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Benefits and wellness programs are never going to be the same again

So the only way to plan the benefits coverage your employees will need next year, and figure out what the cost will be, is to average out the last two or three years and project it forward, right? Well, that’s pretty much how we’ve always done it, but new ways of looking at the data are starting to change that model very quickly.

“Predictive analysis” are two words we’re all starting to hear a lot more often in recent months, and it’s also one of four key trends in benefits management identified by the recent Telus Health Executive Roundtable – think of it as a high-level think tank for where we are and where we’re going in the benefits business.

Just looking at past experience and trends – retrospective analysis – can tell us where we’ve been and may let us make some educated guesses about where we’re going. But predictive analysis can use the power of “big data” and AI (artificial intelligence) not just to spot trends, but to work out just how they will play out in your workplace for your people.

Benefits plans, as we have discussed in this blog before, have taken on a much larger role in building the sort of “healthy workplace” – healthy people happy with their jobs – that has become a sort of Holy Grail in today’s competitive workplaces, where engaging employees and retaining talent are cornerstones of success.

Predictive analysis promises to help us build better benefits plans – tailored to each individual work force. Get ahead of the curve, build the plan that responds less to what you needed last year and more to what you will need next year, and you get three distinct advantages: spend less on benefits that will be under-utilized; put your money behind services that will be in demand; and forecast the costs with the kind of reliability that makes corporate management very happy.

In the process, reliable information from predictive analysis will also make it possible to model different scenarios and make choices from a position of confidence.

Employee engagement: A second trend making waves at the Roundtable – and another issue we have discussed here before – concerns the question of how to engage employees, not only with their benefits, but also with other programs designed around the healthy-workplace concept. (Or, as the Roundtable defined the issue: “The number one roadblock is the disengaged employee.”)

I know that this is a difficult issue, but I don’t think it’s a mysterious one. Basically, when we are offering a program, whether it’s access to telehealth or weight-loss programs or the employee assistance plan (EAP), we have to do what anyone who has ever successfully promoted anything has done:

– give the clients what they really want, not just what we think they ought to want. In the case of health initiatives, I believe the way forward lies in promoting outcomes rather than programs, but that’s a subject for a whole other blog.

– give the client programs and services that live in their world – in this case, we’re talking about individualized services, with respect for privacy and choices, available 24/7 through on-line media, and plugged into the (nowadays) real world of social media.

– respond to the “marketplace” of services by putting resources behind things that show signs of engaging employees, and backing off on ideas that just don’t fly.

Flexible services: Closely related to the issue of employee engagement – actually, as a response to it – the Roundtable identified “flexible services” as a third key trend. Creative benefits, such as telemedicine (see previous blog on this subject), individual coaching, programs to help employees with financial health – yep, we did a blog on that — are just of few of what the Roundtable described as “creative benefits.”

This makes sense to me, but it’s also a little scary to think that we’re being told to just keep adding more and more programs, in the hope that something will stick and engage employees who are just not into it. But that’s where I think the first two points kick in: better planning, tailored to each workplace – predictive analysis will help – and planning for employee engagement will help identify the programs that are wanted and that will be successful.

Personalized messaging: The last of the four big trends identified involves personalizing the messaging around benefits and workplace wellness programs. I’m thinking that this is a pretty fine line to walk – or maybe it’s thin ice. Personalized is good, responsive to the individual is where we need to be, but… the employee has to be in charge, and needs to feel in control of the situation.

The fine line is between reaching out and offering programs and telling people what they need – or what we think they need. Funny story that pulls predictive analysis, the way Google does it, together with the pitfalls of personized messaging: A few months ago, when I was researching weight-loss programs for this blog, I did key-word searches and looked at dozens of articles on the subject. Next time I went on-line, what should pop up, but a whole bunch of weight-loss-program ads? Google thought they had my number, but to me it seemed like a presumptuous invasion of my privacy.

In any case, my take-away from the Roundtable is that what’s taking shape here is a future of benefits and workplace health that is moving away from the sort of compartmentalization that was the norm in benefits management – benefits were available, but largely ignored by employees until there was a claim – to a much greater integration of wellness programs into the daily life of everyone in the workplace.

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