After more than 40 years working in employee benefits and pioneering wellbeing solutions, Mike Tyler isn’t ready to improve his own work/life balance by hanging up his spurs just yet.
Tyler is that rare breed of industry veteran and wellbeing guru, who has built a career in employee benefits, setting up the group risk team at Mercer in the late 1980s, before becoming its chief operating officer. He then moved on to become managing director of Buck Consultants, before becoming chairman of international benefits at Lockton Benefits.
But what he describes as his ‘unfinished business’ sees him now as co-founder and chairman of a new tech-driven wellbeing company, Fruitful Insights. The start-up is developing workplace health strategies to benefit both employers and employees. His unfinished business also refers to his ongoing doctoral research which, among other things, is looking to evaluate the effectiveness of different corporate wellbeing programmes.
His academic approach to the subject matter at the heart of his career also saw him complete a master’s programme in workplace health at Nottingham University between 2015 and 2017. “This was a really seminal moment as it allowed me to step back from four decades of experience and re-evaluate everything that was really going on in the sector.”
This gives Tyler a unique perspective on how health and wellbeing in the workplace has changed over time — and how it will continue to evolve in future.
Wellbeing is firmly part of the benefits furniture these days, but, says Tyler, a more preventative approach is arguably the biggest change he has seen: “If you go back 20 years or more, the focus was very much on the core benefits, be it a PMI or GIP scheme. These products were geared towards fixing things when there was a problem.
“The emphasis was around physical issues and explicit employee absence. For example if there were waiting lists for NHS treatment, employees could be treated and back to work sooner,” he says.
But as Tyler points out there were a number of flaws with this approach. The first glaring one was it largely ignored mental health. Tyler says there was also a tendency to simply treat the problem, without necessarily considering what the underlying causes might be.
For employers, insurance benefits were largely sold as a recruitment tool, often based on the fact that competitors in their sector offered similar healthcare or insurance options.
“It was seen as part of the checklist needed to attract and keep staff. But one bizarre consequence of this was that once these benefits were introduced, there was then often a focus internally on keeping costs down, be it through higher excesses or restrictions on cover to slow down claims. You have to ask yourself what the point of putting in place these benefits actually was, if the intention wasn’t to get the person back to work.”
21st century work
Tyler started to see a different approach emerging in the 2000s. “One of the main drivers was a culture of longer working hours, which started in the late 90s, particularly in the professional services sector. Working into the evening or weekend was somehow a badge of honour.
“As a result, around 15 to 20 years ago we started to see a significant increase in the number of individuals reporting a broad range of psychological problems — from burnout to breakdowns to depression. People might not always have been absent but they weren’t necessarily working to the best of their ability.”
Tyler says initially insurers and benefit providers took the same approach as they had to physical health issues: in other words, to try to fix the problem after it occurred. “We saw a lot of solutions offered like enhanced assistance programmes, or resilience training. But this wasn’t necessarily addressing the underlying reasons these problems developed in the first place, which could include the individual’s working environment.”
Tyler points to one of the leading experts on working health in the US, D Eddington, who says all too often the approach of organisations is to fix the defect but then put then put people back in the environment that created the defect. “If a component on a machine kept breaking down you would like at why this is happening. The same also applies to employees, who are arguably a company’s most important asset.”
Companies might be spending money on employee benefits — be it cash plans, GIP or added-value services — but they are not getting the maximum return on this investment if they aren’t at the same time looking at the wider corporate culture and how this might be contributing to these issues.
As he points out, without this wider oversight claims will continue, premiums could increase, and employers aren’t necessarily seeing significant improvement on metrics like employee absence, productivity and so on.
“In a recent webinar I attended I heard one HR professional comment that you can’t out-yoga a bad manager. I wholeheartedly agree with this.
“Offering employee wellbeing benefits like yoga classes and mindfulness apps alongside the core insurance benefits is beneficial. But this isn’t going to solve the problems of a poor working culture that is creating stress for employees. This has to be a central part of any wellbeing solution.”
Tyler says the picture is starting to change today, with more companies taking a more holistic approach to
wellbeing. “Rather than simply picking a product off the shelf and putting it in place to remedy a situation, there has been a shift to look at wellbeing within a wider context.
