Wellbeing events get staff on track for fitness

Wellbeing events can be an effective way to get staff interested in health issues, and for employers to promote existing perks, says Nicola Sullivan

Health and wellbeing events are often hailed as an effective way for an employer to launch a new healthcare initiative, promote existing benefits or boost the wellbeing of its workforce. Such events also offer great scope for creativity, and getting staff involved in a quirky or fun activity is a good way for an organisation to reinforce its values while establishing a caring culture.

Paul White, a principal at Aon Consulting, says: “Staff leading a healthy lifestyle is good for business, not only in terms of productivity, but also in the sense that people like to work for an organisation that does fun things in a healthy environment.”

Health and wellbeing events can take a variety of forms, and there seems no limit to what an employer can do, with options available to suit different tastes and budgets. These include Olympic-themed events, sports days and competitions, blood pressure and general health checks, walking challenges, and information days to raise awareness of specific illnesses, such as prostate cancer.

Quirky side of wellbeing

At the quirkier end of the scale, a health and wellbeing event might involve staff pedalling an exercise bike that operates a blender to create a smoothie. Employers could also draw on the support of their health cash plan provider. Often, cash plans offer employees money towards alternative therapies and treatments, including massage and yoga, lifestyle and fitness benefits, which can all be promoted during a fun and feel-good health and wellbeing event.

On a more serious note, an employer might stage an activity linked to a nationwide event, such as National Stress Awareness Day. This can be used to teach staff relaxation and coping techniques, and invite them to learn about treatments such as cognitive behavioural therapy.

Some organisations use such events to tackle specific problems affecting their workforce, such as backcare and musculoskeletal issues. In these instances, health and wellbeing events can be attended by relevant specialists, such as occupational health professionals, physiotherapists, chiropractors and other specialists. Some events may also include biometric testing, which examines blood pressure, cholesterol, height, body mass and waist-to-hip ratios.

Such provision may arise because of an employer’s management information, which has perhaps highlighted musculoskeletal or mental health problems as trigger points for staff absence. Alternatively, wellbeing events could be used to collate information about prevalent conditions affecting the workforce, which can then be used to shape future benefits provision.

Jay Harris, managing director of wellbeing event provider Workplace Healthcare, says: “Biometric testing can pick up early ailments that require further investigation and attention. People tend to march on, month after month, year after year, doing things that are hard on their bodies.”

How to make events high impact

However, before employers try to persuade their chief executive to have their hip-to-waist ratio measured or swap their Lamborghini for running shoes, they need to determine exactly what they want to achieve. This is particularly important in order to set the right tone and ensure that an event is high impact but does not alienate any members of staff. For example, one mistake organisations can make is preaching to the converted.

“Unless employers target health and wellbeing events correctly, the people that tend to take advantage of them are those that are already healthy,” says Aon’s White. “It is about engagement and making it attractive to the more unhealthy people. Employers are trying to improve the average state of health of the workforce, but making the healthy people healthier, while still a good thing to do, is not going to drive a return on investment for the employer.”

Instead, employers should take a targeted approach to health matters, making sure they are tackling the specific issues that affect their workforce. Ann Dougan, marketing director at Cigna, says: “If an employer does not think it through, it is all money down the drain. People are all busy and bombarded, from all sorts of different angles, by this world of information we live in.”

The right messaging and communication techniques are essential for organisations trying to raise awareness of serious health conditions. Iain Laws, commercial director at consultancy Enrich, says many people are impervious to hard-hitting headline messages, and scare tactics are not the most effective way of reaching employees.

“Being really hard-hitting and [issuing] bludgeoning messages is not always good,” he says. “Employers can get very powerful messages across about health and wellbeing in a compelling and captivating way. [For example,] every packet of cigarettes these days carries the message ‘smoking kills’, yet smoking is on the increase.

Serious heart problems

“Rather than asking staff ‘did you know 2.5 million people suffer from heart disease?’, employers could take a more positive stance and say ‘did you know that if you walk 10,000 steps a day, you can significantly reduce your chances of developing serious heart problems?'”

Employees might ignore scaremongering tactics, but benefits and compensation professionals are certainly not immune to the wrath of finance directors, especially during a recession. Workplace Healthcare’s Harris says that as employers become increasingly interested in return on investment, they are more reluctant to spend money on something that might be perceived as frivolous.

“A lot of it revolves around budget,” he says. “Quite a lot of organisations are looking to get as much as they can [for their money]. Employers want to spend it on things that are definitely going to get results, rather than something that seems a bit frivolous.

