Almost lost in the Brexit-related noise of this year was a government consultation with the potential to subtly shift the responsibility employers have for the health of their workforce.
In July, the Department of Work and Pensions and the Department of Health and Social Care, opened its consultation Health is Everyone’s Business: Proposals to Reduce Ill Health-related Job Losses. Looking at what more businesses, the government and occupational health could do to keep employees in work, our industry was conspicuous in its absence. We need to ask ourselves why the benefits of our products, particularly group income protection, are being overlooked.
In 2018 alone, at Unum we helped more than 7,000 employees through our rehabilitation services, supporting many of these workers to return to their jobs. Yet the importance and value of group income protection in helping businesses and their employees through sickness absence, with financial assistance and rehabilitation support, isn’t well enough recognised.
We carried out some research with the British Chambers of Commerce this year which confirmed the SME sector was particularly under-protected. Only 8 per cent of UK businesses surveyed offered income protection, 9 per cent offered critical illness insurance and 22 per cent offered life insurance. Almost a quarter said that they provide nothing at all in the form of financial protection benefits.
Yet we also know that not only can long- term sickness absence have a serious impact on individuals and their families, businesses also feel the strain. The majority of SMEs surveyed said that long-term sickness of six months or more of a key employee would have a significant, or even critical, impact on the future success of the business. More than half, 55 per cent, also said they would do everything they could to aid a member of staff back to work after a period of illness.
Knowledge and understanding of the benefits of our products is clearly an obstacle in the SME market and how we promote ourselves better is a perennial problem. SMEs represent a very large and untapped market with financial protection products underutilised, despite these employers valuing the wellbeing of their staff.
But the elephant in the room may be our perceived relevance and this is perhaps the bigger challenge for our industry. We need to really listen to, and understand, this market better to address the demand for simpler, and more tangible products and services.
As an industry, we’re getting better at meeting the needs of SMEs and advancing technology is helping. We launched our new Help@hand services this year as part of our GIP product to provide fast access to early clinical help. We believe these sorts of tangible benefit can be invaluable to employers and their employees.
uAlongside financial protection and rehabilitation support, employees and their families can get fast access to remote GPs, second medical opinions, physiotherapy and mental health services.
Technology innovations are disrupting all aspects of the insurance industry and group risk is no exception. New technology is changing the format and distribution of insurance and employee benefits, with the potential of improving the products and services we offer, particularly to SMEs.
As we reach the end of 2019 in a continued state of macro-economic certainty, the relevance of protection products is only heightened. The problem is that these products are often only made available to the more senior level employees, and often the workers that need them most can’t access them.
Bringing choice to all employees is an opportunity for us going forward, and digital developments will help us deliver this. Advisers consulting with employers can explore the role of voluntary, or part employee-funded, options to broaden the potential benefits on offer.
Good employers want to support employees when they are unwell as our research shows, and making our services more modern and helping them better understand how products like group income protection can help, is an important place to start.