It feels like we’re on the threshold of a momentous year with predictions abounding that despite – and even in part as a result of – economic uncertainty, employee health and wellbeing remains a top priority. Here, I’ve gathered a selection of relevant forecasts that caught my eye, from The Week, The Times, Employee Assistance Programme provider Health Assured and health insurance advisers Towergate Health & Protection.
Overall wellbeing is now almost as low as in the first pandemic year
Setting the scene, The Week reported in its first editorial of 2024 that overall wellbeing is now almost as low as in the first pandemic year. Office for National Statistics data shows 27% of women say they suffer from “high” levels of anxiety, up from 22% in 2016, as do 20% of men. It also suggests that increasingly, governments see improving national wellbeing as their concern but that restoring public confidence in an NHS that has waiting lists of 7.7 million could take years.
Millions more will claim disability benefits as mental illness soars
Meanwhile, The Times this weekend has reported that two million more people will be claiming disability benefits by the end of the decade as mental health problems help to increase spending by £17bn a year by 2030.
Commenting about the article on LinkedIn, Bertrand Stern-Gillet, CEO and Board Director of Health Assured and Executive Board Member of EAPA UK said:
“With the government looking at ways to bring people on long term sick leave back into the workplace, and HSE statistics showing that mental health is now the leading cause of workplace absence, it’s clear that much more needs to be done in terms of support and prevention.
Occupational health and EAP services can help alleviate some of the pressures the NHS is under, if employers use them. Health & safety professionals should take an holistic approach, considering all aspects of health when assessing risks – including risks to mental health. The importance of this cannot be understated.
Employers need to respond to employee challenges in 2024
Iain Laws, CEO of Towergate Health & Protection has set out his predictions for health and wellbeing programmes in 2024 too. He also outlines how employers can make the most of the support they offer their employees:
The economy is likely to remain a focus for many, Laws suggests, with inflation continuing to place pressure on businesses and households. 1.5 million homeowners are predicted to be affected by their mortgages coming to the end of their fixed rate deal in 2024.1 This will impact employee choices in areas such as pension contributions, and their contribution to company-paid benefits and voluntary benefits, as they seek to balance their household budget.
Towergate Health & Protection expect to see this reflected in changes in the employment markets, with employees becoming more risk averse and not seeking new employment. Nevertheless they state that employers wishing to attract the best talent will have to maintain competitive pay and benefits. They should also consider including financial coaching services in their support programme to help with the myriad of issues linked to financial wellbeing.
2. Physical health
When it comes to physical health, Laws predicts that we’re unlikely to see the government make changes to stimulate increased provision of cover for health and protection for consumers or businesses. Echoing the point made above in The Week, he explains that as the health service struggles to improve wait times and resources remain stretched, we will see ongoing prioritisation of life-threatening conditions.
Employee private medical insurance (PMI) demand will continue as reprioritisation of access to healthcare becomes established. Employers looking to balance costs will have to be careful not to make PMI unusable by setting excesses too high. Instead, forward-thinking employers will need to investigate other ways to manage costs, such as reducing the range of hospitals offered.
Reinforcing Stern-Gillet’s perspective, Laws believe that ‘prevention over claim’ will be a key focus. As premiums rise across core health and wellbeing and group risk benefits, there will be increased pressure on providers to take a joined-up view. The actions taken by an employer in implementing preventative care – such as lifestyle benefits and screening – will impact the premiums set. Building employees’ understanding of how they can support their own health will also be important. Genetics will start to play a role in preventative health and wellbeing as a new topic, and employers will have to begin to understand how this can be incorporated into their risk assessment offering.
Laws explains that issues related to specific demographics are going to continue to resonate – by age, gender and risk. It will be important for employers to have the right benefits to target the specific needs of their employees, thus focusing the benefits spend. However, care must be taken not to just add a patchwork of random wellbeing services that do not dovetail. This could result in overlapping and creating unnecessary costs with good intention but poor execution. Laws advocates that this is where good consulting advice will be vital in helping to build functioning wellbeing programmes, rather than a fragmented list of services.
5. Mental health
Reflecting points made earlier, Laws forecasts that mental health absence and illness rates are set to rise, while availability of qualified specialists and therapists may well struggle to keep track with demand. Burnout is likely to remain prevalent. The importance of early identification, intervention and support will be huge and increased employer support will be needed.
Laws explains that we’re also very likely to see social wellbeing grow in importance – as needing to belong, connect, give back, be appreciated and learn – all play a part in employees’ wellbeing. Businesses will need to consider how they achieve this reconnection and how a full health and wellbeing support programme can play a significant role, particularly in encouraging employees back to the office.
Finally, Laws suggests that employers would be well advised to focus on communication that will reach individuals in the right way. This will mean embracing technology platforms to reach all personality and learning types to provide insightful and appropriate communications about wellbeing support. However, employers need to look for genuinely useful user-interfaces and services rather than just adding an app to feel part of the digital revolution.
Iain Laws concludes: “All companies should have some sort of wellbeing and benefits spend allowance in their 2024 budget. Not doing so could be said to be assuming that 100% of their employees will be 100% fit for 100% of the year; it’s good business practice to have a plan in place if they’re not.”
You might also like: