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21 Jun 2024
by Jo Gallacher, Dawn Lewis, Anna Scott, Maggie Williams

10 things we learned at REBA’s Wellbeing Congress 2024

REBA’s Wellbeing Congress is always a highlight in the reward and benefits calendar, but this year’s event saw more delegates, exhibitors and speakers come together than ever before

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With over 80 exhibitors and an impressive line-up of more than 40 expert speakers, this year’s REBA Wellbeing Congress, held on 20 June 2024 in London, was an invaluable opportunity for reward and benefits directors to understand how wider societal, economic, environmental and technological shifts are impacting employee expectations and experiences of work. 

Here’s 10 things we learnt from yesterday’s jam-packed conference. 

The cost of living crisis is by no-means over

Despite good news this week on falling levels of inflation, Aviva’s managing director - workplace, Emma Douglas, highlighted findings from its upcoming Working Lives 2024 research showing a significant number of employees are still being impacted by the high cost of living. 

Across the financial wellbeing sessions, there was a drive towards creating a more tailored approach to financial wellbeing by offering flexibility and choice when it comes to support - be it financial education, guidance or advice - and benefits offerings, such as workplace savings schemes and pensions. 

Only by providing choice and flexibility can employers hope to engage all employees with their financial needs.

Speaking during Aviva’s fireside chat, Karen Hartmann, vice president – head of compensation and benefits EMEA at Moody's, alluded to the need to change the narrative around financial wellbeing. 

She said: “Pensions are not a focus for all employees. You can’t just tell them it’s a good thing, you have to help them visualise it.

“We focus on engagement…and how we can use different forums to raise awareness [around financial wellbeing].” 

Employers are still struggling with data

Speak to any delegate or exhibitor and the key issue is data. The need for better data, for better analysis and to understand how best to act upon it.

It’s a topic that has been repeatedly reflected in REBA’s Employee Wellbeing Research 2024

The findings show how wellbeing data use is changing to analyse broader HR and business impact, with 67% of employers planning to analyse future cost risks to the business linked to workforce health/wellbeing in the next two years, up from just 15% who currently do this.

Andreas Hunter, head of wellbeing at Gallagher, highlighted that most employers are struggling with their data. 

He said the majority are experiencing barriers to data collection, data analysis and the technology that supports reward and benefits programmes.

He sought to reassure employers that they weren’t alone in these challenges, but there is a more pragmatic approach to data analysis.

Delegates were reminded: “data is a tool to be used to achieve your objectives”.

Once you begin thinking about data in terms of achieving objectives the barriers can be overcome. 

Prevention is key to improving health outcomes 

To combat rising health and wellbeing benefit costs, prevention will be key, as will encouraging employees to look after their health. 

Kimberley Wilson, host of BBC Radio 4 podcast Made of Stronger Stuff, outlined the importance of looking after our minds by drinking water, and consuming food - containing iodine, and oily fish and leafy green vegetables - that supports brain health.

During her keynote speech, she said there was a tendency to wait for mental health problems to get so bad – a bout of depression or a panic attack – that someone feels unable to come into work, before we do anything about it.

She said: “Then we patch them up. But we don’t need to do that. There are things we can do each day to improve brain health, and employers can make that information available to employees.” 

Other elements of wellbeing, such as introducing health screening programmes, can help to mitigate any physical health issues on the horizon, while targeted financial wellbeing support is another example of how employers can improve mental health by reducing stress related to poor financial wellbeing.

Employers and insurers must work together more to reduce medical costs

Medical insurance claims have gone up by as much as 20%, while exposure levels – how many people have access to PMI – have not really changed, REBA Wellbeing Congress heard. 

There is a misalignment between how many people can access private healthcare and rising costs.

At a panel session on current trends and shifts in employee health and protection, Daniela Masters, director global health & wellness, Generali Employee Benefits, said that insurers and employee benefits professionals and networks need to come together to discuss solutions.

She said: “It’s not happening everywhere and clients are often disconnected because they have different goals.” 

Fellow panellist Dana Citron, head of global health and wellbeing at DHL Group, added that she is part of an insurance network which has helped the company build from the ground up. 

Jake Sanders, global wellbeing lead at Diageo, added: “It's important to get people around the table to talk about how employees approach healthcare and how they use it. Approaches can have vastly different costs but the same outcomes.”

