Cover story: What benefits do your employees really care about? (part two)

There’s more to life than the monthly take-home, and employers are realising that an attractive and relevant benefits package is needed to entice and retain top talent, finds Sarah Ronan

Catch up on part one of this cover story here.


Pandemic hangover

As employers look to reshape their benefits to match employees’ changed expectations, it is unsurprising that the pandemic remains the single biggest influence over that process. Right now, multi-dimensional wellbeing is the overriding trend in benefits. Once wellbeing might have meant offering gym memberships, but now the term has broadened to include mental, digital and financial wellbeing as well as physical health.

At Aviva, employees have access to apps that support mental health such as Headspace and Thrive, and more recently the organisation has introduced the app Peppy to support its female employees going through the menopause.

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Mona Akiki, chief people officer at Perkbox, says that UK employers continue to prioritise mindfulness and mental health, which will come as no surprise given the impact of the pandemic and successive lockdowns.

“When it comes to wellbeing it’s really about what’s important for the employee at their own life stage,” says Akiki. “Offering one-on-one sessions is always going to be important, but more than that it’s about the proactiveness of your mindfulness. So employers are providing resources on how to meditate when you wake up to make your day better.

"Yoga and gym discounts are important but so are talks from thought leaders or medical professionals that can help you through different stages in life. So the trend is about being proactive rather than waiting until things go bad for an employee and then attempting to fix it.”

The greater focus on life stages is as much about D&I as it is about wellbeing. The disproportionate impact of the pandemic on particular groups of workers is well documented with mothers 47% more likely to have lost their job or quit than fathers and 49% of disabled mothers furloughed.

“Businesses recognise that they can do more to attract a diverse talent pool and retain women in senior leadership positions,” says Deirdre O’Neill, co-founder and chief commercial officer at Hertility.

“By identifying these pivotal life moments and showing that they are looking to support physical, mental and social wellbeing and reproductive health, they are showing female employees what type of organisation they are and what values they live and breathe.”

In response to the demand for better menopause support in the workplace, O’Neill says the healthcare provider will now offer new testing that enables women to predict and plan for the menopause.

“Employers understand the challenges that fertility issues, reproductive health and menopause can pose on their employees’ wellbeing and productivity,” adds O’Neill. “The fact that companies are supporting these life moments is a significant step forwards.”


Digital wellbeing

Given the increase in screen time brought on by remote working, and calls from unions to introduce a right to disconnect, it will come as no surprise that digital wellbeing is now firmly on the benefits agenda too.

“Emotional health, financial health and physical health are already well catered for, but COVID has brought to the fore this new area of digital health that we’re still learning lots about,” says Jonny Pelter, CEO and founder of Just Ask Max.

The digital wellbeing platform helps staff monitor screen-time, deal with cyber-bullying and develop healthy habits around remote working. Proposed legislation on the right to disconnect has made HR leaders consider how they build in digital wellbeing to their benefits programme.

“I think there will probably be three different ways people will manage it. There will be a small contingent that [will think] it’s just a COVID thing, and refuse to do anything,” he adds.

“There will be others that use it as a plaster...employers who say ‘okay, I can see it is an issue’, but then only provide it as an optional benefit. Then there will be the other contingent that allocates budget and spends money on integrating a right to disconnect and digital health into their existing risk and compliance function – actually taking it seriously.”

With the impact of furlough and redundancies on employees’ finances, many more employers are also committing themselves to offering financial wellbeing benefits.

The CIPD research found that 49% of employers still had no financial wellbeing policy in place, however 12% had introduced or were planning to introduce a policy. A further 24% were investigating the impact of the pandemic on employees’ finances.

Among those considering what more they can do is Aviva. Harmer says: “Being a living wage employer is really important to us and it’s something we’re really proud of but I’m conscious that you could pay a living wage, and people can still have financial challenges.”

What that support looks like remains to be seen, but the CIPD report identified a rise in employer salary advance schemes or flexible pay allowing employees to access their wages as they earn rather than resort to pay-day loans or other high-interest debt.

Research last year by EY found that 60% of people would view a prospective employer more favourably if they offered such a benefit. Other employers are looking at saving schemes. “Financial wellbeing is a priority for us and is an area we will be looking at,” says Josephina Smith, global head of reward at YouGov.

“We’re looking at ways that employees can save and leverage that from a recognition perspective, so if we had a way for employees to save and we wanted to recognise that employee, we could then give them an amount within their savings, or even their child’s savings.”


