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How employee benefits can help bridge the NHS healthcare gap

April 13, 2023

With rising NHS waiting lists, employers need to meet the health needs of employees in ways that are less reliant on the overburdened NHS. We explore the options.
Health and Benefits

A worrying diagnosis

The pandemic meant an already struggling NHS had to try and absorb the additional demands of Covid. The ramifications of this make for stark reading.

The waiting list for hospital treatment rose to a record seven million in September of this year[1].

Approximately 400,000 referred patients have been waiting more than 52 weeks for treatment despite an 18-week target – a figure that has not been met since 2016.

WTW’s 2022 Emerging Trends in Healthcare Delivery Survey (ETHDS) found that more than 93 per cent of employers felt NHS waiting lists are going to be a significant issue for the foreseeable future. Furthermore, it revealed that 68 per cent believed they will need to expand healthcare coverage as a result.

With no quick fixes available, the crisis is expected to continue. For businesses, the consequences can have a significant impact both operationally and financially. The number of working days lost through sickness or injury this year is likely to exceed last year’s estimated figure of 149.3 million[2].

If businesses are to weather the storm, employers need to address the issues that have arisen. Perhaps the most effective way they can achieve this is to meet the health needs of employees in ways that are less reliant on the overburdened NHS. Here, we look at some of the options.

Private healthcare

WTW’s (WTW) 2022 Global Benefits Attitudes Survey (GBAS) saw a ten-year high in the number of employees who said health benefits are key in attracting and retaining staff.

And a more generous healthcare plan was the number one physical health benefit preference.

Consequently, the value of PMI (Private Medical Insurance) in offering improved access to diagnosis and healthcare treatment has never been more evident.

With gains for both employer and employee – most significantly earlier detection and treatment of potentially life-threatening conditions – it can reduce the length of absence and associated costs.

PMI can also help improve employee engagement, commitment and loyalty, whilst supporting the effective recruitment and retention of talent – the top reason why organisations are reviewing their benefits programmes.

When designing a PMI scheme, it is important to recognise that in addition to meeting the general needs of a workforce, its scope should cater for diverse needs and expectations.

To have a meaningful place in a benefits package it should align with lifestyle, population, age and market trends. Moreover, it should provide for all gender identities, abilities and disabilities.

If any specialist areas of treatment are required, companies should be aware that this may not be available from all providers.

Mental Health

One of the leading causes of employee absence is mental health. If unchecked, it could necessitate lengthy periods of work absence.

Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs) can be utilised to offer confidential support from trained mental health professionals, both in-person and via 24/7 telephone help lines. In addition to providing coping and management techniques, counselling can help employees to better understand the options and support available.

In general, EAPs are often under-utilised, so if employees are to successfully harness the benefits to be had, employers need to review how their value can be best communicated.


Technology is playing an increasingly important role in healthcare. ‘Artificial Intelligence’ doctors, for instance, are already being developed which will be capable of making diagnoses using data algorithms.

Many employers have introduced a digital GP service which can help alleviate the problems associated with lengthy waits to see the family doctor. An appetite for this was evident in WTW’s 2022 Global Benefits Attitudes Survey in which 59 per cent of respondents said they experienced shorter waiting times with the virtual option, and 53 per cent said they found them to be more convenient.

GBAS also revealed that employees who use health condition apps felt they were more likely to get the support they need to manage their conditions. These ranged from chronic musculoskeletal pain, high blood pressure and digestive issues to diabetes and fertility and reproductive health issues

With more than a third (36 per cent) of employees stating that such apps and wearables should be a core part of benefits offered by employers, companies should take note and consider increasing provision.

Wearable tech can also be used to message and reinforce the personal benefits of participation in initiatives, which can lower the risk of complacency and disengagement.

Prevention better than cure

While it is commendable that companies support employees who are ill, a proactive approach can reduce the chances of illness occurring and developing.

Early identification of health issues and potential challenges can be achieved with health screenings, online risk assessments and health questionnaires. There is a clear appetite for this, with the 2022 WTW Global Benefits Attitudes Survey finding that 51 per cent of employees believe health screenings and risk assessments would help them manage their health.

Key indicators, such as the number of smokers within a workforce and levels of obesity, can be used to inform areas of focus when designing health plans. By interrogating health data, companies can implement relevant and preventative initiatives, such as onsite fitness classes, which can offset costly debilitating and long-term illnesses.

However, the ETHD survey found that only 16 per cent of employers regarded increased focus on using data analytics as a key priority in their health and wellbeing strategy.

Cash plans

Cash plans are another way preventative action can be taken, with the accent on affordability.

Traditionally, these provided annually-limited cashback to employees for healthcare costs attached to dental, optical and physiotherapy. More recently, they have extended their scope to a wider range of health services and preventative benefits.

Health cash plans can encompass screening for such illnesses and conditions as cancer, heart disease and diabetes. Alternative therapies and complementary health, too, can be included.

Broadcast the benefits

An ageing workforce and lengthy NHS waiting times and cancellations of routine procedures and non-urgent appointments are unlikely to be short-term challenges.

The expectation is that employees will continue to find it difficult to receive the treatment they require.

Such delays can not only prolong physical suffering, they can also increase stress and worry which could damage mental health.

There is an impact on businesses too, with productivity and operations being affected by prolonged absences.

For companies, communication is a key way to address the challenges.

Valuable benefits go unused because employees are either overwhelmed by too much information, fearful of confidentiality or are unaware that they exist. The onus is therefore on employers to reverse this.

Signposting and sharing what benefits are available and how they can be accessed is of little value if the benefits themselves are not relevant. This is why employee input is vital.

Obtaining this, and thereby enhancing the employee experience, is a top priority for many businesses, but the challenges can be off-putting. However, turning to organisations with extensive research capabilities, such as WTW, offers a way to circumvent this.

By utilising the flexible and scalable EX platform Embark WTW also ensures individual employees are able to access the precise information they require at any given moment.

With 51 per cent of respondents to WTW’s 2022 GBAS stating that health care programmes are a key influencer in remaining with their current employer, effective health benefits could be just what the doctor ordered.


  1. NHS Key Statistics: England, November 2022, House of Commons Library Return to article
  2. Sickness absence in the UK labour market: 2021, ONS Return to article

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