Bringing order to the chaos: how to successfully integrate flex and wellbeing strategies

Chaos is defined as the property of a complex system whose behaviour is so unpredictable as to appear random, owing to great sensitivity to small changes in conditions. If this doesn’t sum up the human disposition, or more precisely, what we are trying to overcome and manage when it comes to our wellbeing, then I don’t know what does.

Bringing order to the chaos: how to successfully integrate flex and wellbeing strategies

By comparison, flexible benefits have set rules and options, set enrolment opportunities, set outcomes. By design, they are ordered and the antithesis of the chaotic world of wellbeing.

The problem with rationalising the approach to flexible benefits and wellbeing

Wellbeing is inherently complex – there are few absolutes, little black and white in an ocean of grey, and thousands of inputs (external pressures and stressors) that lead to a myriad of outcomes. Outcomes so different, each person’s wellbeing could fairly be described as entirely unique to them.

On top of the complexity, workplace wellbeing is in its infancy by comparison to well-established flexible benefits strategies. Whilst this is the case, employers can find it difficult to know where to start in defining their approach to wellbeing, beyond the familiar products, such as health screening and gym memberships.

To add one final element to the problem, the pandemic and events of the last 12 months have elevated wellbeing up the agenda, created new pressures and stressors, and increased expectation among employees that employers will act upon it. This all adds to the chaos and means we need to re-shape approaches to wellbeing.

What we can learn from flexible benefits

If we look at the lessons of flexible benefits, it is largely the concept of order I mention above that drives better engagement. As companies have increased flexibility and added new products, so it has become increasingly important to categorise benefits to bring clarity to the employee needs they are designed to support.

Grouping benefits into finance, protection, health and lifestyle help validate their purpose and fit within a given benefits programme. In addition, this approach helps communicate to employees the value of the benefit, making it easier for employees to sift through the increasing range of choice to the things that matter to them most.

When looking at wellbeing, clearly categorising the problems employers are trying to solve – financial, mental, physical and social – is key to reducing complexity and creating a framework with which to execute plans. Perhaps the real challenge is whether those groupings should be the same for flex and wellbeing – in an ideal world they would, but some benefits don’t easily fit into the wellbeing buckets. A challenge for another day.

In addition, flex has adopted technology to bring order to the desire to offer more. In doing so, the processes for 15-20 very different benefits have been assimilated into the same process, usually all in one place. When benefits have gotten increasingly complex, like car schemes, so technology has adapted to maintain that order.

This is key to the wellbeing journey as well. Whether or not there is one technology that can solve for all four of the pillars of wellbeing, technology is the key to drive engagement and manage the process of acting upon wellbeing needs. Otherwise, maintaining habits and behaviours doesn’t happen – the basis of nudge theory.

The final thing that flex has achieved is providing a clear framework for funding benefits, shared between the employer and employee. Whether it’s a pot, core benefits to be topped-up from pay or a combination of the two, flex gives benefits the best possible vehicle to facilitate transactions and spend money when it’s needed.

What we can learn from wellbeing

Wellbeing today is often disjointed at best, meaning that the place one goes to assess needs and determine a course of action is rarely the place used to engage the product or service to meet that need. Which means, more often than not, it goes unsatisfied. Wellbeing needs funding, as it needs technology, to facilitate action. The challenge is that with such diversity of needs to address, a mandated list of products and services, funded from pay isn’t the answer. Wellbeing needs a funding model that is ad hoc, such as an allowance or expense system.

So, if flex is all about order – categorisation of needs, adoption of technology and clear funding mechanisms – and this should become how wellbeing is organised, then what should flex learn from wellbeing?

Wellbeing is about understanding one’s state, what influences it and what can be done to improve it. As a result, it is much more nuanced and varied than flex. Assessment tools, more often than not, clinically-backed (or professionally, for financial wellbeing), are the key to delivering a meaningful and actionable diagnosis to the employee. The complexity is embraced rather than supressed or dumbed down, when it’s done properly.

Flex could learn from this and perhaps should rely upon it – rather than seeing flex communications as the marketing products and services to be consumed by individuals, it should be the first stage of a wellbeing strategy as the more sophisticated method for helping the employee identify their needs, some of which will be serviced within flex. To put it simply, flex communications should be about education, not promotion.

Combining flex and wellbeing

And so to the premise of the article. Wellbeing has a lot to learn from flex in terms of design and execution. But then, flex has things to learn from wellbeing too. The real learning, however, is that flex and wellbeing should combine to be part of one single strategy – enhancing the wellbeing of the individual through products, services, communications, tools and technologies delivered in a way that makes the chaotic simple.

The author is Matthew Gregson, head of corporate at Howden Employee Benefits & Wellbeing.

This article is provided by Howden Employee Benefits & Wellbeing.

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