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Companies Are Changing How They Think About Workers' Health

Sy Mukherjee
Companies Are Changing How They Think About Workers' Health

By focusing on worker wellbeing, rather than merely providing health care, some large companies are fundamentally changing their approach toward keeping employees healthy. In turn, companies are reaping greater productivity at lower cost.

With this shift comes a more holistic sense of what wellness actually entails, said a panel of health industry experts on Tuesday at Fortune’s Brainstorm Health conference in San Diego. The session was moderated by Thrive Global founder and CEO Arianna Huffington.

“Wellness, yes, it’s about health,” said Jennifer Morgan, an SAP executive board member. “But wellness can be defined in many different ways, such as financial wellness.”

Offering employees the flexibility to define their maternity or paternity leave is a good example of this shift in thinking, said Qualtrics co-founder Jared Smith. Morgan agreed.

“When you have a big company, it’s easy to take a macro approach to everything,” Morgan said, citing the creation of a comprehensive maternity benefits package.

But actual leave preferences can vary among workers. “Some people think three months is too long—maybe they’d rather take two and a half months, and then have flex for how to use the other two weeks after becoming new parents,” Smith said. That flexibility doesn’t hurt a company’s bottom line, he added.

Meanwhile organizations such as the California Public Employees’ Retirement System are adjusting investment strategies in an era of changing public health characteristics. “Sometimes the health benefits side of retirement can be at odds with the pension side,” said CalPERS CEO Marcie Frost. The reason? People are living longer, and that increases pension liabilities.

“How do we better connect the investment side of what we’re doing with the health care outcomes we’re trying to accomplish?” Frost asked. “How do we take advantage of the fact that people are living longer to invest in those [pension] liabilities? That’s why we have to align the interests between the pension obligations and the health care obligations.”

Marvelle Berchtold, CEO of Marvelle Co., said using technology to transform worker health requires “indispensable” tools. “Companies would give out BlackBerrys, but the iPhone was so great that people would go out and buy a second phone,” she said. “That’s how we need to think about health care.”

To that end, Huffington’s company debuted a new corporate wellness tool of its own, developed in partnership with SAP and Qualtrics. The goal? Better measure employee experiences.

For more coverage of Fortune’s Brainstorm Health conference, click here. For news delivered daily to your inbox, subscribe to Fortune’s Brainstorm Health Daily newsletter.