Non-negotiable flex

Perhaps the biggest influence on benefits trends has been the advent of hybrid working. Hybrid and flexible working remains a top priority for employees but with it rapidly becoming the norm, should it still be sold to employees as a benefit?

“I just don’t think flexible working is a benefit,” says Debra Corey. “It is a way of working. Like an office or a computer, it’s just another tool to help us to support our people. You get a computer to help you be more productive, to make work easier for you. You have hybrid working for the same reason.”

Tait says that candidates consider hybrid and flexible working so essential that it’s no longer a benefit, but rather a ‘non-negotiable’. As hybrid working becomes normalised, some suggest the focus from a benefits perspective may become less about having the right to work from home, and more about what type of office environment that’s on offer.

“Organisations will want to think about what they can do to make offices more tempting and more of an experience,” says the CIPD’s Cotton. “Traditionally you might not consider that as part of benefits, but for younger people starting out who may be in shared accommodation, their working environment is going to be a big consideration when they are looking at jobs.”

Of course, the desire to realign benefits for the new normal may be there within HR, but it doesn’t mean the budget is. The CIPD found that just 9% of employers had increased their spending on employee benefits. Smith says there are ways that employers can be impactful with their benefits even while recovering from a recession.

“YouGov is a medium-sized organisation at the moment but we are a global organisation as well, which is a little bit complex particularly when you don’t have big populations in all of those different areas. So we have to think very smartly around how we leverage our benefits,” says Smith.

“It’s really about trying to do the right thing and that means focusing on offering employees protection and peace of mind so they are not worrying. Challenge the norms and try to understand how you can provide something in a different way. Challenge the prices you’ve been given too and try to make it seamless for people.”

"The world may be in a state of flux but you still have a workforce that needs engaging with"

One of the most cost-effective ways for HR to have an impact in this space right now is simply by communicating their benefits offering. Robert Hicks, group HR director at Reward Gateway, says there is no killer benefit that will cut through if you haven’t nailed your benefits communications strategy.

“Human resources is really a communications job rather than a people job. Because what we need to do is help people understand the job, the benefits, what the company’s doing, so that then they can be more effective in terms of what they’re doing,” says Hicks.

“I still think there’s lots of things you can do which don’t cost money, which are much more centred around the organisational culture and its values. HR leaders should be looking at creating the right conditions and not obsessing about the magic bullet of a single benefit.”

There is, of course, also the very fixed notion that nothing is, in fact, currently fixed, and that the state of uncertainty we’re still living and working in is not the right environment for making long-term changes to benefits.

Cotton says that organisations will want to wait and see the true impact of the pandemic on their business before investing in new benefit mechanisms or perks. But Akiki at Perkbox cautions against waiting.

“I understand why people are a bit worried because every week something else comes up, and employees and employers aren’t able to set things in stone,” says Akiki. “The problem with waiting, however, is that this is probably the most trying time for employees. And so if they feel like you’re not providing them with something that’s good for them today, they’re not going to be engaged, then they’re going to look elsewhere.”

At Fiit, an agile approach to benefits has been essential during what has been a period of significant growth for the ever-popular app. “I think saying that it’s too difficult to design a rewards and benefits programme because we’re in a state of flux at the moment is a massive cop-out,” says Wharfe.

“The world may be in a state of flux but you still have a workforce that needs engaging with.” Fiit sends out a weekly survey to employees with five different questions each week to help them to get a real-time view of employee engagement levels and respond quickly.

“I also believe that the mindset that reward and benefits programmes take a long time to design and implement, then they never change, is really outdated,” adds Wharfe. “We live in a world that moves quickly and a working environment that is fluid. If your reward and benefits practices can’t be equally agile they, and you, will quickly become obsolete.”

Within two weeks of the first lockdown, Fiit had surveyed employees on their needs and provided each of their staff with an individual work from home budget, a quarterly wellbeing budget and additional mental health support.

Regardless of the approach taken, it’s becoming very clear that at the core of any competitive benefits programme is a willingness to listen and respond. “It’s an extremely exciting time to be in this space, because it’s ever-changing. But the one thing you need to do is to listen to your employees because we don’t have answers,” says Akiki.

“Right now as HR professionals, there’s no tried and tested way of how to deal with this type of work. And so your employees’ views are just as relevant as your own.”

Corey agrees and credits HR for stepping outside its comfort zone in an attempt to offer genuine support to employees. It may be some time before the world feels like a more certain place, but one thing we can be sure of is HR’s ability to meet the challenges that lay ahead.


This is part two of an article appears in the September/October 2021 print issue. Check our part one here and subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk.