Buck Bond Group
May you live in interesting times: How COVID-19 has changed the workplace health landscape

May you live in interesting times: How COVID-19 has changed the workplace health landscape

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COVID-19 has impacted almost every area of our lives over the last year and a half, and the ripples of that impact will be felt for years to come.

As has been the case in many periods of crisis or strife historically, the pandemic has engendered great efforts of innovation and creativity – from scientists who have produced the vaccine in an accelerated timescale, and businesses who have pivoted to remote working and online servicing, to health insurers and providers who have had to make a speedy shift to digital provision of healthcare.

Many of the changes that insurers have made to their private medical insurance (PMI) plans, such as the extension of the digital GP service to all members (usually at no initial premium loading), allowing remote specialist consultations, and the expansion of member-facing resources such as webinars and condition information, may well become permanent fixtures of PMI schemes in the future, as insurers continue to compete for business.

Direct access pathways (where members experiencing symptoms can go straight to the insurer to be triaged and directed appropriately, rather than having to go via a GP gatekeeper) are also gaining traction, and have seen significantly more usage over the last 18 months. Musculoskeletal conditions continue to be the most common pathway available, but mental health and cancer diagnostic pathways are also now becoming more frequently introduced.

Of course, while digital access to healthcare is fantastic in many ways, it doesn’t replace human interaction or face-to-face care. But it can ensure that access is improved and face-to-face time is focussed where it’s needed, and arguably could result in cost savings.

A shift towards prevention, rather than cure
The fact that people’s underlying health and wellbeing has been the main topic of news for the last 18 months has pushed health to the forefront of people’s minds, and has resultingly had an impact on what businesses – and scheme members – expect from their PMI scheme.

With comorbidities having such a significant impact on COVID patients’ outcomes, the shift we had already been seeing in the PMI market towards wellbeing and prevention of ill health, rather than simply paying to fix people when things go wrong, has likewise been accelerated.

Added-value offerings that engage employees in their own wellbeing and make it easier and cheaper for them to make healthy choices, are no longer a “nice to have” for many companies, but are instead viewed as a core part of the proposition.

Wellbeing and primary care elements of PMI cover allow all members to benefit from their membership, rather than just the circa 20% who would be expected to make a claim in a “normal” year.

And businesses are seeing the benefits of these wellbeing programmes and engaging more with their providers in order to take full advantage, including the use of their comprehensive employee engagement materials.

What about the uninsured?
In addition to the changes to core elements of PMI, the appetite for workplace health insurance has also developed. The market has been reasonably static for some years now, with relatively few “virgin” schemes coming to market. With the NHS straining under the pressure of the pandemic, and waiting lists well beyond targets in many areas, access to private treatment is more valued by employees than ever.

Employees accessing treatment more quickly and/or remotely is likely to result in reduced, or even no, absence from work, both improving productivity and reducing absence costs for the employer. Additionally, with the development of specialised treatment pathways and the ability to undertake virtual consultations, when promoted in the right way, this should allow employees to seek medical advice sooner rather than later, leading to less invasive treatment and better outcomes – so a win for both employer and employee.

Some industries are experiencing significant challenges in recruiting staff, as well as increased considerations around DE&I making employers re-think how they support and improve healthcare accessibility for all. This not only results in a greater need to provide a compelling offering to attract new talent, but is also driving re-assessment of benefits that have been traditionally offered as non-statutory benefits to only very senior level employees.

The above factors are contributing to what we are seeing as a marked shift in the market, as more businesses start to look for ways of providing health and wellbeing benefits to staff who they haven’t previously offered anything to.

Of course this doesn’t need to be a full PMI plan; low cost benefits such as employee assistance programmes, health cash plans, or even just giving employees access to online tools to help manage their wellbeing and health risks, can offer valuable benefits to keep staff healthy and give them access to speedy treatment or diagnosis when needed, while avoiding the costly elements of cover such as in-patient benefit or cover for serious conditions.

What now?
What’s clear is that the impacts of the pandemic have heightened employees’ thinking about what works for them, and has caused them to re-evaluate the benefits on offer and how these support their/their family’s overall wellbeing.

Historically, wellbeing and engagement (in which health plays a large part) has been predominantly the responsibility of the HR department. But organisations are now recognising that this should be an integral part of their business strategy, as poor health and wellbeing is not only impacting the company’s ability to meet their financial and productivity targets, but those companies that are fully engaged are likely to be more agile and creative.

The importance of having a structured and holistic approach to your employee benefits and health and wellbeing strategy cannot be understated. If you’ve simply been renewing insurance programmes year by year without stepping back and thinking “What is this benefit achieving?  Do staff value it? Is this the best use of the benefits budget? How does it fit in with our culture and overall business strategy?”, then you’re not going to be ahead of the curve in this changing and evolving market. In fact, you may even end up left behind.