HR and benefits professionals are coming under increasing pressure to make better use of big data and analytics in order to make better decisions in areas such as talent, reward and engagement. However, many industry experts believe that organisations are missing a trick in failing to make the most of their benefits data to better understand their population risks and develop a more effective group risk strategy.Connect the dataGroup risk protection products include life assurance, critical illness insurance and income protection, benefits that, in addition to financial protection, provide additional support services, such as employee assistance programmes (EAPs), absence management, online health assessments, mental-health first-aid training, and access to counselling and physiotherapy.They are also a rich source of data that can be collated and used to improve workplace wellness strategies and cut costs, yet many organisations are failing to make that connection.Matthew Lawrence, head of broking and health and risk proposition at Aon Employee Benefits, says: “In our recent Benefits and trends survey [published in November 2015], nearly 40% of employers did not use any data analytics to inform or drive their corporate health and wellbeing approach. Where data was used, just over a quarter used medical, income protection, life and/or critical illness data to drive decisions.”Examples of the data sets that employers often have access to include absence data, occupational health data, claims data from medical, life, income protection and/or critical illness schemes and data from EAP services usage.Effective use of this data can help to identify any problem areas, and also highlight what is working well, which can influence costs, says Katharine Moxham, spokesperson for industry body Group Risk Development (Grid). “If a manufacturing [organisation], for example, has a very good health and safety record, it should be sharing that with its group risk provider,” she says. “If an [organisation] has good EAP usage, [it should] share it with [its] group risk provider.”Benchmark risk areasThe data can also be used for benchmarking key areas of group risk. Paul Avis, marketing director at Canada Life Group Risk, says: “With aggregated data drawn from health risk assessments, [employers] have a line in the sand, whether [they] are looking at health issues relating to obesity, heart disease, cancer or stress. Once it is benchmarked [they] can see, for example, how calls to [the] EAP services are affected.”Providers can also help employers make best use of their data by benchmarking to show how their rates of sickness absence, or even specific health issues in the workplace, compare with others in the sector.Address sickness absenceThe availability of data is also encouraging employers to consider offering wider group risk benefits to staff to help reduce sickness absence. Leighton Churchill, corporate account manager at Jelf Employee Benefits, says: “By implementing these benefits and actively participating and adhering to the early intervention and rehabilitation services that insurers provide with the contracts, employers are beginning to see the benefits of a healthier workforce leading to improved productivity and staff morale.”One of the challenges employers face is knowing how to use the various data sets they have to best understand their employee health risks and truly integrate their health and benefits strategy. The key to this is to involve the group risk providers and make it a collaborative exercise, says Avis. “In the first instance [employers] need to get all [their] group risk providers to agree on how they will report back on their data,” he adds. “[They] then need to bring them all together to share their data sets. A lot of benefits advisers have developed databases that can pull this data into a health board very effectively.”To produce good data, employers need to have the right tools and the infrastructure in place to record it accurately, and more organisations are recognising this, says Andrew Potterton, head of proposition development at Unum UK. Where they struggle is in maintaining consistent reporting among their line managers. “It is important to provide line managers with training in workforce wellbeing to engender employee trust and ensure consistent reporting practices,” Potterton explains.Making best use of data to join together all of the facets of wellness, including financial protection, delivers tangible advantages for both employers and employees. Understanding the root causes of poor employee health, and making improvements to it requires a truly integrated approach. “That should be an employer’s objective,” adds Lawrence. “Experience suggests that taking a piecemeal approach often delivers less benefit for the business than might be expected.”Oracle uses group risk data to inform wellbeing strategyAt technology firm Oracle, the use of data is key to enhancing group risk provision for the organisation and boosting the benefits and workplace wellbeing strategy for its UK employees.Michelle Bradshaw, compensation and benefits director UK, Ireland and Israel, says: “The data that can be drawn from things [such as] income protection claims, the take-up of certain benefits, and our sickness absence rates enables us to be much more strategic. For example, from a risk point of view, given that most group income protection claims are cancer-related, we decided to target the issue of male cancer through workplace campaigns, which breaks down the stigma that surrounds the subject and also raises awareness of the importance of early detection and intervention.”The organisation’s effective use of data relies on the input of all of Oracle’s health-related benefits providers, including providers of the employee assistance programme (EAP), life assurance, group income protection and critical illness benefits, which Bradshaw invites to get together on a quarterly basis to analyse the data.Bradshaw adds: “As well as helping to improve long-term sickness management policies and offer a more focused wellbeing offering, we can use the data to work out which benefits our employees want, whether [this is] income protection or life assurance, and by incorporating choice and flexibility into the offering, make those benefits available to them at a cost level that suits them.” Need to know:Data can be used for internal and external benchmarking, which can identify strengths and weaknesses in a group risk strategy.Line management training in workplace wellbeing is key to accurate sickness absence data reporting and analysis.A collaborative and integrated approach to data analysis, involving all group risk providers, will deliver the most effective group risk strategy.