How to provide healthcare benefits for a diverse workforce

NHS waiting lists are hitting record lengths and long-term illnesses have put nearly 3 million Britons out of work. HR chiefs be warned: corporate health cover is becoming a necessity 

Black Stethoscope And Red Heart On A Blue Background

From teenage apprentices to septuagenarian CEOs, five generations are at work in the UK – and each has a different set of healthcare requirements. With more and more people looking to their employers for wellness support, HR teams must plan carefully to meet this wide range of needs.

Corporate health benefits have become a key recruitment and retention tool as NHS care becomes increasingly hard to access, says Rachel Suff, senior policy adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD). 

For instance, a recent survey of 4,300 UK and US adults by family health specialist Maven Clinic found that 57% of respondents had either taken or “might take a new job” because the employer offered “better reproductive and family benefits”.

There’s also a clear business case for maintaining a healthy workforce. Suff notes that more than 45% of UK workers aged under 60 have a long-term health condition, according to a CIPD analysis of data from the Office for National Statistics. Providing preventive health services to people from their 20s makes it less likely that their conditions will become chronic, enabling them to stay in employment for longer.

But a one-size-fits-all approach to health benefit provision is unlikely to offer great value to employees or yield much of a return on the investment. Firms need to gain a full understanding of their workers’ varied needs and then create schemes that reflect their generational diversity. 

Understanding the needs of an age-diverse workforce

An employer should start by understanding the full range of wellness requirements across its workforce, says Amy McKeown, a consultant who led the health programme that covers 13,000 EY employees across the UK and Ireland. 

She advises businesses to mine their data and establish who’s using occupational health services and employee assistance programmes (EAPs), for instance, and for what reasons. Once armed with this information, HR teams should run surveys and focus groups to give staff in all age groups a voice in determining their benefits. 

“There are different generational expectations in the workplace, from musculoskeletal to menopause,” McKeown says. “Companies cannot rely on standard big-box health insurance that covers everything but nothing.” 

She adds that wellbeing apps offering “five minutes of mindfulness” probably aren’t the best investment if employees don’t even have reliable access to a GP.

Employers should instead pick options that offer trackable clinical outcomes, with the aim of reducing sickness absences, says McKeown, who predicts that more and more firms will shift to such bespoke plans. 

Is health and wellbeing an employer’s responsibility?

Great Western Railway (GWR) provides in-house healthcare for 6,400 workers aged from their mid-teens to their mid-70s. Its team of doctors, nurses and technicians offer more than 500 appointments each month, including safety-critical check-ups for train drivers every three years to the age of 55 and annually thereafter. The company can also fund external treatment, if required, to expedite an employee’s return to work. 

Companies cannot rely on standard big-box health insurance that covers everything but nothing

As a result of this policy, days lost to long-term sickness absence stand at 2.9% of total days worked, compared with 4% immediately after the Covid crisis. Mental ill-health and musculoskeletal problems are the most common health concerns among workers. 

Ruth Busby, people and transformation director at GWR, believes that these benefits are strengthening its powers of recruitment and retention. 

“There’s a strong link between feeling well and comfortable at work and wanting to stay,” she says. “And, as a recruitment tool, it shows that we care as an employer.”

The company also has an EAP offering free counselling and a roster of 200 trained mental health first aiders. 

“We’re aware that suicide is the biggest killer of men under 50,” Busby says. “We have a male-dominated workforce – and the average age of an employee is 45.” 

The company also leads menopause-awareness initiatives, while its “wellbeing champions” regularly organise sports tournaments and walking challenges. 

“People question why this stuff is the employer’s responsibility,” Busby says. “It’s simple: if your wellbeing is valued, you’re going to be more engaged as an employee. When engagement improves, customer satisfaction improves. There is a clear business benefit.” 

Line managers play a key role in employee wellbeing

Engendering a culture of care has been a priority for Jamie Broadley, group head of health and wellbeing at Serco. There is a clear generational divide to be found in his firm’s data on sick leave: employees aged 40-plus have accounted for 80% of absences owing to physical health problems while under-40s have accounted for 80% of absences owing to mental ill-health. 

Broadley believes that a successful health benefits package must provide a range of options, but he stresses that Serco’s extensive healthcare menu is nothing without line managers who are trained to know what’s available.

“We all know the difference a line manager can make – it’s one of the biggest impacts on someone’s mental health,” he says. “If we can make each employee feel that someone cares about them, that’s the key to retention.”

Once the appropriate policies and benefits are in place, an employer should conduct regular check-ups to ensure their continued relevance, especially if it’s growing fast. Marketing firm MVF, for instance, has adjusted its offering as its workforce has expanded significantly and become more diverse since 2017. 

Seven years ago, the firm employed about 100 people, mostly in their mid-20s, so its priorities then were mental health and neurodiversity support. In 2019, it added parental care provision as more of these employees were thinking about starting families. Today, MVF has a workforce of nearly 600 and its list of benefits has extended once more to encompass an online GP service and support for people experiencing menopause and musculoskeletal problems.

The price of effective healthcare benefits

Although they can make the business case for providing a comprehensive range of wellness benefits, some HR chiefs are finding it hard to win support at board level for such offerings. As UK firms continue to struggle with the increased cost of doing business, boards are understandably anxious about committing the necessary investments and demanding clear evidence of the returns.

For its part, the Confederation of British Industry has advised the government on occupational health tax incentives to encourage employers to focus more on offering preventive care.

“A great start would be making EAPs a fully tax-free benefit – a smart intervention that can support many people, bolster our workforce and firm up the foundations for growth,” says the CBI’s director-general, Rain Newton-Smith. “We need to hold down the costs of doing business to allow firms to tackle the cost of living.”

If UK plc is to get off its sick bed and power the nation out of its recession, a prescription for generation-spanning corporate health provision is not just nice to have – it’s an economic essential.