Covid-19: Suspending health and wellbeing benefits puts employees and businesses at risk

Looking after the mental and physical wellbeing of employees has never been more important than during the Coronavirus pandemic. Healthcare facilities remain under intense pressure to meet increasing demand, and employees’ physical and mental health may be compromised during the strain of the current situation. So now, more than ever before, is a time where health and wellbeing must be prioritised and solutions made available, says Towergate Health & Protection.

Brett Hill, distribution director at Towergate Health & Protection says: “Under these extreme circumstances, staff of all ages are looking to employers to support them through this challenging time. Actions taken now will leave a lasting impression about how employees feel about the organisation in the future. It’s important that, wherever possible, employers maintain support – particularly when it comes to employee health and wellbeing.

“Whereas a general correlation could be drawn between different age groups and uptake of certain health and wellbeing benefits, all ages now have a heightened interest in health in the wake of the pandemic. As healthcare provisions risk becoming more stretched as a result of Coronavirus, many employees are actively monitoring how their organisations will support their wellbeing during this challenging phase.”

Continuity of healthcare provisions

Businesses should avoid leaving employees high and dry at a time when they need support the most. For instance, employees, and sometimes their families, that are undergoing treatment via their private medical insurance (PMI) prior to the pandemic may need ongoing treatment. Due to the confidentiality obligations owed by the insurer to the claimant, employers will not know which employees or family members are receiving treatment or the reasons why, so by cutting back on healthcare benefits they could unknowingly cut vital healthcare support at a time when it’s needed the most.

To abruptly stop healthcare benefits as a cost-cutting exercise can leave employees vulnerable.  They may have to personally fund treatment, at a time when they can least afford it, or try and continue treatment in an over-stretched NHS.

Innovative solutions

With temporary closures of wellbeing and treatment facilities, employees may worry about their health being compromised – such as physiotherapy sessions being suspended as a result of social distancing requirements. However, there are many innovative solutions that healthcare providers are putting in place, including consultations and support – such as help for musculoskeletal issues – via digital media. So, it’s vital that employers work with their advisers to ensure have a full understanding of any new ways that health and wellbeing support is being provided, even during unprecedented times.

Sweating benefits

It is also worthwhile businesses discussing with their advisers ways to adapt services, or introduce new benefits, to find out what’s available and suitable in the new climate. Organisations may be surprised to learn that there are added-value benefits within their existing schemes that they were unaware of, or yet to fully utilise.

For example, group risk protection schemes often come with employee assistance programmes (EAPs), allowing employees to confidentially discuss any concerns they have with a professional. PMI schemes may include access to mental health apps, helping employees navigate through a range of complex emotions during this extraordinary time. Speaking with benefits advisers can help unlock useful support for the health and wellbeing of the workforce.

Short-term fix vs long-term gain

Employers considering halting healthcare benefits not only potentially puts employees in a vulnerable position, but the company too. For instance, if PMI is cancelled and then reinstated, employees might have to be medically underwritten which can mean that recent health conditions will be excluded, not only putting the employee at a disadvantage but increasing absence costs for the employer because the conditions most likely to result in employees being absent through sickness will not be covered by the new policy.

Similarly, benefit levels for higher earners within group risk protection schemes may be affected if the scheme is cancelled with the intent of restarting it at a later date. When cover is continuous, any employees over the free cover limit that were medically underwritten at the outset don’t need to be underwritten again. Following a break in cover they will need to be, and if this is some years after the original policy started these employees will be older, may be less healthy, and may have their benefits curtailed or their premiums loaded. Suspending and reinstating benefits is not as straightforward as some employers may think.

Such health and wellbeing schemes play a crucial role in managing sickness absence and protecting the financial wellbeing of employees. They’re designed to help keep employees healthy and return to work more quickly should they fall ill. Without providing such support to a workforce, businesses are likely to experience an increase in absence, as diagnoses, treatment and rehabilitation will be slower.

Businesses that play the long game, maintaining support, will stand to benefit – not only will employees experience continuity in healthcare and cover and remain engaged with their employer, but organisations are at less risk from potential policy price hikes or increased sickness absence in the future. At a time when the pandemic is predicted to be more of a marathon than a sprint, it’s important that businesses maintain a steady pace – ensuring employees are protected throughout.

Hill concludes: “Research has shown time and again, just how valued health and wellbeing benefits are to employees. And during this pandemic, employees of all ages are watching their employer’s next move when it comes to supporting their health and wellbeing. Maintaining continuity of cover and speaking with advisers to see how benefits can be better utilised and adapted will help provide stability to employees when the rest of their lives can feel tumultuous.

“Whilst there may be a temptation to make sweeping cuts in the name of cost savings, the ripple effects it can have on employee engagement and retention – including reinstating health and wellbeing policies at a later date – can be more costly in the long run. Health and wellbeing should always be a priority and sending this message to employees now has never been more important.”