How can data and wearable technology improve corporate benefit management?

Photo Rajeshree Parekh / Director of Corporate Health and Wellness, Asia Pacific, Towers Watson / November 6th, 2015

Today, benefits are increasingly seen as an integral part of an Employee Value Proposition—a reward lever to help attract, retain and engage employees. However, Towers Watson, a U.S.-based consultancy, found in its 2015 Asia Pacific Benefit Trends survey that the costs of benefits, which already represent a significant percentage of total payroll costs, continue to rise. A report by Manulife Asset Management released in early June, focusing on the rising cost of healthcare in Asia between 2009 and 2014 also showed that cost of healthcare has historically risen most dramatically in Southeast Asia and China. In these countries and regions, a rapid economic growth has been accompanied by rising standards of living, expanding urban and middle class populations and increasing healthcare demand. Finding traditional cost-cutting methods are proving to be effective only up to a certain point, and rather than allowing cost pressures to force the scaling back of health programmes, employers are instead starting to consider concepts such as wellness and taking a holistic approach to increasing employee engagement and productivity without adding significantly to costs. In fact, this may lead to cost savings in the long run as the workforce becomes more productive. The path to this concept is a long one with several roadblocks standing in the way, such as inadequate data on the workforce’s health status, fragmented programs, and most important, lagging employee engagement. The first step is to provide thoughtful health and wellness programmes that genuinely connect with employees. Responding to this growing demand from employers, Towers Watson, in partnership with the U.K.-based Fitbug and Australia-based HealthLogix, launched HealthVantage—a health management solution that incorporates wearable devices and online applications to give an organization’s workforce a full health “refresh.” “Using technology effectively can present a big opportunity for employers to build a culture of wellness at their organization,” said Dr. Rajeshree Parekh, director of Corporate Health and Wellness, Asia Pacific at Towers Watson.

SJTU ParisTech Review – How can HealthVantage help employers control the cost of employee health benefits?

Rajeshree Parekh – It is not only about cost control. When we talk about health benefits for employees, the traditional way only focused on offering sickness benefits, which includes outpatient benefits, inpatient benefits and sometimes grave disease benefits. However, there is a huge misallocation of resources in the benefit strategies we have structured today, which only look at 5 to 10 percent of the workplace population. Instead, employers should pay much more attention to the large section of the population that seems healthy but has health risks.

Evidence has shown that simple behaviors like unhealthy eating, smoking, drinking alcohol, stress at work and bad interpersonal relationships all contribute to future or chronic sickness, and thus, have a huge impact on productivity and engagement. That’s the reason we suggest a wider and more holistic employee wellbeing management system—to make sure workers are looked after not only when they are sick.

We also found in our research that employers in Asia especially don’t approach new benefit solutions from a cost containment standpoint, but from a desire to attract talent, keep people engaged and avoid burnout. It is not always easy. Instead of giving those employers a complicated three-year roadmap and setting strategies and vision, we are trying to provide something fairly easy to get started.

How does it work exactly?

What we’ve done first is put together years of experience in health wellbeing consulting in this product. One important aspect is population diagnostics—to determine who is in what state of health and who is in what state of sickness. Thus, a health assessment program is included.

Then we have an online technology enabled device, including some amount of health education and awareness; lots of health content is easy to read. With a wearable device, employees can do self-monitoring to see their body data (such as blood pressure and heart rate) and track physical activity. It also allows you to input your diet information, monitor your sleep quality and so on. On the platform there are many engaging functions to attract people. The product can be connected to smart phones and tablets. All the components are put into one product.

Another key reason that the product is attractive to employers is the design of its backend. There has never been a singular platform that can provide an aggregate corporate dashboard. Before, employers were only able to get an independent report on employees’ sickness from health assessment vendors. You never knew if they had certain risks or were engaging in necessary exercise because there was no way to measure and collect this information. But now, with the real-time corporate dashboard integrated into the platform, all the data is available to the employers. They can see clearly how many people are overweight and want to have better fitness. By reading related content pushed to them through the platform, employees can know how to get in better shape. If women’s health is popular, more information around that will be put on the platform; we can even create campaigns especially for the women employees.

Qualified Self (QS) has indeed become a significant movement, thanks to the advancement in wearable technologies. However, most of the time the data is private and sometimes sensitive, with tracking and sharing done only voluntarily. When applied to corporate management, it seems quite possible to encounter resistance from employees.

