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Are wellness programmes a healthy option for Kenyan SMEs?

November 12, 2017

Corporate wellness programmes are on the rise.

Designed to encourage sensible lifestyle choices and help employees tackle existing health issues, many business leaders use them to keep their workforce healthy and medical insurance costs low.

According to the Global Wellness Institute, 76% of workers worldwide are struggling with their wellbeing, but just 9% have access to workplace wellness services. And in sub-Saharan Africa, this figure falls to just 1%.

So how relevant are wellness services to small and medium-sized businesses in Kenya?

The latest thinking suggests even SMEs can greatly benefit from improving their company culture. But it can be a delicate issue that needs careful handling. Let’s take a look at how to get it right and make a positive difference to your business and employees. 

The latest thinking suggests even SMEs can greatly benefit from improving their company culture.

Kenya focus – understanding the wellness picture in our region

Let’s begin by looking at the overall health culture.

Non-communicable diseases (NCDs), such as cardiovascular disease, lung disease, diabetes and cancer, are the leading cause of death across the globe. Sub-Saharan Africa is currently an exception to the rule, but many NCDs are becoming more common in Kenya – they now account for 27% of all deaths.

Worryingly, the four habits associated with NCDs – tobacco use, excessive drinking, inactivity, and unhealthy eating – are on the rise among young Kenyans in particular.

In 2015, the Agency for Co-operation and Research in Development (ACORD) organised a round table conference on the role of the private sector in workplace wellness in Kenya. Speaking at the conference, Dr Joseph Kibachio, head of the Ministry of Health’s Division of Non-Communicable Diseases, said, “There are very few programmes currently in place for NCDs yet they are the most threatening diseases in Africa today.”

The government now has a strategy in place for the prevention and control of NCDs, which aims to reduce the preventable burden of these conditions in Kenya. But there is a significant role that companies can play as well.

How can businesses help Kenya become healthier?

As an employer, you’re in the perfect position to guide your workers towards a fitter future.

There are now a number of specialist providers of corporate wellness services. Some insurance companies provide health awareness talks for their clients, while many insurance advisors can help you develop and implement wellness strategies.

In March 2018, the Fourth International Annual Corporate Wellness Conference & Trade Fair will be held in Nairobi. With a focus on creating a sustainable culture of health and wellness, speakers will address several issues, including the need to look beyond the physical and consider employees’ emotional, mental, financial and social health needs. This could be a good chance to pick up ideas to try in your workplace.

Types of workplace wellness

Wellness services most commonly offered in Africa tend to focus on disease detection and health education. Progressive employers in the region are more likely to offer advanced health assessment programmes, wellness interventions and coaching.

A seminal study by RAND found disease management was the aspect of wellness programmes most likely to generate savings. However, there was a greater impact on reducing health costs if participants also received support with lifestyle management.

A seminal study by RAND found disease management was the aspect of wellness programmes most likely to generate savings.

Can wellness programmes have a negative impact?

Implementing an effective workplace wellness scheme often means more than just offering your employees help with health screening, managing chronic conditions and leading a healthier lifestyle. In fact, if you don’t pitch it right, you could actually make things worse.

Professor André Spicer from Cass Business School, London, argues that increased emphasis on wellness can have a negative impact on individuals, making them feel guilty or anxious. Employees can suspect ulterior motives, or that they’re under constant surveillance. They can even have their morale lowered if their company uses methods that seem coercive or punitive.

Clearly, the path to wellness is a fine line.

Which may help to account for the low uptake of workplace wellness services in the USA. A study carried out by the Global Wellness Institute in collaboration with Everyday Health found that while nearly half of all workers surveyed in the US had access to a workplace wellness programme, less than one third actually took part. What’s more, 56% said they thought their employer offered wellness support in an attempt to control health costs. In fact, only 27% believed they offered it because they actually care about the wellbeing of their staff.

But despite these concerns, interest in workplace wellness is growing across the world. And there’s plenty of scope for development.

The future of workplace wellness

Experts are predicting some surprising innovations in the wellness sphere. For example, business trend-spotters Fast Company predict schemes will increasingly include:

  • Help overcoming financial challenges
  • Support with care for children and elderly relatives
  • Encouragement to take more time off

Some of these might seem like an odd investment for a business. But if they help improve employees’ work-life balance and reduce their levels of stress, they can lead to real health benefits.

Less surprisingly, experts also predict data will be collected about individual employees in order to customise wellness packages to their needs.

Caring for your employees

By encouraging staff to take a proactive approach to their wellbeing, you can help halt the progression of NCDs. But as we’ve seen, this needs to be done with care. It’s crucial to empower your workers, not alienate them.

A good way to start is by finding out what people would actually appreciate – perhaps by running a simple survey to gather input. And then consider the impact certain measures or programmes could have on your team’s work-life balance. For example, offering meditation or exercise classes before or after work would eat into their valuable personal time. But offering them during working hours is much more likely to be perceived as a caring gesture.

And when you care, your employees take notice. The Global Wellness Institute and Everyday Health study found that companies which are seen as caring by their employees were more likely to provide opportunities to socialise and to encourage staff to take time out for themselves. They were also more likely to let people work from home, offer on-site recreation opportunities, provide private space and allow exercise breaks.

Being seen as a caring company is about more than just offering “add-on” wellness programmes. It’s about integrating care for employees into the company culture. Unsurprisingly, people who said they worked for a caring company were twice as likely to say their working environment had a positive impact on their overall wellbeing.

And the financial benefits don’t have to stop with lower health insurance costs and less absenteeism. Multiple studies in the National Center for Biotechnology Information have demonstrated that companies that invest in the health and wellbeing of their workers have a higher market valuation than other firms.

How can SMEs use wellness programmes to their advantage?

Investing your time and money in fostering a culture of wellness can seem like a venture into the uncertain. But this is not the case.

Making a few small changes to your company culture can help your staff achieve a good work-life balance, stay active and eat well.

Making a few small changes to your company culture can help your staff achieve a good work-life balance, stay active and eat well. It’s not rocket science – simple gestures like making free fruit available, encouraging everyone to take a proper lunch break and providing showers and incentives to cycle to work can make a huge difference.

When employees feel like everyone is supporting each other to be the best they can be, it can help their feeling of being part of a team and boost overall motivation.

And remember to set an example. If senior staff take the lead, other employees are likely to follow.

If you put the emphasis on making everyone feel supported and valued, you could soon see a happier, more engaged workforce. And more engaged employees are more likely to be healthier, more productive, and more loyal – better for business all round.

So let’s take this opportunity to do workplace wellness right, give our organisations a positive culture of wellbeing, and make a real difference to the health of the nation.

About the author: Alniz Popat, Founder and Chief Executive Officer

Alniz founded Lifecare 20 years ago in his native country Kenya to address the growing need for individual and corporate health insurance solutions. Soon thereafter Alniz expanded into Dubai, and in recent years he added yet another office with the establishment of Lifecare’s presence in Qatar. As CEO of Lifecare Alniz is responsible for the strategic direction of the business, and it is his drive and passion to help people get the right healthcare through affordable insurance that has resulted in Lifecare’s strong growth over the years. Today Alniz proudly oversees 100 caring and passionate employees who work tirelessly to deliver an excellent service to the 1,200 businesses and 25,000 members who are part of the Lifecare client portfolio. Alniz is a graduate of the University of Western Ontario, Canada in Finance and Economics, and is an active member of the Young Presidents’ Organisation in Kenya, and the World Presidents’ Organisation in the United Arab Emirates.