Can employee benefits technology reduce sickness absence? 

Young woman working from laptop
Young woman working from laptop

Record numbers of employees are no longer working due to sickness, with 94% of the 11 million ‘fit notes’ issued in the UK last year used to sign people off work1. The threat to the economy is now so great that GPs may soon be stripped of their ability to sign people off.

The intention to focus on what employees could still be doing at work, instead of removing them from work altogether has been welcomed by some. However, the fundamental problem remains that record numbers of people are struggling with their physical and mental health.

Many employers grappling with this issue have continued to add more and more layers to their wellbeing offerings, only to see little or no return on their investment. For example, utilisation of mental health counselling via Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs) remains stubbornly low at 12%2, even though 20% of employees took time of work in the past year due to stress3.

In part, this is due to the ongoing stigma associated with seeking help for mental health issues, or related personal issues such as financial worries. However, it’s also because by throwing so many solutions at the problem of increasing ill-health, many employers’ benefits and wellbeing offerings have become muddled and confused.

Fortunately, at a time when the latest ONS figures4 show that nearly 10 million people are now waiting for NHS appointments or treatments, employee benefits technology is making it easier than ever for employees to access the healthcare support provided by their employer.

In the first instance, employee benefits technology is increasingly being used as a digital front door, to provide 24/7 access to all of the benefits an employer provides, via a single platform. This means employees can clearly see what’s available and how to make use of it, without having to trawl their intranet or ask their manager how to access support for potentially sensitive subjects.

Not only does this allow employees to easily access what they need, when they need it, the use of digital services, such as access to a virtual GP means employees can usually get a GP appointment within a few days, when this could otherwise take weeks to obtain.

Employee benefits technology can also automatically let employees know about benefits that might have become relevant to them following a significant life event. For example, maternity or paternity services following the birth of a new child, or emotional counselling following a divorce.

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As the use of generative AI also becomes increasingly prevalent, benefits technology is also set to play a vital role in signposting employees towards services that can prevent employees from becoming too sick to work. For example, by asking them ‘How are you?’ and signposting them to relevant services depending on their response. This means for example, if someone is starting to struggle with debt, they can be directed towards a financial wellbeing pathway. While someone with a mild MSK issue can be given access to advice on managing and improving their condition before it affects their ability to work.

Similarly, by providing insightful analytics on what services employees are using, employee benefits technology is helping employers to understand where there are overlaps between benefits or outdated and irrelevant offerings that could be replaced with better options. For example, solutions that improve the focus on under-represented groups or campaigns linked to key causes of illness to reduce the risk of employees becoming sick in the first place.

This focus on prevention will become particularly important, with many private medical insurance (PMI) premiums set to increase by 30-40% this year alone. In part this is due to rising medical inflation, driving up the cost of treatment, but also the increasing number of people utilising PMI due to NHS waiting lists and the increased likelihood of a private GP referring someone for onward investigation and treatment, compared to the NHS.

Despite rising costs, most employers remain committed to PMI, although some are now thinking about whether they can afford for employee dependents, partner or children to also be covered, as has typically been the case. An increasing number of employers are also taking a step back from offering a prescriptive list of wellbeing benefits, in favour of a reimbursement model that allows employees to pick and choose what works best for them.

Either way, employee benefits technology has a vital role to play in making it easier for employees to understand exactly what’s available, the scope of their cover, and the full value of their reward and renumeration package. Making sure employees know just how many hundreds or thousands of pounds is being invested in their wellbeing by their employer matters, because this will not only make them feel more valued and cared for, but more likely to utilise that support, once they understand its full value to them.

Employee benefits technology also has a valuable role to play when it comes to driving the behaviour change needed to mitigate health risks, such as the sedentary lifestyles driving up the risk of cancer, heart disease and stroke. Many health benefits providers, keen to avoid the rising cost of treating individuals have created a wealth of information and apps to encourage healthier living, which simply isn’t getting through to employees. By better signposting employees to this third-party content, via a single employee benefits platform or mobile app, employers can help to better educate and inspire employees to make healthier lifestyle choices.

In this sense, employee benefits technology not only has a valuable role to play when it comes to increasing access to healthcare, but also encouraging employees to utilise this at an earlier opportunity to help sustain good health and reduce the risk of long-term sickness.

Guy Clarkson
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