Yes, when we talk to companies, this is also their concern. But we’ve never told companies that they should impose it on employees. People should be invited to participate, but registration is absolutely based on each individual’s choice. On the other hand, we’ve found that if we proactively address concerns about information regarding health problems being abused by the employer, it will effectively reduce people’s anxiety. This largely improves participation.

Specifically, we first always advise employers to use a third party vendor to manage the program and the identifiable information, rather than their own HR department. On the production level, we take multiple precautions. For example, we let people know about our data privacy policy before registering, as well as let them know how we use data. We also reassure them that all the data is unidentifiable during communication; employers can use the dashboard to see the health status of a specific group by region or department, but when the group size comes down to a certain level, the corporate dashboard ceases to work. It is very important to follow the compliance rules and standards in data protection in any local market.

How about people’s mental and emotional wellness? You mentioned that it has become a big concern in employee benefit management?

Yes, every two years we conduct a productivity survey. We ask employers to rate the top lifestyle risk factors that concern their employees. In our last survey (2013-2014), across the world, stress and mental health was the number one factor. Interestingly though, China was the exception. There, inactivity or lack of physical activity was the biggest concern, followed by stress in second place. Therefore, most employers have made tackling stress a strategic priority. The problem is, especially in Asia, mental health is still a private issue and not easy to discuss openly. People consider mental problems as craziness in some form or other. So to start with, you have to build smart communication to make people comfortable and show that it is normal to feel stressed when things become overwhelming.

After that, how do you manage the stress?

One way is to teach people stress management tactics and help them manage volatility and scheduling. When stress levels go up because a deadline is approaching, they should be able to speak out and seek help. The other aspect is to identify people with stress issues and provide them with mental resilience training or an employee assistance program (EAP) to help them bounce back from unpleasant mental states.

Organization structure and labor relations today also appear more and more volatile. How can benefit management cope with this?

The trend we’ve seen is central governance and local management. Companies want the visibility of different markets in terms of benefit costs and health risks as they diversify and globalize. But an initiative in the U.S. may not necessarily be applicable to Asia. So employers today are building global health and wellness benefit guidelines, and then adapting and rolling out the programs that are relevant to local markets. For example, an employee in Japan who suffers from stress may need a counselor with local language capability, cultural understanding and similar traditions. That means you should not find a global vendor with a one-size-fits-all approach.

We can see that information technology and data analysis tools are being used more and more in corporate human resource management—first in recruitment and compensation and now as employee benefits.  What’s your vision regarding this trend?

It is important to recognize that people are different in terms of their journey in health and wellbeing, and there is so much information out there in terms of understanding what wellbeing is. Every company should understand that there are different demographics, not just in terms of gender, age, and social or economic status, but also from a health and wellness standpoint. Some people are living with chronic disease, some may be at risk of getting one, while others may just need a better lifestyle to keep healthy.  So when you’re giving a benefit, it is important to make sure that it considers the employee’s life stage and lifestyle. It’s just like what many online retailers have done for their customers—I call it mass personalization. Your tools should be easy to use and avoid complication. This is where programmers, vendors and device manufacturers need to constantly innovate to keep up.

I think another trend is that everything should be made social and fun. If losing weight means denying your favorite food and crunching in the gym two hours a day, most people will not do it. So it needs to be incorporated into your lifestyle—fun and easy to stick to. You can even do it while at work by quickly checking your steps or heart beats on mobile devices. Social media is also making things fun, and it’s critical for employers who want to succeed in employee relation management.

Won’t that lead to distractions from work?

Honestly speaking, if wearable devices for health and wellness are distractions, then how about playing games and Facebook at work? I’d rather be distracted by something associated with my wellness than waste time on other things. The point is toengage people in something that could eventually be productive for themselves and the company.

Is there a risk of being over dependent on data? After all, wellbeing is more a concept related to humans and human feeling.

I agree. Physical health is something visible and tangible. It becomes sensitive when we start looking at emotional health, mental wellbeing and stress-related matters. However, one of the key things we need to know is that you can’t improve what you can’t measure. Until now, there has been a huge lack of data in the system. Companies have visions but don’t know where to start.

Converting basic data into insights and empowering companies to make good decisions can be valuable. The tricky thing is when you start using that information to go in wrong directions, and this is where using professional providers becomes critical.

Actually, the data collected by HealthVantage is not identifiable by employers. Only with explicit permission can we identify and reach out to people with high risks to provide advice and assistance. And that is done naturally from one professional entity to another, without the employer or the HR department involved. The health assessment data will go directly to a disease management vendor in the backend when permission is granted. We should always keep in mind that privacy must not be compromised.

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