UK companies have appetite for pay transparency

The EU Pay Transparency Directive does not apply to companies operating only in the UK, but there is a strong desire to implement the regulations anyway, delegates at REBA Wellbeing Congress heard.

Scott Cullen, partner in reward consulting at KMPG, said: “UK domestic companies are more interested in this than the European companies which have to do it.

“It’s really important for companies to have good governance in place and if they can make use of tech, even better. They will need to test their pay grading structures because any anomalies will become more visible.”

Amanda Moore, head of reward at OVO, said the energy company had introduced pay transparency.

She said: “It's like Marmite, people love it or hate it. It has led to some challenging conversations so education and governance are really important. Make sure you document why you make any changes to pay structures.” 

Employers need to identify and act on high functioning anxiety

Anxiety is the most commonly presenting mental health problem in the workplace, along with depressive conditions, said Shamira Graham, chief commercial officer, OneBright. 

But employers - and employees themselves - may not recognise the risks to their mental wellbeing. 

She said: “As employers, we want organised, productive people and we recruit for that.

“But then things happen at work. People continue to want to perform at the level they expect of themselves, but might not be able to for many reasons.

“They then worry that they are underperforming, or feel judged, which increases anxiety. Other demands from the rest of life pile in and we see even more anxiety. These are people who are highly worked - and also highly wired.” 

Wellbeing strategies should be organisation-specific and data-driven 

While there are many wellbeing trends from research and industry data that can help employers shape their benefits strategy, no two organisations will have exactly the same population, even in the same sector. 

Understanding the unique DNA of your workforce is an important part of designing an effective wellbeing strategy, said David Collington, head of benefit consulting, Barnett Waddingham. 

“Higher resilience leads to higher productivity,” said Collinson, but using workplace-specific data is fundamental to know how to achieve that result. 

Identifying company-specific issues and future health concerns can then become the starting point for a strategy that addresses genuine needs.

Creating that unique view could include data from benefits providers, employees and HR information that the organisation already holds. 

Employees need a personalised approach to wellbeing 

An average of 49.7 days of productive time are lost per employee per year, said Dr Katie Tryon, director of health strategy, Vitality, costing the UK economy £138bn per year.

Reducing that figure by improving employee health with preventative strategies needs a personalised approach, Tryon argued. 

With 81% of UK employees suffering from at least one lifestyle health risk, such as being physically inactive, eating an unhealthy diet or experiencing obesity, this is a priority.  

Nudges and incentives are important, Tryon said.

Finding the right incentives will depend on the workforce and what works for them, both in terms of the type of incentive and the frequency. 

She said: “It takes six to eight weeks on average to form a new habit…think about what will work for your population in terms of incentives.” 

Benefits and wellbeing software should be a gateway to the Employee Value Proposition 

Technology is helping to make wellbeing more coherent and accessible - with benefits software supporting workforce culture according to Guy Clarkson, digital growth leader, Mercer Marsh Benefits. 

He said:“Wellbeing needs to be holistic and in one space. Where I see clients using tech well is as a gateway to the employee value proposition …. flex and benefits can be seen as part of the wellbeing strategy.

“Benefits software can help to increase employee understanding of benefits, support anonymity when people ask for help and create seamless wellbeing pathways - but everything has to be in one place.” 

Confusion and uncertainty needs to be addressed to improve pensions adequacy 

Employees are confused about pensions, with little sense of ownership and uncertainty about whether they even have a pension at all. This is resulting in under-saving and unpreparedness for retirement. 

Creating ownership of pensions - such as using technology to help employees see all of their savings in one place - and introducing regular check-ups with employees to help them stay on track for retirement are among the actions that employers can take to help them. 

“People are confused and have so many pensions,” said Dave Harvey, master trust lead, Cushon.

He argued employers and employees need a model for value in pensions that creates ownership for employees, helps people engage, appreciate and value their pension, as well as supporting recruitment and retention. 

Crucially, employees need to save sufficiently to fund the lifestyle they want in retirement.

In a live poll, delegates at the REBA Wellbeing Congress said that bringing retirement goals to life, rather than focusing on product, would be the most effective way of encouraging people to take action on hitting retirement targets. 

Julia Hammerton, managing partner, Hymans Robertson Personal Wealth added: “When our financial planners and coaches speak to employees, there is often a lightbulb moment. “People think everything has been taken care of for them, and do not realise that auto-enrolment isn’t enough.”