How to use data in health and wellbeing

Big data on employee health and wellbeing might be just what the doctor ordered – here's how to get it right

Most HR professionals will feel instinctively that keeping staff healthy will positively benefit the bottom line. Now, increasingly sophisticated use of data could help them prove it. With employers more receptive to collecting and analysing information from a range of resources, that gut feeling you have about the importance of wellbeing could soon be backed by hard data.

“It’s generally accepted that healthy employees are more productive, and the evidence will emerge in due course,” says senior consultant at Towers Watson Rebekah Haymes of her belief that it’s only a matter of time before as much evidence to prove the long-term impact of wellness on productivity emerges in the UK as in the US.

Rachel Riley, commercial director, global brands at WPA adds that using data to analyse the needs, habits and lifestyles of workers – what sort of healthcare cover different demographics are actually likely to use, for example – can make employer spending on health and wellbeing go even further. “If they get it right I think they will be able to target their spend better. It might not reduce their costs but it can enable them to allocate money more effectively,” she says.

And yet there are not many companies who have gotten to grips with combining data sets to arrive at anything that could be truly defined as ‘big data’, according to WPA. “Big data is a nirvana. But though many businesses are getting data from a number of different employee benefits providers, like those offering occupational health, private medical insurance (PMI) and absence management, most aren’t linking it up sufficiently,” says Riley.

In some instances this is down to doubts around whether it will actually be worth the effort and investment. Guy Ellis, managing director at HR consultancy Courageous Workplaces, says that while more personal data might be useful, the kind of aggregated data permissible under data protection regulations is likely to be less so. “There are serious question marks as to whether aggregated data is worth the investment, and asking a finance director to base decisions on an act of faith could be a step too far for many companies in the current economic environment,” he says.

But for others the value of combining data sets is beyond doubt. Carr’s Group, which has 750 UK employees, is in the process of putting in key performance indicators to provide feedback on a range of people-orientated statistics, including absence. It has also done a major review of occupational health to identify how often health screening should take place, and expects to extend this approach to other areas like PMI. Group head of HR Gillian Dixon says: “Collating big data in these areas will definitely help us define our strategic direction in the area of health and wellbeing.”

Another advocate is Zurich Insurance Group, which has more than 6,000 UK employees. The organisation is working on pilot schemes and head of UK HR Georgina Farrell stresses that gaining insight into motivation, engagement and satisfaction at work is just as important as trying to reduce absence figures. Farrell says: “There isn’t a holy grail in terms of data, it’s about looking at what you’ve got and trying to make it useful for the questions you want to ask.”

She adds that combining different data sets is, however, not an insignificant undertaking. “All the different data streams are in silos, and although we could integrate them in a central source we would be doing it manually,” she says. “That’s the challenge.”

But how can HR surmount this challenge to ensure investment is justified? Most important, says Iain Laws, UK managing director of healthcare & group risk at Jelf Employee Benefits, is to consider your company’s size. He feels that you need at least 750 employees as well as quality data to make an integrated approach worthwhile.

A good case study to prove this is National Counties Building Society, which employs only 150 staff. Here attention is paid to both absence statistics and private medical insurance data, but there is considered to be no real overlap between the two. “Being a small organisation we know where the problems are for our staff members, so we don’t feel any need to take a more integrated approach and have no plans to introduce anything more sophisticated,” explains HR director Vicki Webb.

For those large enough to make collating different data sets worthwhile, the question is whether to do this in-house or seek external expertise. For organisations wishing to take a holistic approach in-house, Paul Avis, marketing director at Canada Life Group Insurance, recommends getting all the service providers in the same room to share their data. Common themes can then be identified and the frequency, volume, and costs of various absence types calculated.

Those looking to outsource need to be aware that there is currently no one proven solution that can analyse all an employer’s relevant data streams and produce a single integrated report. But many employee benefit consultants offer bespoke analysis, and some have developed their own software to help.

Barnett Waddingham has come closest to introducing a one-stop service, collating and integrating data from absence management, employee assistance programmes, income protection and PMI claims, and occupational health reporting. These, together with the results of a broader survey, are fed into a system that produces an infographic report for HR decision makers. And Buck Consultants at Xerox offers international clients the ability to receive a computerised report based on all relevant data across 100 countries. This extends beyond healthcare to all compensation and benefit spend, with the company reporting the service enabled one client to save 15% in overheads.

But, however sophisticated services become, employers must be transparent with employees about data use. “Although younger generations are typically more open to sharing data about their health and wellbeing, there will always be people who are opposed to the idea,” says Joanne Abate, assistant vice president of global health and insurance programmes at Unum. “Employers should reassure staff that any information they don’t want to share can be kept private.”

With the proper considerations to data protection and transparency made, it could soon be that many more organisations become proactive in combining data. Doug Wright, medical director at Aviva UK Health, certainly predicts this: “I would be surprised if we don’t see employers being able to get meaningful integrated data collated from their various different healthcare and absence management operations within the next five years.” So, why not start now?

The dos and don’ts of combining data


  • Be transparent with employees about what data is and isn’t being used for
  • Pin down the questions you are seeking to answer with your data
  • Get the relevant service providers in one room to share data if wishing to outsource


  • Assume there is definitive UK research linking investment in wellbeing with enhanced productivity
  • Fall foul of data protection regulations
  • Forget that SMEs may be better off reading individual reports rather than pursuing an integrated approach