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When looking at factors which have a track record of being strong attraction and retention tools, rarely does “healthcare benefits” make the list.

According to Michael Page’s 2013/14 Employee Intentions Report for Singapore, the top five things job seekers are looking for in their next role are an increase in salary (22%), career progression (20%), more seniority or a promotion (13%), a company with better branding or market reputation (12%) and learning and development opportunities (12%).

When it comes to what will retain top talent, the top five factors were financial reward based on performance (25%), additional career development or support (18%), a motivating manager (17%), company culture (15%) and workplace flexibility (11%).

But the absence of employee healthcare from the top five most powerful attraction and retention motivators hasn’t stopped companies from realising the true value of taking care of the organisation’s most important asset – its people.

By providing healthcare offerings to staff, the company puts itself in an enviable position where it can provide benefits that will eventually be seen by employees as a “must have” rather than a “nice to have”.

Doris Ooi, vice-president of human resources reward for global markets at Unilever, says by taking care of the employees’ well-being, it “in turn leads to increased productivity and improved performance for both the individual (on a personal and professional level) and Unilever as a business”.

“It is a benefit which strengthens the employer proposition given that employees feel reassured they are looked after and encouraged to focus on their recovery rather than worry about their medical concerns,” she says.

However, the act of simply providing healthcare benefits is not enough.

Juliana Ong, director of human resources at Royal Plaza on Scotts, says it is important for employees to have a “sense of connection” to the healthcare programmes and messages offered by the organisation.

What employees really want

Therein lies another problem of providing effective healthcare packages; by design, healthcare benefits are very personal and unique to the employees, which means organisations have the added challenge of trying to provide for the different needs of each employee group.

Ong says making sure employees are a strategic part of the decision-making process also helps organisations “eliminate unnecessary hours and cost of implementing a policy or benefit that are of little importance to associates”.

“Organisations need to communicate from the associates’ perspectives in order to establish the emotional connection. Engagement also occurs when associates are given a chance to provide input,” she says.

“Associates are more likely to pick up and relate to messages that they have made a contribution to. It gives the associates a sense of belonging and ownership when they are part of the decision-making process because they know they are making a difference in their workplace.”

Ooi adds another challenge is ensuring the company provides a cost-effective plan, while still giving the right level of care based on the employees’ profiles.

In 2009, Unilever Singapore launched its Lamplighter programme to raise employee awareness on their current health status and provide them with “necessary resources to improve their health and well-being”.

When designing the programme, Ooi says Unilever took into consideration a number of key factors – the workforce demographic pattern, employee expectations, programme accessibility, availability of resources, current health issues facing the staff , and what the intended end-goal was.

“Employees are appreciative that we recognise the different needs they have in providing them access to the appropriate medical support they need,” Ooi says.

Ong says realising early on there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution to healthcare is important.

“Recognising them as individuals will allow the organisation to engage them better. One way is to implement different activities for different groups of associates who share common concerns and interests.”

The importance of truly understanding the organisation’s healthcare needs is something that is not lost on Jodie Choo, group HR head at Far East Organisation.

Health and wellness – and this is a philosophy shared by my CEO – is not something we do for branding. We feel we have an obligation and responsibility to promote it.

Choo was highly involved in the restructuring of Far East Organisation’s healthcare offerings when she joined the company in 2011.

“Every organisation will be different, so you absolutely need to know your organisation and employees,” she says. “With the previous healthcare scheme, while it worked fine and no one was complaining, we found the utilisation rates to be low.”

Choo and her team probed further and discovered employees preferred their own family doctors over those prescribed by the organisation, and therefore were not fully utilising their healthcare provisions.

“In a sense, it may appear that we were incurring low cost and that we should be happy about it, but we weren’t because we’ve set aside something we want our employees to benefit from, but they were not benefiting from it, and were even paying out of their own pockets,” Choo says.

While she and her team put a lot of effort into redesigning the company’s healthcare offerings, Choo is quick to point out the organisation did not do so with the intentions of increasing engagement, retention or even attraction levels.

“If I may be very candid about why we did this, it was never about attracting and retaining employees. Health and wellness – and this is a philosophy shared by my CEO – is not something we do for branding. We feel we have an obligation and responsibility to promote it.”

Caring from the top down

Senior management buy-in is another critical part in crafting a successful healthcare programme.

“Engagement with the leadership team to get buy-in, socialising the programme with employees – these impact the level of success when healthcare changes are introduced,” Ooi says.

Ong agrees, adding senior management showing its support through leading by example is “crucial to bring about culture change in the organisation”.

“They need to embrace the idea, and model healthier choices and changes, to walk the talk in the organisation,” Ong says. “Making this a clear direction and a project that involves the entire organisation helps to cascade the message more quickly and effectively with support and participation.”

Proper communication of the available benefits will also increase awareness, understanding and appreciation.

“Social media plays an important role to provide health information for associates. These communication tools can help to create awareness and encourage associates to embrace a healthier lifestyle,” Ong adds.

Something else HR should also consider when rolling out a healthcare scheme is to make sure the offerings are fairly distributed across the entire organisation.

“We do not have special healthcare benefits based on work seniority, as all our employees receive the same standard and accessibility to healthcare benefits,” Ooi says.

That generosity is also extended to employees’ family members.

“Across Asia, caring for one’s family is embedded in our culture. Employees feel more engaged in a company that not only looks after their health, but also that of their loved ones.”

Both Far East Organisation and Royal Plaza on Scotts also offer medical coverage for employees’ dependents.

“By including their family members, the associates would have a peace of mind at work, knowing their family has been taken care of,” Ong says.

Cashing in on health

When all is said and done, there is no escaping the need to find the right balance between the level of care for employees and what the company can afford.

But many organisations recognise investing in their workforce’s health is something that cannot be scrimped on and can provide long term benefits to the company’s bottom line.

“The strategies put in place now will impact the long-term health of the organisation,” Ong says.

“With the decrease in the occurrences and severity of medical conditions among the associates, organisations will be able to keep healthcare costs in check and improve the performance of the business.”

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