MANAGING HEALTH Fit to Compete – Health programmes pull good people

It may be sign of more egalitarian times in the corporate world that health programmes seldom just target the top end of organisational structures. In other words, you can’t really talk about ‘executive health’ in isolation – instead there’s stronger focus on across-the-board organisational health.
And at time when there’s increasing competition for skilled staff, organisations that want to earn ’employer-of-choice’ status are demonstrating more concern for employee welfare. How they do it ranges from providing comprehensive health insurance to funding employee attempts to kick the ciggie habit – adding carrot to the stick of pre-Christmas implementation of smokefree environments legislation.
What were once top-of-the-line offerings are increasingly fairly standard fare in larger organisations. Most now offer employee assistance programmes (EAP), including making counsellors available for staff who need support through difficult personal times, stress reduction training or practical health basics such as flu jabs.
It’s not just corporate benevolence at work. Tangible benefits accrue from helping people to stay fit and healthy. These can be measured fairly directly and add up to reduced absenteeism or increased productivity. But they also build staff loyalty and enhance the organisation’s ability to attract and retain good people, particularly motivated managers.
And the latter, according to Body Corporate director Karen Beard, is top of most business priority lists. “Retaining good people is without exception, the key issue for the companies we deal with,” says Beard. “If they haven’t offered value-added wellness programmes before, they are now finding that they are one point of difference they can have against competitors to whom they are losing key people.”

The insurance payout
There are no hard and fast figures on how many companies now offer staff health insurance schemes. But anecdotal evidence suggests they are growing in popularity, pushed both by tighter labour market and the individual executive’s expectations, particularly those arriving from other countries.
The benefits are spelled out in recent research carried out for Southern Cross Medical Care Society by TNS New Zealand. The study was designed to compare the experiences of workers on subsidised health schemes with those of uninsured workers who either already had an operation or were on waiting list and, perhaps unsurprisingly, found the latter group were more severely impacted.
Uninsured employees averaged 71 days absence from work compared to 14 days for the insured. They also waited 11 weeks longer for hospitalisation following GP referral, were more likely to experience high stress levels while waiting and were more likely to suffer adverse effects to workplace performance.
Then there is the loyalty factor. Nearly two thirds of the insured participants suggest that the benefit made them “more likely” to stick with their current employer, says Peter Tynan, head of corporate solutions at Southern Cross. “Employers are obviously picking up on this,” he says, “because recent statistics from Mercer Human Resource Consulting study also show that the percentage of staff and middle management receiving medical insurance as benefit has been steadily increasing since 2002.”
These days it’s less an optional extra than standard requirement, says Brent Snellex, national sales manager for group insurance specialist Unimed. “There is increasing demand for subsidised healthcare as an employee benefit,” he says. “It’s almost come full circle because that was the case some years back. number of companies opted out because of costs like fringe benefit tax. Now they’re back but consider it part of an integrated programme that includes preventative measures as well.”
Companies that previously offered only voluntary schemes – group discounts with employees paying their own premiums – now see subsidised schemes as an employee benefit.

An integrated approach
Merck Sharp and Dohme views top-line health insurance as standard part of its employee remuneration packages. It provides Southern Cross Ultracare coverage for its employees and their immediate families. “The company decided to provide top-level package so if anyone is unwell they can get access to good services quickly. People are not absent from work for so long and it helps ease the mental stress of paying for medical care – particularly for dependents,” says MSD’s human resources director Claire Hofer.
She sees the programme as part of an integrated approach to creating best workplace environment rather than as an add-on incentive. “Our belief is that you have to get all the building blocks in place – remuneration, performance management, training and development et cetera – before any additional activity has the right impact.”
Base salaries still have to be competitive, however. There’s balance that needs to be struck in terms of cash in hand plus workplace benefits, says Hofer. “The company is going to provide health insurance anyway because we know it’s not until you need it that you really value it – but we still try to be competitive in terms of cash.”
Hofer thinks that when employees have to use the insurance, it triggers loyalty factor which is one of the things that keeps people with the company.
MSD has introduced range of initiatives that contribute to employee welfare. “A key one is our alternative work arrangement policy that encourages employees to put their requirements for different work arrangements to the senior management team. We now have more than 20 percent of our staff working other than the standard eight-hour/five-day model,” adds Hofer.
The alternative arrangements include options such as condensed days, flexitime, part-time or distance working. One extreme is an employee living in Queenstown who spends two days week working there and the other three in the Auckland office. “The whole work/life approach is that we don’t reward long hours but reward people’s outputs and how they go about doing their job. Part of that is how they manage their time. So if someone is working long hours, we need to address that, not reward it,” says Hofer.
When people do have to put in long hours, the company finds way to recognise the input. During last year’s Vioxx withdrawal, for example, it brought masseur onto the site and arranged rostered massages for employees who were working overtime.
AMI is another workplace that is rated highly by its employees and has range of health initiatives that apply to all employees. “We don’t discriminate on the basis of some perceived hierarchy in the organisation,” says the company’s executive manager, human resources Barry Mitchell. “We take an across-the-board approach and are also getting more targeted in terms of people’s specific needs.”
Offerings include fully funded individual health assessments through Southern Cross Healthworks programmes. Participation is voluntary and any issues are followed up by that individual’s own doctor. “It gives us good measure of people’s health in the organisation, particularly those categories of people who could be at risk,” says Mitchell. “So we’ve done lot of work through the organisation to encourage people to take personal responsibility for their health futures,” says Mitchell.
Providing fully funded programmes to those wanting to kick the smoking habit is an example. There’s also support for company participation in local sporting events or challenges.
Health initiatives aren’t response to skills shortages. The company already boasts low staff turnover in those areas where it has the highest concentration of personnel such as its Christchurch head office. But internal surveys show that staff do value them, says Mitchell. “I don’t think we’re unique in what we offer. There’s combination of things we do under the whole umbrella of caring, assisting and delivering to the needs of employees – our wellness programmes are just part

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