Prime Minister Boris Johnson is leading the charge on the battle of the bulge. It’s a personal mission and the timing, in theory, couldn’t be better considering the link between obesity and increased Covid-19 acute risk.
But, as with all government campaigns, the initiatives are very top down – banning advertising unhealthy food before 9pm and buy-one-get-one-free offers on calorific food. As a nation, we don’t tend to respond well to being told what to do. The government’s approach is more about awareness than engagement. The latter requires behavioural change: nudges in the direction of healthy choices through not only education but also relevant, human and targeted messaging, plus easily accessible self-care tools.
There are clear parallels between the government’s top down initiatives and the traditional employer approach to employee wellbeing. The question is, how do you ‘do’ bottom up?
It’s always been a given that the act of buying an exercise bike won’t get you fit. It’s arguably only recently been understood that having a wellbeing and benefits programme in place won’t instantly make your employees healthy, happy and engaged. If you build it, but fail to communicate it well, they probably won’t come! The last couple of months have seen various HR research reports all concluding the same thing: the importance of engagong employees with benefits. Or, put simply, to communicate benefits in a way that makes them more relevant and relatable to individual lives and circumstances, and in turn, encouraging employees to use and value them, bringing proven benefits to business in terms of recruitment, retention and productivity.
The need for better employee engagement has always been there. But getting senior leaders to invest in the kind of strategic communication required has proven a battle too far for many a HR professional. Traditionally, therefore, the job of benefits communication has amounted to the protection and healthcare industries, in the absence of not knowing any better, handing HR generic posters, brochures and flyers to do with what they will.
HR dutifully upload this information to the company intranet. They might also distribute it to new recruits and perhaps around the time of the annual flex choices window. They may even communicate generic messages on national awareness days, telling their people about the importance of losing weight, stopping smoking, eating well, sleeping well…in much the same vein as many a government campaign.
It’s all really top down and incredibly hit and miss.
Why? Employer research from Health Shield into barriers to wellbeing reveals that once you remove cost from the equation, the top barrier is, by a big margin, time. This is followed by doubts that employees would use the services in place and, the perennial problem, proving ROI. All of which could be improved through better communication and metrics.
The shift to digitisation of wellbeing and benefit programmes will undoubtedly help. When designed and implemented with the end employee, effectively consumers of employers, in mind, they can provide the kind of relevant, accessible, flexible and inclusive programmes people are looking for.
Of course, this will only happen where they’re priced at a level that ensures their availability to whole workforces. And where barriers to self-care – in the shape of GP or HR referrals – are removed. Platforms should allow for personalisation of content and services, be available from any 24/7 device, and give the employer the data and insights they need to tailor comms and services.
That said, digital strategies are one part of a broader equation and will not replace the intrinsic value of human interaction. Smart organisations will have in place the ways and means to ensure an ongoing programme of employee insight- gathering, allowing this to inform a wider programme of employee engagement that is hardwired to overall wellbeing strategy and, by default, business results.
Smart providers and advisers will be adjusting their business models to support them in this regard. Top down may be the traditional default for governments, employers and the industry alike but in order to ensure a more long-term, sustainable approach to wellbeing – an approach that employers desperately need help with – bottom up represents the only way forward.