“They want to know what they are getting in return for their investment and that really is the holy grail with the whole subject of health and wellbeing at the moment.”

Squeeze value from providers

One good way of saving pennies is to squeeze all the value out of an organisation’s existing healthcare providers, which will often take an active role in helping to stage health and wellbeing events. For example, health cash plan and private medical insurance (PMI) providers often offer online guidance on how to set up an event. Cigna’s Dougan says: “We run health promotion events, particularly where we have absence and occupational health contracts. We will use our own or third-party nurses that we work with regularly.”

Providers will, typically, supply information for health and wellbeing events free of charge, and the cost of setting up activities is incorporated into their overall contract with the employer. “Where we are promoting benefits and services, that is just part of the administration charge,” says Dougan. Taking the opportunity to promote healthcare benefits to staff may also help to lower sickness absence levels further down the line by ensuring employees know where, and how, they can source treatment if needed.

Larger employers, however, are often more able to exploit their relationship with healthcare providers, with which they might have a long-term agreement worth millions of pounds. Enrich’s Laws says: “For larger organisations, it is easier to draw in and exercise leverage on current suppliers to get involved, whether they are attending, supplying materials, or providing speakers or expertise. For a smaller organisation, this is tougher to implement without cost. Equally, it can be harder to justify the expenditure for suppliers to attend. However, most providers these days would try to provide as much as they can free of charge.”

More cost-conscious employers often establish strong relationships with their closest primary care trusts (PCT). In some cases, PCTs will stump up the cash for employers running health and wellbeing initiatives that tie in with government targets around alcohol consumption or obesity.

So while the content of employers’ health and wellbeing events is likely to vary, the same basic principles of any benefits programme still apply in terms of staff engagement, business objectives and the all-important return on investment.

Case study: Chiswick Park

West London office park Chiswick Park has been recognised for its approach to health and wellbeing.

The philosophy at the business park – where the headquarters of organisations such as Discovery, Starbucks, Paramount and Foxtons are located – is that employees who maintain a healthy work-life balance and enjoy being at work will be more productive.

Health and wellbeing events are a key part of the park’s overall health and wellbeing strategy for the organisations located there. These include a weekly summer events programme, which enables staff to get involved in outdoor events, such as sheep shearing, geese herding and even camel riding.

Employees also have access to a full-time sports coach, who organises a range of games and activities for staff in their lunch hour and after work.

The park’s Enjoy-Work management team is responsible for delivering events as part of its overall effort to help employees achieve a healthy work-life balance, as well as assisting employers to attract talent and increase retention. Last June, the team’s work earned Chiswick a place in the Financial Times’ Top 50 Places to Work.

Kay Chaston, chief executive of Enjoy-Work, says: “The Chiswick Park Enjoy-Work management team actively creates a positive working environment for a wide variety of employers across a multitude of industry-leading companies across a range of sectors.”

Case study: Grimsby Institute of Further and Higher Education

The Grimsby Institute of Further and Higher Education has provided a raft of health and wellbeing benefits at very low cost by creating partnerships with a primary care trust.

The institute last year received about £4,500 from its local PCT to fund walking challenges, in which employees, donning pedometers, set out to cover 89 million steps in 10 weeks.

By linking up with the PCT, the institute was also able to offer male staff on-site health assessments. Although these are confidential and the institute will not receive full reports on any ailments, its close relationship with the PCT means it can be alerted to serious illness.

In recent years, the college has hosted a variety of events, including an Olympic-themed sports day, when staff were able to try their hand at discus throwing and tug-of-war. Following a high take-up of employee-paid osteoporosis checks last year, the institute decided to continue to raise awareness of problems associated with this condition, which affects mostly women.

It also holds an annual benefits fair in June. In that month in 2008, it provided information on men’s health issues, including prostate cancer, to coincide with National Men’s Health Week.

Peter Barnard, registrar at Grimsby Institute of Further and Higher Education, says: “When we get an idea, we stick with it, even when we get a bit of a knock-back, and build on it. If you always retain the same presentational format for a service, people tend to lose interest in it.”

Key factors to consider when setting up a health and wellbeing event

Health and wellbeing events can be guided by the employer’s management information on absence triggers, such as stress and musculoskeletal conditions.

Employees are likely to be blase about shock statistics and hardline messaging on health issues.

Healthcare providers can offer information on how to set up a health and wellbeing event free of charge. Typically, the cost of creating an event is incorporated into the overall contract they have with the employer.

Employers will not achieve the return on investment they are looking for if they do not target events to suit their employees.

Read more articles †on health and wellbeing