure to recruit on a short-term or contract basis.

So the diagnosis for the future is not good. Employers may end up footing the bill not only for the cost of medical advances, but also employees’ unhealthy and frantic lifestyles.