Group risk and corporate healthcare products and services have proved resilient in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, and intermediaries feel very positive about future market expansion because understanding of their value has soared as a result of the pandemic.
That was the view of a recent round table where advisers, consultants and providers discussed the findings of Corporate Adviser’s 2021 Workplace Wellbeing & Protection Report, and the market trends it has highlighted.
Consultants and product providers pointed to strong growth across several product lines as evidence of growing demand from employers for a range of health and wellbeing benefits.
The industry though has faced significant challenges over the past 18 months, not least in the PMI and cash plan sectors, where Covid lockdowns have seen a restriction of access to key benefits.
However those attending the roundtable were optimistic about the growth prospects of group risk policies and these healthcare products, particularly in the wake of ongoing pressures on the NHS.
WPA commercial director Mark Southern said: “Health and wellbeing has moved to centre stage — whether its Covid, mental health, or the challenges for working from home.
“It is the conversation that people are having on Zoom or down the pub. These issues are on the front page of newspapers and they have moved to the top of agenda for many HR teams.”
This has altered many employers’ attitudes towards providing health and wellbeing benefits, he said. “I think what we are seeing is a more paternalistic attitude from employers who increasingly want to provide benefits that employees value.”
Consultants certainly agreed that this more receptive attitude had become more prevalent as a result of Covid-19.
Corinthian Benefits director Lee French said: “Our experience has certainly reflected the findings of this report and we’ve seen huge demand for many products over the past 18 months.”
This experience was shared with others around the table. Towergate Health & Protection head of risk David Williams said: “Our focus is group risk and we have put on a lot of virgin new business over the last year. A lot more companiesare nowlooking to protect their staff in the wake of coronavirus.”
The Ink Group managing director Billy Johnson concurred. “We’ve had probably the biggest year of growth in terms of new group risk and healthcare schemes. We’ve had a record year in terms of bringing new schemes to market, but we’ve also seen our business with existing clients expanding as well, as they broaden and deepen the coverage they offer.”
When it comes to new business, or the expansion of existing schemes, the consultants attending the roundtable agreed that it was the ancillary benefits that had been driving this growth rather than the core insurance element.
Williams said: “The conversation with clients is being led by a discussion of these extra benefits — be it virtual GPs, EAPs, or mental health support apps.
“You are talking to clients about all these benefits that are available immediately for employees to use and also pointing out that when things go wrong they still have the underlying insurance benefit.”
But while the panel were optimistic as to how the industry had performed during Covid, they warn there is no place for complacency and there are still challenges ahead. One immediate challenge is to ensure the range of benefits provided continues to meet the changing needs of both employees and employers.
Covid has fundamentally altered the way people work, with a shift to homeworking and more flexible working patterns. This is expected to continue as Covid restrictions ease.
Redwood Employee Benefit Services managing director Jason Brice said: “We need to innovate and change what we do in order to continue to thrive in what might be a very new and different workplace environment.”
This sentiment was echoed by Southern, who pointed out that the benefits people valued 10, five or even two years ago may not be the ones valued today.
Johnson said that the various benefits offered under group risk and healthcare products can be vital tools for HR teams, who will be dealing with a more disparate workforce — with some people working from home, some in the office, and many toggling between the two.
French agreed, pointing out that that there may be the need for virtual management solutions to help HR teams address these challenges, particularly in relation to some of the mental health and MSK issues that can arise from prolonged periods of homeworking.
Johnson said: “Absenteeism and presenteeism are going to be a big issue for HR teams. How do you know people are working from home and not on the golf course? The flip side of this is, of course, how do you know people aren’t ill and need to take appropriate time to recover.
“I think the sector is brilliantly placed to try and deal with this issues, but probably not with the product set that we’ve had over the proceeding decades.”
He added: “HR teams, particularly those working for smaller employers, are looking for tools they can use. HR teams are increasingly engaged when it comes to issues of staff wellbeing and under pressure from their business to develop and run effective wellbeing strategies. We are in a position to help them through the various products we offer — many of which can help with issues such as staff engagement and education.”
Williams agreed that tacking issues of absenteeism and presenteeism become more complex when the workforce is split between office and home.
He said one key area for future development — for both providers and consultants — was ways to track the effectiveness of these various benefits, helping evidence ROI for clients.
Future growth he said, isn’t about any single product – it is about getting better insights across the board when it comes to a whole range of health and wellbeing services.
“The report shows that many in the industry believe that these products deliver a good return on investment for clients. But the phraseology is interesting. Typically advisers are saying they ‘expect’ or ‘believe’ or ‘think’ these benefits provide value for money. No-one actually say they ‘know’ they are delivering this.
“Whether we are looking at more innovative product development, or better technology-based solutions in future, it will need to have KPIs around it, or better management information so those in the profession can demonstrate to clients how they are doing the right thing, how productivity has been boosted or wellbeing improved.”
Southern responded to these points saying ROI remained a key issue going forward. However he pointed out that often the real return on investment in staff health and wellbeing happens over the longer term. “You can make a change today with a health scheme but you may not see impact, if you are looking at prevention measures, until three to five years down the line.
“You have to be committed at that point, when you are making these changes. But of course we are living in a world where there is the pressure to deliver more instant results.”
Looking across the sector as a whole Brice said there was also a need for better education about these benefits and how they can operate as part of a wider wellbeing strategy. “I think for this year and next there needs to be a focus on education and how employees use some of these benefits.
“Some of the feedback we get, for example, particularly on the mental health support and resilience tools is that employees are expecting a quick fix. In reality these are self-help tools and programmes.” It’s about making sure HR teams can properly explain to employees the different tools in their kit bag and how they work, and manage their expectations. If they are promoted properly and employees engage with them they can be very effective tools — but we need better education in the workplace about some of them.”
Williams agreed and said consultants had a key role to play in this, giving the HR team the tools they need to ensure they understand these benefit and howthey would work for members. “At a member level there is sometimes the expectation this these benefits will be some sort of magic wand or cure-all pill . Whereas the reality is that this is often longer-term support, that people need to engage with fully.”
Many noted the rapid take-up of digital benefits, such as remote GPs, which since the pandemic have become a standard feature of many of these products, and one of the most used and valued services.
Looking ahead delegates saw potential for further technological innovations.
Southern said: “Remote consultations with consultants have become the norm. While we will return to more face-to-face meetings, which are necessary to assess particular conditions, these remote consultations and digital services will just become part of the wider service offered and may be an effective way to triage or assess people initially.”
Those attending the roundtable were particularly enthused by tech solutions, for example with Medicash’s SkinVision app, which uses AI to assess whether moles or marks on the skin may be cancerous.
Johnson said: “This has the real potential to save lives. For employers it might look like another app that helps them meet their health and wellbeing targets.
Using technology like this has the potential to change the way these products are viewed by employers.”
Southern suggested that technology can also be used to deliver more tailored products to members. For example he said the benefit needs of the average 20-30 year old may differ widely to employees in their 50s and 60s. He said: “We should be able to recognise the people that are interacting with us through technology, know what stage of life they are at and what benefits might be appropriate for them.
“With technology this can work seamlessly to ensure people get the right benefit for their circumstances and are clearly guided through the options. This is something I’d love to see happen across our industry, so when members log on they get a tailored rather than generic service.”
Those at the roundtable agreed that this report shows the health and protection market is in a good position post pandemic, and is well placed to build on the rapid changes it has made in response to Covid, to continue to evolve and meet the changing needs of the workforce in the 21st Century.