Setting the course for workplace health improvement

Anusha Thavarajah Chief Executive Officer AIA Bhd

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As the organiser of Malaysia’s first Health Workplace by AIA Vitality survey, one would expect the working space of AIA Bhd to be packed with features comparable to those of the best organisations in the survey.

More important than the gym and other lifestyle health facilities at its Jalan Ampang headquarters is a working culture that proactively encourages, and rewards, employee well-being.

It is a culture and attitude embraced at the very top. After all, AIA Bhd is the largest employee benefits provider in Malaysia and who also offers AIA Vitality – the first programme of its kind in Malaysia to pro-mote healthy habits among its members, rewarding them for taking sustainable steps, however small, to improve their health and well-being.

“Everything in moderation is good,” says AIA Bhd CEO Anusha Thavarajah in an exclusive interview with The Edge. “It is about integrating your work, life and health, and bringing them all together.”

Striking a balance, however, is no mean feat for the high-powered executive who also has to juggle work with family life. She happens to be the first woman chief executive in the six largest markets for AIA in Asia-Pacific. She is also a mother.

So how does she balance the two incredibly de-manding roles?

Keeping health goals simple is the key, says Anusha. “I push myself to make sure I get Gold status in the AIA Vitality programme to keep up with my staff. If you want people to do it, you have got to walk the talk. “My focus is to get to my 10,000 steps everyday, and earn the rewards from our programme every two weeks. I also check to see that my body mass index and weight are at the right level ...  all simple goals,” she says.

Of course, it certainly helps that the AIA Vitali-ty Programme dangles a carrot for those who meet these health goals.

By maintaining certain health-related activities for two consecutive weeks, for example, the programme offers rewards such as free TGV Cinemas movie passes or coupons for juices from Boost Juice Bars  — Anu-sha’s choice of reward.

Other incentives include discounts for flight tick-ets with AirAsia for those who hit key milestones in the programme as well as discounts and cashback on gym membership with Fitness First.

AIA Vitality, together with the Healthiest Workplace by AIA Vitality survey, are initiatives undertaken by AIA to take a leadership role in bringing and creating the awareness of health and well-being as well as the importance of insurance. To Anusha, it resonates with AIA’s operating principles which she adopted closely when she took over the helm of AIA Malaysia in 2015. “Our operating philosophy is to do the right thing,  in the right way, with the right people and the results will come.”

“Through the survey, I had hope that we could work with other employers to create the right workplace environment for their employees so they would find it a positive environment and be able to bring their best to work, that from a health and well-being per-spective, everything is in the right setting,” she says.

Pointing to AIA’s own commitment to promote workplace well-being, she shares how the organiser itself participated in the survey, and took what was learnt to improve and do things more effectively.

This helps improve the workplace culture that enforces the well-being agenda, Anusha says. “We encourage employees to use the stairs instead of the lift, walk out for lunch, and then in the evening, conduct activities such as Zumba so people can stay active together.”

“What you can see from the survey is that differ-ent employees have different risk profiles. When we receive our own organisational health report, it tells us what is working and what may not be as effective. 

It helps us appreciate and give suggestions on what we can do better.”
“It is about having the information, the knowl-edge and the awareness, and to understand what to do to improve it. Then you get a truly productive workforce,” she says, with emphasis on the “aware-ness” part.

That, Anusha says, is particularly important in these times as technology enables remote working and ultimately, extended working hours, sometimes without employees and employers realising it.

“Technology can enable us to live healthier lives if used correctly …  Remote working should not be an issue in this day and age. As people and organisation change, we need to evolve.”

“ What we can do is to create that awareness and empower our people with the right programmes and applications so they have the knowledge to find the right balance,” she says.

She acknowledges the need for bigger sets of data to be collected from the survey for better accuracy, particularly on topics that are difficult to quantify, such as the quality of employer intervention, to im-prove employees’ health.

“In 2017, more than 5,300 employees from 47 com-panies in Malaysia took part in the survey. If we can get more people into the survey in 2018, it will attempt to quantify better results and provide more data,” she says. “That is why, we have worked with experts, including UK research institute RAND and local aca-demics at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia to put the research analysis together,” she adds.

The Vitality programme itself, which was first introduced in South Africa by Discovery, has ad-equate data on health and productivity, Anusha emphasises.

“They have got 25 years of data to show, for ex-ample, that their Vitality members’ length of stay in hospital is lower. The theory is that if you are fitter, your recovery becomes faster. The incidence of ad-missions is reduced as well.

“When people are healthier, medical expense claims will be reduced, which translates to lower healthcare costs, while individuals get to live longer, healthier and better lives,” she adds.

The workplace, says Anusha, is the right space for individuals to focus on health — and for good rea-son. “When we enter the workforce, we are about 20 years of age. Today, there are people aged 70 who are still working. That is about 50 years spent working. Your working life is a very large part of life. You need to enjoy it, it needs to create positive energy in you, and only then will it help you both mentally and physically. That is the base from the work-life per-spective,” she says.

“I have been lucky. I have always had good organ-isations, good people to work with, which helped me stay engaged and enjoy whatever I was doing. I’d like to very much create the same environment for the staff at AIA,” she adds.

To Anusha, the satisfaction of being part of an or-ganisation that promotes workplace well-being comes with the feedback from the beneficiaries of the pro-grammes and workplace interventions.

“I want employees to enjoy the experience at work and see the results of what they do at the office,” says Anusha. “I have had employees tell me their stories of improvements. There are also instances when they share with me that the AIA Vitality programme prompted them to undergo a medical examination for the first time, only to ac-tually detect certain conditions — but the joy is in looking back after making their way to recovery, thanks to early detection,” she adds.

AIA Malaysia will host its second Healthiest Work-place by AIA Vitality survey in April this year, and registration is already open at healthiestworkplace. aia.com.

Riding the momentum from last year’s survey, Anusha hopes the inaugural survey will become a catalyst for awareness and engagement for well-be-ing in the workplace — that it will become a part of the day-to-day conversation and eventually translate into longer, healthier and better lives for employees.

“We hope to see more employers participate in the survey, and for employers that have participated to see positive results come through,” she says. “I think the best result of this is to see two to three years of results and to see the trends.”

The bigger wish, she adds, is for Malaysia — cur-rently known as the most obese and diabetic country in Southeast Asia — to turn around and become the healthiest nation in the region instead. “We hope the statistics will move the other way around and we will start to see the nation move up the league table.”


The Edge is the media partner of Malaysia’s Healthiest Workplace by AIA Vitality 2017