How health, wellness and financial wellbeing intersect in South Africa

by Fazlin Swanepoel | 5,Nov,2023 | AlexForbes, Employee Benefits, Q4 2023

How health, wellness and financial wellbeing intersect in South Africa

Fazlin Swanepoel, Head of Alexforbes Health, Alexforbes

‘Focusing on health, wellness and financial wellbeing is like our GPS through the twists and turns of progress,’ says Fazlin Swanepoel, head of Alexforbes Health. Health and wellness are more than just buzzwords; they affect our physical, mental and financial wellbeing. In the context of South Africa, a nation characterised by a diverse health landscape and evolving healthcare policies, it is vital to understand the intricate connections between health, wellness and financial wellbeing.

We explore the implications, challenges and strategies individuals and employers can adopt to promote a healthier and more prosperous society. We also discuss a universal healthcare ecosystem, with the introduction of national health insurance as one of the mechanisms to achieve this goal. We explore how this will play a significant role in creating accessible, affordable, quality healthcare and go a long way in supporting employee benefits and overall health and wellness of our broader society.

The landscape of health and wellness in South Africa

The duality of South Africa’s healthcare system is complex. While the private sector boasts world-class facilities, most South Africans struggle with limited access to quality healthcare. Challenges include underfunded public healthcare facilities, accessibility to quality healthcare and the escalating cost of private healthcare. Moreover, the country is grappling with a burden of disease, compounded by HIV, TB and lifestyle diseases. The recently passed National Health Insurance bill aims to address these disparities but questions remain unanswered in terms of funding and its practical implementation.

Health and wellness in the workplace

Viewing wellbeing as an investment rather than an expense is a paradigm shift that can drive individual and organisational success. Health and wellness programmes serve as a foundation for a fully functioning workforce, promoting engagement, reducing absenteeism and enhancing productivity. While current programmes begin by raising awareness, deeper interventions are necessary to change behaviour and establish healthier lifestyles.

Health and wellness in the workplace extend beyond gym memberships and healthy snacks, and need to transcend into sustained behavioural change. In the realm of employee benefits, health and wellness programmes encompass a range of services that extend beyond medical coverage. In this context, healthcare refers to a medical scheme, primary care solutions, health insurance products and prepaid health solutions. Whilst wellness refers to more specifically an employee assistance programme (EAP). EAPs offer support to employees facing life challenges that impact their psychosocial wellbeing and workplace productivity. Today, employers often purchase EAPs as stand-alone employee support programmes. The challenge is exactly that they are viewed in isolation and not as part of an overall holistic approach to wellbeing.

A well designed, holistic health and wellness approach can in effect transform a company. A healthier workforce translates into a workforce with increased morale, reduced absenteeism, heightened productivity and enhanced recruitment and retention. A positive company culture, leadership support and regular communication are essential to the success of these programmes.

The office landscape has also changed and needs calibration as a result. With remote work becoming the norm, ensuring equitable access to wellness initiatives is paramount. Digital accessibility, customisable programmes, regular communication and virtual wellness challenges are some strategies to engage remote employees effectively. With diversity and inclusion being a key consideration, recognising cultural differences and involving leadership in remote wellness initiatives will contribute to a healthier and more inclusive work environment.

The role of medical schemes and the NHI

Private medical schemes provide financial protection against unforeseen out-of-pocket healthcare costs, with some employers offering subsidies as a valuable benefit. There is a definite mindset change among employers, now considering greater choice and flexibility in benefits as the new employee value proposition.

NHI aims to provide universal health coverage, granting all South Africans access to quality healthcare. Both these systems, private and public will play significant roles in supporting and guiding the direction of employee benefits and overall health and wellness in the future.

Despite medical schemes and NHI being fundamentally different, they both aim to address challenges to provide quality healthcare. While medical schemes provide privileged access to quality care, NHI seeks to offer the same level of care at reduced costs. NHI, like medical schemes, will centrally pool funds to buy affordable healthcare services, with one fundamental difference being accessibility to all South Africans rather than just a few who can afford a private medical scheme. The key, however, lies in the public and private partnerships to collaborate in terms of the implementation, funding and improvement of public healthcare infrastructure with the aim of facilitating universal healthcare access. We have a world class healthcare infrastructure, which is a national asset and should be protected and used to serve all South Africans, rather than just a few.

We have a long and complex road ahead of us to achieve this and navigating these complexities of healthcare coverage requires the expertise of independent advisors. A comprehensive understanding of employers’ needs and industry specific challenges will become even more essential. Evaluating policies that govern employee benefits and aligning them with NHI are critical steps to ensure informed decision making.

Some takeaways for a healthier, wealthier South Africa

‘As healthcare evolves, remember that progressive health and wellbeing are not separate roads but interconnected lanes to a healthier and prosperous future,’ says Swanepoel. Some takeaways include understanding the high burden of disease driving the state and costs of health in our country, acknowledging the link between financial and physical health, promoting preventive care and collaboration for holistic solutions that drive sustained behavioural change. Policy interventions, public and private collaboration, education and inclusivity are but some of the crucial elements in creating a healthier and more prosperous South Africa.

Navigating serious health issues is a tough process. An independent healthcare consultant can provide expert employee benefit insights and quality advice. This helps you navigate ever-changing complexities.

Fazlin Swanepoel
Head of Alexforbes Health at Alexforbes | + posts