“There’s the realisation that an organisation can help an individual thrive and flourish and much of that has to do with the psychological wellbeing of that individual. Psychological wellbeing isn’t just how an individual feels today — but it is the context of their work and whether this gives them purpose. This opens up wider questions as to what their interpersonal relationships are like, at work and at home, and whether they have distractions elsewhere. Employee wellbeing starts to be a much more complex arena looking at a whole range of factors.”
However while companies are now starting to take a more holistic approach to wellbeing, this doesn’t mean that there aren’t still challenges to address.
Tyler says one particular problem has been the proliferation of different benefits and added value services, be it EAPs, virtual GPs, mindfulness apps and so on. In some cases corporations have duplicate services offered on different products, which can be confusing for employees and does not represent value for money for employers — particularly as Tyler says there is often no consistent evaluation of either these services or service providers.
“It’s a huge problem. There’s two issues, one is do they need these different services? Most have merit but the question is how merit worthy are they? The second challenge is how to choose between various solutions that are broadly in the same space, and know which is most effective.
“The vendor selection exercise can be extraordinarily difficult, and what often happens is you get a list, a bit like a Which? report, where there’s a tick box of the various attributes and a comparison price.” He says consultants or employers often pick the one that looks best value for money, in terms of services offered. But this might not really be meeting the organisations’ most pressing wellbeing needs.
“Too many organisation end up with what I call the ‘intervention de jour’. Some sexy new product comes along and everyone things they should have it. But the problem is that a year or so later, no one has gone through the exercise of monitoring whether this has been effective or not.”
Tyler says there are many examples of such services. “The one that’s caught everyone’s attention at the moment is mental health first aiders. There is no doubt that the broad principle of mental health first aid is valuable. But there’s this sort of tacit acceptance that it’s a good thing, therefore we should do it. But no-one is actually checking whether it is delivering the benefits that they had hoped for in terms of improving psychological wellbeing in the workplace.”
Tyler’s latest venture — Fruitful Insights — aims to fill in some of these gaps, particularly when it comes to measuring wellbeing, and its impact on the workforce. He hopes this analytic platform, which incorporates both employee and employer data – linking wellbeing to productivity and cost analysis, and takes into account data around staff absence, attrition and presenteesim – will help intermediaries take a more integrated view of wellbeing. Tyler describes it as taking an “inside out” look at the business from a wellbeing perspective. A recent partnership with L&G will see this investment platform offered to all GIP clients.
Employees are invited to complete a detailed survey which generates a personal report, with actionable recommendations to improve wellbeing. This data is then aggregated and anonymised to give the employer a report about the wellbeing of their organisations. Tyler says: “This is an extensive report covering around 38 separate areas. It will include the things like whether employees feel they have control over their work and support from their managers, how satisfied they are in their job, as well as obvious things like physical or psychological issues that may be affecting the wider workforce.
“From this the employer has an opportunity to start to make interventions in a more systematic way. We can work with employers to prioritise these. And we would encourage employers to repeat these surveys on a regular basis.”
Tyler says wellbeing in the workplace will continue to evolve. One area that is becoming more important is financial wellbeing, and this is likely to rise up the corporate agenda with the ongoing cost of living crisis. He says that the other area where he anticipates change is the incorporation of data from wearables.
“This is still in its infancy, and there’s a lot of hype around it at present. But the early evidence is promising.” He says there is the potential to monitor different data sets, be it exercise, sleep patterns, heart rate, blood pressure etc, and spot when there is a change in these patterns, which could be an early sign of physical or psychological issues. Appropriate support or intervention could then be offered. “With machine learning we may be able to analyse these patterns and interpret changes. But this is still some way off yet.”
He points out that there are likely to be hurdles towards to overcome, not least when it comes to self-selection, with healthier, happier employees more likely to use ‘wearables’ and share this data with employers.
Moving to the here and now Tyler says he would like to see government action to raise the issue of wellbeing in the workplace.
“One of the key recommendations by Dame Carol Black in her 2008 Working for a Healthier Tomorrow report was that firms should include details on the wellbeing of their organisations alongside their annual financial results.
“While this was well received by government at the time, with a follow up report in 2012, these recommendations for improving workplace wellbeing have not been actioned yet.”
Tyler says he would like legislation on this, to compel employers to look at these issues. “One of the major opportunities to improve health across the UK is through the workplace. Employers have a significant and influential effect, not just on their own employees, but on their families too. If you can modify behaviour there is an opportunity to try to reduce demand on NHS services, for example. It’s not just a benefit for employers and their employees, but for society too.”