echo interview, January 2024

Creating incentives for preventative health management


echo interview with Eric Bürki

Eric Bürki, Member of the Executive Board of Gesundheitsförderung Schweiz, Head of Occupational Health Management

elipslife echo: Mr Bürki, the Gesundheitsförderung Schweiz Foundation is supported by the cantons and the insurers. Each person pays 40 centimes per month via health insurance premiums. What do we all get in return?
Eric Bürki: As a public health organisation with 50 full-time employees, we initiate and coordinate measures in the areas of exercise, healthy eating and mental health for the benefit of the general public. You normally “only” see us appear in the footnotes, because cantons, associations and NGOs actually implement the measures. I myself am in charge of Work and Health, where we work with the private sector to encourage companies to develop robust health management processes for their employees. To this end, we provide tools and refer specialists to support the companies in their efforts.

What offers do you have and how can interested companies gain access to them?
We have recently started placing a special emphasis on offers for SMEs, as not only do most people work in these companies, but there is also a significant need for action. There is a lack of both time and money in this area, and companies are quickly overwhelmed when it comes to more challenging topics such as mental health issues. We created two new offers in 2023: the Leadership Kit is aimed at managers wishing to do something for themselves and their team in terms of health, while the HR Toolbox is for people wishing to improve the promotion of health for their company as a whole. Our offers are intended to be as simple as possible and to facilitate small-scale immediate interventions.

Gesundheitsförderung Schweiz awards the “Friendly Work Space” label. What does it mean for a company to receive these labels?
The label is awarded to companies that have a robust health management approach in place – with the corresponding processes, responsibilities and sustainable implementation of the measures taken. The basis is always an analysis, because at companies the wrong thing is often done right, with actions that are well-intentioned but not based on what is actually needed. A good health management approach assesses exactly where the need lies and adopts targeted measures in these areas. It also checks whether the measures taken have the desired effect.

Is this award having an impact on the market, for example in terms of finding skilled workers?
“Friendly Work Space” is the only health label in Switzerland. It is very well known in HR circles, while a relatively high 34% of the general public are aware of the label. For some years now, we have been targeting job-seekers with campaigns that mention the label in connection with companies that provide good working conditions. We also receive feedback from companies that actively communicate with the label in job advertisements, confirming that the award has a major and credible impact.

How many companies have already been awarded the label?
Currently around 110 companies with a total of some 220 000 employees, but the potential is enormous. Incidentally, the initiative for this label ( originally came from large companies such as SBB and Migros. They called for standards for good health management that made it possible to compare different companies. The companies asked us to manage the neutral awarding body and to develop the idea further. Meanwhile, one third of the participating companies are now SMEs. Robust health management is not a matter of company size. There are also some very good health promotion programmes these days at SMEs – and by the same token some large companies are barely able to obtain group short-term disability benefit insurance due to their poor claims figures.

Cases of people with mental health problems have been increasing in Switzerland for years. According to the Swiss Health Observatory, more than 500 000 people received treatment in an outpatient psychiatric-psychotherapeutic practice in 2020. Are we in a mental health crisis?
I wouldn’t subscribe to the idea that we’re having a mental health crisis. Since the Second World War, the proportion of people with severe mental health disorders has remained stable at 20 to 25% of the total population, both in Switzerland and in other countries. Moreover, as Switzerland is increasingly moving towards a service-oriented society, this is leading to a shift, in that whereas in the past the focus was on accidents at work or illnesses caused by heavy physical work or an asbestos-contaminated working environment, today it is on mental health problems, very often caused by time pressure, having to be available around the clock, overwork or workplace conflicts.

The topic of “mental health” is almost omnipresent, isn’t it?
People are much more aware of it than they were 20 years ago. The greater presence of the subject in everyday life has meant that it has lost some of its stigma and that well-known personalities, such as Robbie Williams or Natalie Rickly, also talk about difficult episodes in their lives. This is a positive development. Our foundation regularly surveys 1000 employees from throughout Switzerland regarding the amount of stress they feel at work. Last year, 30% of respondents said they frequently felt emotionally very exhausted. I find this a worrying figure. These people are working at full speed. If this continues, there’s a risk of them burning out sooner or later.

Prolonged absences from work frequently occur in connection with mental health. Does Gesundheitsförderung Schweiz offer special support programmes?
I’d like to come back in this respect to prevention. We offer a lot here. If a person often has to work under time pressure due to the nature of their job, there is not much you can do about it. For example, a caregiver will always have the problem of difficult clients, which is part of their job. But there are ways to cushion the consequences of these circumstances so that the person concerned stays healthy. This is where we start, with early detection and team development being very important. We provide tools in these areas. We also cultivate strategic partnerships to promote the topic, for example with insurance companies.

Where do you see the most urgent need for action in promoting health?
Clearly in the area of mental health. And especially in terms of prevention. We need to move away from actionism and develop something based on a clear concept. The second key factor is the increasingly important role of the team. Working methods are changing and many companies are introducing organisational structures with flatter hierarchies or trying out new management models in which teams have more responsibility. Teams are already a key element for stability and satisfaction and are increasingly also responsible for the early detection and care of stressed employees. These used to be classic management tasks.

How do you rate the services provided by insurance companies in the area of mental health?
They’re gathering pace. Many insurance companies I know now offer such services. That’s very good. In the best case, preventative measures are also put in place. However, insurers are unable to meet the high demand. They ultimately respond reactively to their corporate clients and are unable to serve them all in terms of capacity. In my opinion, there are too few incentives for businesses to take action earlier.

Do you see new insurance solutions in the area of mental health from the perspective of promoting health, or at least the beginnings of such solutions?
Yes, I think I do. On the one hand there are the incentives already mentioned which reward companies with good health management approaches. I know a fairly large company that when renewing its group short-term disability benefit insurance successfully negotiated for its re-certification for the “Friendly Work Space” label to be paid for. It would be nice if insurers not only offered support for absences in the event of a claim, but took into account in their pricing whether a company already has a well-functioning health management system. Insurers could also offer more services related to the early detection of stress and the development of preventative health management.

Personal Profile
Eric Bürki
Member of the Executive Board of Gesundheitsförderung Schweiz, Head of Occupational Health Management

Eric Bürki, 45, grew up in Berne and is a qualified specialist in international relations and economics. After studying and spending ten years in Western Switzerland, he worked in areas such as NGO work, administration and management consulting. While doing so, he completed various further training courses in health and change management as well as leadership. He has been with Gesundheitsförderung Schweiz since 2013 and a member of the Executive Board since 2022, where he is in charge of the Work and Health area and the Friendly Work Space Business Advisory Committee. Bürki lives with his family in Herrenschwanden and is a teacher of a Vietnamese martial art.

echo interview with Eric Bürki