Companies more interested in workplace health

by 15 Apr 2008

THE NUMBER of employers who say they will get more directly involved in managing the individual health of their employees jumped 25 percentage points from last year, reflecting a trend to find more ways to save money in a tightening economy, according to US research.

But while companies believe they need to get more involved in keeping their workforce healthy, employees are less convinced.

The survey of more than 500 UScompanies revealed a fundamental shift in how they view healthcare. While cost is still a big concern, for the first time, keeping employees healthy was also named as one of their top business and workforce issues this year.

In fact, 88 per cent plan to make investments in longer-term solutions aimed at improving the health and productivity of their workforce over the next three to five years, up from 63 per cent last year.

According to the research, which was conducted by Hewitt Associates, employees see a direct link between health and financial wellbeing. Almost all (95 per cent) believe that taking care of their health today will have a direct impact on what they pay out-of-pocket for healthcare in the future. Similarly, 96 per cent agree that catching health problems at an early stage or preventing them before they happen can save them money.

However, while employees said they know healthy behaviours can save them money in the long run, many take actions that compromise their health outcomes. According to the research, 88 per cent claim they engage in healthy behaviours. But when asked about specific actions they take toward living a healthy lifestyle, less than one-half said they eat right or exercise regularly (47 per cent and 40 per cent respectively), and only four out of 10 (40 per cent) said they do a good job at asking for advice on how to stay healthy.

In addition, a number of employees admit that cost plays a role in influencing their health behaviours. Nearly one-third (30 per cent) said they did not go to the doctor when they were sick because of cost, and 27 per cent didn’t fill a prescription given by a doctor. Almost one in five (19 per cent) stopped taking medications before their prescription ran out, and of those, 18 per cent did so due to finances.

“While employees have good intentions, they aren’t taking action – whether it’s because of costs, lack of time, or because of the complexities in accessing and navigating a fragmented employer-provided health care system,” said Tim Stentiford, a principal in the communications practice at Hewitt Associates.

“To drive behaviours that deliver meaningful ROI to employers and families alike, companies need to stop ‘communicating’ and start motivating. People don’t like to be told what to do, and with a mind-numbing array of websites and brochures from their employer, they often just tune out.”

More than 85 per cent of companies say they invest or plan to invest significant resources in long-term health and productivity initiatives over the next three-to-five years. In addition, almost two-thirds (63 per cent) plan to offer incentives to motivate sustained health care behaviour change, and 67 per cent will utilise health care data and measurements to drive their organisation’s healthcare strategy.

But employees have mixed opinions on whether they support increased employer involvement in these areas. According to Hewitt, almost all (99 per cent) agree that it is important to know personal risks to take steps for prevention or treatment, and in general, are willing to share information on a confidential basis to learn more about them.

But while eight out of 10 people said they took a health-risk questionnaire when given the opportunity, many employers actually see significantly lower participation rates, even when they offer incentives. For those employees that claim they take a questionnaire, 40 per cent did not take any actions based on specific recommendations provided by the report.

While employees generally said they valued the information gleaned from questionnaires, many had mixed feelings about any associated incentives or penalties tied to these questionnaires. Hewitt’s research shows that only 36 per cent of employees believe that companies should require the completion of an HRQ for health care coverage.

“Encouraging participants to take action through incentives is a double-edged sword. On the one side, employees and their spouses and partners won’t want to participate in programs if there isn’t an incentive. On the other side, when they are offered incentives in exchange for their participation, many employees are likely to question the company’s intentions and how they plan to use their personal health information,” said Stentiford.


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