November 17, 2020
What were the lessons learnt from our responses to the pandemic and insights gleaned for businesses to provide more effective benefits and build a more robust ecosystem?
Joan Collar, Mercer Marsh Benefits Leader, Asia, reflects on the broad shifts she has observed in Asia in the benefits space and discusses an ideal post-pandemic future for businesses and their benefits ecosystems.
When the pandemic struck, many organizations were swift in their crisis mode preparation – ensuring benefits covered Covid, checking their travel policies and extensions, utilizing in house clinics where possible as part of first layer of protection and education, and obviously ensuring sufficient personal protection equipment (PPE) was made ready for their employees whilst deploying sufficient level of social distancing within their country standards.
Now that more organizations are in adaptation and recovery mode and as prolonged work from home situation endures, they are pivoting from these to a wider, more holistic view of caring for employees in response to the new needs of the new working arrangements. There is more focus on mental health and ergonomics to cope with working from home. Organizations started to rethink the traditional “benefits pyramid”, where higher-ranking employees received higher benefits, and realized the need to “flip the pyramid” because it was the employees who did not have as much ability and access to such benefits that need them the most. In short, a lot more organizations began the serious consideration of integrated wellness — a broader definition of health and wellness that includes the mental, financial and social aspects of an individual on top of their health.
This inflection point came as a bit of a pleasant surprise to a lot of us who had faced challenges in shifting this mindset pre-Covid-19, which leads one to wonder: when a vaccine is available or when it is safe to resume pre-pandemic business activities, will organizations revert to their former cost-obsessed mindsets on benefits?
I certainly hope not. The industry as a whole, need to continue this momentum and further engage on discussions on integrated wellness, because the pandemic revealed its necessity. But, integrated wellness requires long-term commitment, and sustaining this commitment is the key challenge for any organization.
The “old world” thinking on benefits typically revolve around coverages or reimbursement on medical expenses and a focus on remediating an employee after they have fallen ill or gotten injured. Shifting to the “new world” thinking on benefits typically begins through a process of realizing its need and relevance. For many, the pandemic had forced this realization. For example, telehealth was widely known to be a viable alternative to in-person consultations, but based on our MMB Health On Demand study, as of February 2020, telehealth had less than 20% adoption rate. Six months later, the rate was 70% due to pandemic restrictions and concerns.
Consultants have been articulating the value of integrated wellness long before the pandemic struck, and organizations understand the strengths of approaching health and wellness holistically. But as the telehealth example highlighted, drastic pressures are needed before actions are taken. It does not have to be this way; a mindset shift, especially among a leadership, can be this impetus.
This mindset shift begins by seeing employee health benefits as an investment rather than a cost. People are assets, and for many companies, people are the most valuable asset, and thus it makes sense to invest in their resilience against burnout, invest to support them leading better and healthier lives, preventing rather than reactively treating their illness, resulting in higher productivity and long-term reductions on medical claims.
The pandemic exposed and amplified how unprepared companies’ benefits plans were, even for matured organizations. It has revealed how traditional benefits were insufficient in the face of the new needs of the new normal. We as a collective — clients, brokers, health providers, insurers — need to pivot to create a new ecosystem that can address our actual needs, especially for companies implementing more sustained remote working arrangements. Even for companies thinking of resuming pre-pandemic business activities, mental health and preventative care remain relevant, on top of the need to prepare for the next pandemic. A mindset shift should occur when considering how we are still not fully addressing our current needs with traditional benefits.
In conclusion, it is important to note that integrating wellness into the way we work requires a shift on the ecosystem scale. As a business, your part in this shift is to align your mindset and start making the necessary long-term commitments. But don’t do it alone. Understand the ecosystem. Be prepared to enhance your collaboration with carriers and consultants, challenge them, hold them accountable to your commitments. Be prepared to pilot and make mistakes, be open to insurtech and healthtech.
The pandemic is a human crisis where everyone is facing similar levels of isolation, fatigue and stress. But our response has shown that we can rise to the challenge by employing creative solutions such as digital health technologies and working from home. The key now is to maintain this momentum to get an entire ecosystem aligned to the new normal.