Analysis: Cash plans - can complementary therapies really address employee absence?

Can 'soft benefits' help the bottom line?

Homeopathy and complementary therapies are often mistakenly thought of as the “softer” side of healthcare but, as Emily Borkowska reports, they can have a very real impact on absence levels at work.

Once considered a soft alternative to traditional healthcare treatments, complementary therapies are now seen as important and effective tools for reducing absenteeism.

Cash plan providers offer a whole host of different alternative therapies to members. Health Shield, for example, offers a physiotherapy, chiropractic, osteopathy, acupuncture and homeopathy benefit, as well as a health and wellbeing benefit, which covers hypnotherapy, cognitive behavioural therapy, reflexology, reiki and Indian head massage. Lara Rendell, marketing manager at Health Shield, says these benefits are highly rated by its members.

“According to primary market research – carried out over a four year period by Health Shield – complementary therapies are valued by employee members. The survey, with responses from more than 20,000 members of Health Shield, has revealed that in 2010 98% of respondents agreed that the physio benefit was an important part of their healthcare cover – this compares to an equally high 96% in 2006. The health and wellbeing benefit is also highly valued by members with 94% of those people surveyed admitting that it was an important part of their health cash plan,” says Rendell.

Medical evidence

There is a growing amount of medical evidence that suggests complementary therapies do work. According to the Which? Guide to complementary medicine, homeopathic remedies are thought to be good for hay fever, asthma, eczema, migraine and stress-related problems. Hypnotherapy can address lifestyle issues such as giving up smoking. Acupuncture, meanwhile, has been added to the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence’s list of recommended treatments for back pain sufferers. A study compiled by the University of York highlighted that an increasing number of patients are using acupuncture for supplemental pain relief due to its ability to stimulate the central nervous system. Those patients who received acupuncture reported lower pain levels and used fewer pain killers. Acupuncture is also playing a bigger part in the way people tackle mental health issues, including stress, depression and phobias. A recent article by Anxiety UK attributed the effectiveness of acupuncture in treating anxiety to helping to establish the causes, not just treating the symptoms themselves.

“If employees are using their cash plan benefits, including complementary therapies, they are likely to be healthier, happier and more productive, which in turn means less sickness absence for the company,” says Paul Shires, executive director – sales and marketing at Westfield Health. “According to the British Acupuncture Council, acupuncture can be used to help tackle common health conditions such as colds and flu, as well as stress and back pain – two of the biggest causes of absence facing UK employers.”

Musculoskeletal disorders, the second most common cause of long-term absence for manual workers and the third most identified cause among non-manual workers, can also be treated with benefits such as osteopathy, chiropractic and physiotherapy.

“Physiotherapy is also often used for post-operative treatment and rehabilitation, which could speed up an employee’s return to work after surgery,” says Shires. “Post-operative recovery time is one of the top three drivers of absence among manual and non-manual workers.”

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