Healthy Employees, Healthy Organizations

Mr. Axel Baur is a Senior Partner in McKinsey and Company’s Tokyo office.   Having worked in a number of different countries, and benchmarked a number of different companies, he brought a wealth of knowledge and a strong perspective to the Forum regarding employer support for employee health. In true consulting fashion, he crisply listed his agenda with a focus on three topics: Illustrate why companies should care, explain what levers are being pulled globally to support employee health, and outline some interesting and innovative approaches to managing employee health.

What’s interesting about the reasons Mr. Baur listed is that the talk did not focus on the rising healthcare costs, but rather, on how to keep employees, happy, healthy and productive.  But what is driving these changes? Mr. Baur stated that employers need to care about the health of their employees for five main reasons:

  • Demographic changes are occurring. People work longer years, and the workforce is aging.  Companies have a new question to answer: How do they keep people healthier and working longer?
  • The typical industries are shifting. People sit all day, and maintaining engagement and productivity requires more proactive physical and mental health efforts.
  • Digitalization of the work force is keeping employees always on, and  24/7 availability is creating new health issues.
  • Globalization is creating more peer pressure and more burnouts.
  • Business and society do not operate in silos. Employers are forced to engage in health management for the sheer purpose of keeping employees healthy, and keeping them coming to work.

One of the biggest costs that isn’t often acknowledged are the costs associated with presenteesim, or lost productivity associated with a health concern, and absenteeism.  The need to mitigate the effects of these two productivity detractors is facilitating the trend toward a focus on employee wellness. Companies are taking many types of initiatives and tailoring them to their work environments. Some levers that companies are pulling include: health promotion programs, fitness initiatives, innovative work time initiatives (part-time, flexible shifts), work / life balance initiatives, worker safety, ergonomics, diagnostics and treatment, and integrated management (multi-focus) initiatives.

Mr. Baur listed a few examples of well-done programs that were having positive effects including  Daimler’s Balance Plus program that supports mental health and wellness with training programs, Infosys’ future-focused program, and GE’s smoking cessation program.  One of the biggest take-aways for me was that in each of his examples, the objectives for the program were specifically tailored and targeted to various components of the workforce.  I believe this tailoring is critical – being a healthy under 30 individual– promoting screenings for health issues that will not be an issue for another 20 years doesn’t appeal to me.  However, incentives to manage my fitness or to manage my mental health, are a lot more relevant and would resonate. Similarly, for a program to be successful, I feel that the company must  first really identify the issue that needs to be addressed then the employee base that it is affecting, and finally align the incentives appropriately so that results could be measured and tracked.

Potentially the most poignant messages that Mr. Baur communicated were his five final take-aways: 1) There is a need for health management programs arising from the changes in working life and society. The work environments are vastly different than in previous generations, and the health concerns reflect these changes.  The traditional employer health management techniques are updated.  2) Healthcare costs are increasing; addressing presenteeism can help minimize these costs. Happy healthy employees are more productive and are likely to stay longer.  The benefits associated with retaining employees, and keeping them in the office translates to a company’s bottom line. And the final three points, in  my mind, all connect:  3) Company’s wellness initiatives achieve high ROI if they take the right measures; 4) No one-size-fits-all solution exists – employers must find the right setting; and 5) Employees must also acknowledge the efforts.  The wellness initiatives must be tailored to the correct populations, and must resonate with employees, to be successful initiatives.

By Maggie Misztal, Tuck School of Business, Dartmouth College

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