26 Jul 2013
In today’s hypercompetitive environment, maximising employee productivity and reining in overhead costs are at the top of most corporate agendas. But an unhealthy workforce can undermine even the most successful business plan, according to David Healy, General Manager in Europe for Aetna International.
“Calculating the costs of poor employee health is about more than the cost of healthcare premiums or totalling the number of claims,” says Healy. “Companies need to factor in the indirect costs, such as health-related absenteeism, disability leaves, employee turnover, and the growing phenomenon of presenteeism – physically present but non-productive workers. All of these factors can have a significant negative effect on a company’s productivity.”
A study by Cornell University in the US estimated that companies’ on-the-job productivity losses from presenteeism are possibly as high as 60 percent of the total cost of worker illness – exceeding the costs of absenteeism and medical and disability benefits.
The cornerstone of Aetna’s work is to develop targeted wellness programmes for each company that are cost-effective, useful and culturally relevant.
Healy points to his company’s recent efforts for several multinational companies with operations in China. “With so few primary care physicians in China, people rarely have access to preventative care. We brought in both onsite and virtual health clinics so the employees could get check-ups, baseline diagnostic tests and healthy living coaching.
While programmes like these in the US and Europe may have an employee engagement rate of ten to 20 percent, in China we saw employee involvement rise to 95 percent of the workforce. In fact, the employees liked the programme so much they asked if they could pay for their family members to participate.”
Before developing a wellness strategy, Healy underscores the importance of having good data to understand the health risks of a company’s employee population and how willing employees might be to change their behaviours. “We offer confidential health questionnaires that ask employees about their personal and family health histories, their lifestyle risk factors and their openness to change. Combined with biometric testing and an analysis of past insurance claim data, we can gain insight into where the greatest health risks lie for a particular group and what kinds of programmes have the strongest likelihood of success.”
The health continuum
Just as no two labour forces pose the same health risks, so members of an employee population will land on different places of the health spectrum. For healthy employees, companies need to focus on keeping them healthy and lowering their risk of disease. Options include nutrition education, fitness challenges, smoking cessation programmes, stress reduction workshops and behavioural health counselling. For employees who are struggling with non-communicable, or chronic, diseases like diabetes or hypertension, more personalised interventions are often the best approach. Health coaching and hands-on disease management initiatives can help people better control their conditions and achieve their optimal health.
“So many of today’s chronic conditions are lifestyle related,” says Healy. “The good news is that many illnesses can be prevented or minimised with diet, physical exercise, stress reduction and other healthy behaviours.”
Ultimately, a company that views health and wellness as a core business strategy can reap high dividends on its investment. Healthier employees will use fewer costly health care services, miss fewer days and be more productive in their work.
Wellness programmes are also likely to pay off with higher rates of employee loyalty and retention. “Employees feel valued when their company cares about their health,” says Healy. “And in return they are more likely to be committed to their employer’s success.”