What is the best diet for an eight-year-old? Palvi Gulati, Manager, Communication and Employee Engagement, American Express, with a daughter that age, did not know. She managed with scraps of information she found in newspaper articles, or the advice of people around her.
No longer. Exactly a year ago, American Express began a six month long healthcare programme for its employees, for which Gulati enrolled. Both she and her daughter attended the sessions where they learnt all about healthy diets and a healthy lifestyle. "Now my daughter knows what a healthy diet is, and every day she tells me what she wants to have," says Gulati. She worries far less about her daughter's health than before.American Express's initiative is just one example of the extra mile many employers are going to ensure their employees - and employees' families - stay healthy. Companies not only have in-house gymnasiums and ensure their staffers undergo regular health check-ups, some also provide maternity assistance programmes for pregnant women and new mothers, as well as arrange concierge services for elderly dependents of employees. "Healthy employees are the best performers," says Ashwani Dahiya, Vice President, International Health and Benefits, and Global Human Resources Analytics at American Express.
"Providing such benefits helps our business and talent strategy." Employers have realised that a healthy workforce reduces absenteeism and improves productivity. Providing health benefits also makes employees feel the company cares, and enhances its reputation, both within its own workforce and outside.
"The health benefits a company offers play a vital role in attracting and retaining talent," says Madhavi Lall, Regional Head, Human Resources, India and South Asia, Standard Chartered Bank.
But health insurance costs are also going up. The cost of an average company health insurance plan of Rs 3 lakh per year rose from Rs 6,800 per year per employee in 2008/09 to Rs 9,300 in 2010/11, says a comprehensive study by global insurance broking firm Marsh, conducted across 188 Indian organisations - employing a total of 549,000 people - between July and September this year.
There was one disquieting finding, however, of the Marsh study. Around 76 per cent of employees queried said they had little or no knowledge of the health benefits the company they worked for provided. While 70 per cent of companies questioned in the survey claimed the existing communication channels in their organisations to provide such information were 'clear and satisfactory', 62 per cent of employees quizzed said they were 'average' or even, 'inadequate'. "Employers should communicate more with employees. Companies needs to get better at employee engagement," says Sanjay Kedia, CEO, Marsh India.
The survey also found that many organisations, while providing health benefits, never take employees' views into consideration - a package, decided solely by human resource managers, is thrust upon the rest. But there are also companies like American Express, PepsiCo and Standard Chartered which actively use emails, the company intranet, discussions at company meets, posters and videos to communicate both the various benefit plans offered and the importance of choosing one. "At our company, employees have the opportunity to provide feedback. Their inputs are taken into consideration while designing health policies," says Kinjal Choudhary, Director, Compensation and Benefits, PepsiCo, India Region.
In an age of working couples and nuclear families, when few can take much time off to nurse the sick, keeping the family healthy becomes all the more important. "Initially, younger employees preferred hard cash to health benefits in their compensation packages," says Shalini Kamath, Managing Director, Corporate Communications and Human Resources, Ambit, a financial services firm. "But this has changed in the last five years. The young crowd too is realising the importance of such benefits, in the absence of a joint family support system."
Indeed, foregoing the group medical cover offered by a company in favour of a bigger pay packet, is an extremely shortsighted decision. "If an individual buys the same cover in the market, the premium will be three times as much," says Sandeep Nagpal, CEO, LaddersHR, a human resources consultancy firm. But he adds that the employee should ensure the cover includes critical illnesses and not just basic health.
The Marsh survey also showed that 72 per cent of employee respondents 'agreed' they had a responsibility to keep themselves healthy and help the employer control health benefit costs.