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.”


Paul Gambon, head of sales at Medicash, says that in companies where stress, presenteesim or absenteeism is a problem or threat, it is important for brokers to promote the benefits of providing cover for alternative and complementary therapies.

“They are not a ‘nice to have’ or a soft alternative to conventional treatments. Rather, it is widely accepted by the medical profession that they can go a long way in addressing serious medical problems that may not have been successfully tackled through traditional means,” he says.

Howard Hughes, head of business marketing at Simplyhealth, thinks that brokers should put more emphasis on alternative treatments when speaking to clients about cash plans.

“Although optical and dental benefits remain the most popular benefits on health cash plans, intermediaries need to think about where additional value can be added. With the rising cost of living and changes within the NHS, complementary therapies have a real place in today’s benefits market and enable employees to attend healthcare appointments, such as physiotherapy and osteopathy, which they may not have been able to afford to attend otherwise,” he says.

Some brokers have switched onto the idea that complementary therapies can reduce absence levels. Steve Herbert, head of benefits strategy at Jelf Employee Benefits, says they can prevent minor conditions, such as back pain, escalating to an absence from work and this alone can justify the spend on a cash plan. Such therapies can therefore be a selling point when recommending cash plans to clients.

“Cover in these areas is not necessarily linked to a recommendation from a GP (unlike private medical insurance and many more traditional treatments), and that potentially makes these treatments more accessible to a wider audience. As more and more people consider the herbal/natural approach to treatment such options can become quite important. However, much of this is down to the communication, as many employers and employees are not even aware that their plan could provide funding for such treatments,” adds Herbert.

Management information

Tom McGuinness, business development and HR director at Premier Choice Group, says the impact that complementary therapies have on absence levels is a somewhat hidden impact.

“Very rarely will a member come in and say that through using one of these alternative therapies they were able to come into work that day, so a client will probably only know how it is working when they marry the company’s absence levels since taking out the scheme up against the management information on the scheme from the provider. It is only then that real feedback can be used to look at how these benefits are affecting absence levels,” he says.

McGuinness says alternative therapies are “most definitely” a selling point, but argues that it is more important to find out exactly what the client wants from their scheme.

“If a client is aware of these therapies and believes that they would be a useful tool to have within their range of benefits then it is definitely something that is very much relevant and so a quite significant selling point. If on the other hand the client wants a much tighter range of benefits then they might choose to go the route of having more coverage on fewer benefits, and really just go the dental/optical/consultation/therapies defined route.”

As the evidence around the impact of complementary therapies on workplace absence continues to grow, it is likely that they will form an even more important part of cash plan schemes in the future.

Case study: acupuncture helps pregnant employee return to work

A pregnant employee who could not work for weeks because of chronic morning sickness has hailed acupuncture treatment as “a little life-saver” after she was back on her feet and at her desk after just one session.

Naomi Thompson, payroll manager at CPP Group, a life assistance company dealing with card, phone and identity protection, decided to try acupuncture after more than three weeks’ sickness absence and other tried and failed remedies and treatments. Acupuncture was available as a benefit on the Westfield Health Flex Plan.

Thompson, who was pregnant with her second child at the time, says: “I was off work for nearly a month because of morning sickness. I was signed off by the doctor because it was making me chronically ill – I couldn’t eat and I was losing weight and becoming very weak.

“I came back to work but there was still the risk I would have to rush out of meetings to be sick. I didn’t know what else to do.”

One single acupuncture session apparently solved the problem.

“As I was pregnant they used a no-needles approach and a technique involving pressure points on my body,” says Thompson. “I stopped being sick the very next day.”


A guide to complementary therapies

Acupuncture: the insertion and manipulation of needles in the body to restore balance and trigger the body’s natural healing response

Chiropractic: manipulation of the spine and other joints to treat and prevent mechanical disorders of the musculoskeletal system

Homeopathy: a system of medicine which involves treating the individual with highly diluted substances, given mainly in tablet form, with the aim of triggering the body’s natural system of healing

Hypnotherapy: attempts to address an individual’s subconscious mind using the power of suggestion for beneficial change

Osteopathy: a manipulation technique that detects and treats problems with the muscles, nerves and joints

Physiotherapy: uses massage and manipulation to promote healing and wellbeing, often after injury or illness

Reflexology: applying pressure to the feet, hands or ears with specific thumb, finger, and hand techniques

Reiki: a Japanese technique for stress reduction and relaxation which is administered by laying hands on the body

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