Healthcare research 2012: Sponsor’s comment: Benefits of health are clear

A co-ordinated approach is needed to get the best out of healthcare benefits, says Kirsty Jagielko, head of product management at Cigna HealthCare Benefits (UK HB)

There is no doubt that, as employers, we accept the business benefits of having a healthier workforce. It is great to hear that more employers are extending the provision of healthcare benefits to all staff. Traditionally, benefits such as medical and dental plans were available only to senior executives, but with the advent of flexible benefits arrangements, employers have increasingly been able to extend them to all.

But are we being forced by economics to make short-term decisions that will hamper our long-term goals? It is no surprise to read that cost is currently the number one influencer on decisions to buy healthcare benefits (88%). If employers made more benefits decisions based on the likely outcomes, could they save more money in the longer term? Short-term cost savings do not necessarily lead to long-term gains, and the results of the Employee Benefits/Cigna UK HB healthcare research 2012 support that.

It is encouraging to see reducing sickness absence as one of the top reasons for choosing benefits. However, despite its importance, only 65% of respondents have a strategy in place to reduce sickness absence. Even more of a concern is the fact that only 8% believe their healthcare benefits are successful in helping them get employees back to work as soon as possible.

Is this a matter of not having the right benefits in place, or is it more about getting benefits to work more effectively together to have a positive impact on employee health and productivity?

When asked about the major causes of absence, employers reported that, after the usual number one culprit of minor ailments, mental health and musculoskeletal issues were the top reasons. While an employee assistance programme (EAP), the number one choice for employers in this survey in terms of reducing absence, may help tackle some of the mental health issues, it will not address them all, or help with musculoskeletal problems. It is reassuring, however, to see that employers recognise that they have a duty of care to help employees build resilience and reduce stress. What is not so clear is a recognition of how closely linked mental resilience is to physical health, and how the two conditions often interplay. With eating healthily and keeping fit lower on the list of duty-of-care priorities, employers could be missing a trick in tackling the two leading causes of absence. Both can have a positive impact on mental health and musculoskeletal conditions.

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What can employers do to better achieve their healthcare benefit objectives? Taking a long, honest look at what they have in place is the ideal starting point. Often, healthcare benefit and service decisions involve different people across organisations. Only by bringing these people together and agreeing on a set of shared common objectives can employers truly begin to reap the rewards that healthcare benefits have to offer.

Read more Healthcare research 2012