Optum: Employers leaning on health plans to help with return to workplace initiatives 

Optum Headquarters
A new Optum survey examines how employers are bringing employees back to work. (UnitedHealth Group)

Many employers are in the midst of transitioning their workplaces to the COVID-19 reality, and they’re leaning on health insurers to assist with the process, according to a new survey from Optum. 

Optum surveyed (PDF) 200 human resources professionals at companies with 3,000 or more employees and found that 16% had completed their return-to-work plan for how they would bring workers back to the office. 

In addition, 66% of employers were in the middle of their transition plans for employees. 

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The majority, 89% of the surveyed employers expect to have their return-to-work plans fully implemented within 90 days, with 40% of them estimating they need between one and two months, and 31% saying they expect it will take two to three months.

RELATED: Kaiser Permanente wants to help employees safely return to their workspaces amid COVID-19. Here’s how 

Seth Serxner, Ph.D., chief health officer at Optum and one of the report’s authors, told Fierce Healthcare that employers are still working to determine the best return to work approach for their employees’ needs and their company cultures.

“For me, one of the big takeaways is that it varies tremendously—and that it’s still being solved,” Serxner said. 

As employers navigate these changes and determine the best steps to take, health insurers are providing a critical partner, the survey found. Nearly two-thirds (61%) said that their health plan was a key partner in bringing employees back to the worksite. 

By comparison, 46% said the facilities management team at their office location and 46% said they’re working with specialty providers for occupational health. 

Serxner said turning to a company like Optum as a partner makes sense for these companies, as they both administer an employer’s health benefits and often have clinical experts available to consult. 

RELATED: UnitedHealth execs—Patients are using telehealth for convenience, not as a necessity 

Health insurers can offer employers valuable data analytics capabilities to track and trace any testing or symptoms among their workers, he said, and they also offer supports for workers who may be struggling with the transition, such as mental health apps or other wellbeing programs. 

Payers can also cut through the noise to pinpoint the most valuable solutions, he said. 

“I think health plans can help employers and their members understand what services are available to them,” Serxner said. 

The survey also highlights some of the specific tactics employers are using in their return-to-work efforts. Most common were communications to workers, which 66% said they have already deployed and 25% said they were currently launching. 

RELATED: As employers continue to expand mental health supports, COVID-19 is making the case for those investments 

In addition, 63% of employers said they were offering protective equipment to employees, and 29% were in the process of making protective gear available. Other elements many employers had deployed were emotional and behavioral health resources (52%), reports on the readiness of return-to-work efforts (50%), symptom checker tools for employees (47%) and on-site symptom checks (46%). 

Serxner said many employers are thinking hard about how to effectively build a “culture of health” and connectedness in the workplace. 

“In this time, it’s really important to have people understand that they are supported,” he said. 

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