Employers have had plenty of practice discussing difficult topics with their staff after the events of the last two years. But with energy prices skyrocketing, inflation reaching record highs and general concerns for the future spreading through workers across the country, the spotlight once again turns to HR in a time of crisis.
How can HR score some quick wins to help employees deal with the cost of living crisis? We put the topic to an expert panel during an HR Lunchtime Debate in partnership Uber for Business.
For more tips, check out HR magazine's Cost of living learning hub
Transparency is crucial
Sally Hopper, director of HR for Hertfordshire County Council, said companies remaining quiet on key issues will help no one.
She said: “Saying nothing is not helpful because it’s all over the media and it’s on our colleagues’ minds. However, communication does need to be thoughtful and not trying to solve all of the issues. Having communication that ensures people know where they can get help is really important.”
Though there’s no universal method of communication that all businesses can copy, pointed out Tammy Arnaud, EMEA HR lead at Uber, she recommended delivering messages in a digestible way.
She said: “You can’t just pretend that things aren’t happening, but you do have to take care of the way the message is going to land depending on the audience. Inflation, for instance, is a topic where the level of knowledge that people have about it may vary, so you do have to make sure that you’re explaining things in a way that people will be able to relate to.
“The important thing is to know the audience and make sure that you have a message that aligns with that.”
Tracie Greenhalgh, chief people officer at Arden University, said employees’ feelings are the most important things for companies to consider when discussing important issues.
She said: “The message has to be sensitive. We have to think about multiple different things that we can do to support our colleagues, that they may or may not need, and really keep those lines of communication open. The key thing is to make work a safe space and place for people to come and talk to us if they if they need to.”
The cost of living crisis is an example of a serious issue that could require more communication than usual between employers and employees. When polled, 40% of the audience said they hadn’t discussed the topic with their workers yet.
Hopper advised HR to take action now to avoid negative impacts on wellbeing and morale.
She said: “The cost of living crisis is on their minds at the moment, and they don’t lose that thought when they come into work. Companies should really be thinking through what more they could do to support and help with productivity.
“If employees are thinking about that, they’re probably not fully concentrating on their work either. So it really does matter from an employer’s perspective as well.”
Getting creative with HR handouts
When thinking of new ways to support staff, Arnaud said even small measures that make everyday lives more convenient would go a long way.
She said: “There’s so many different creative solutions out there. One of the things that we are looking at is around discounts for groceries and other high-street stores as well. We’re exploring travel pass loans as we have a lot of people that travel to and from work on trains and Tubes.
“Making sure simple things like expenses are paid on time can really help as well, so that people aren’t spending money and waiting for it to come back.”
Hopper added: “It’s so important to get the balance right. We give workers discounts on other things like entertainment, and they also have access to discounts on car insurance.
“Making every pound go further for your employees is a really good outcome. We started the Christmas Savings Club a couple of years ago, which is really popular where employees can save some money and it gets paid out in November to help plan those big events.”
Greenhalgh said there are still ways to help workers even when working on a shoestring budget.
She added: “Some of the companies that didn’t have as big a budget for benefits targeting inflation decided to implement more flexible work schedules so that people could stay at home as they wanted to or go to the office where they could save on gas bills or even commuting costs.
“Some people are trying to provide food to the office so that people can save them in all the meals as well.”
Financial education can also help, added Greenhalgh: “Perhaps companies have to embrace the idea of better educating employees on financial topics. People can understand how to budget better and how to organise finances.
“We presuppose that this is something that’s very common sense, but it’s really not common practice.”
Again, Greenhalgh emphasised, there’s a mental health component of finances.
“There’s a huge correlation between mental health and financial wellbeing,” she said. “We’re living through very turbulent times.
“It’s not just the cost of living there are many, many other things happening in the world right now that make people very upset.
“So, I think that taking care of people’s mental health and making sure that this is addressed is quite important.”
HR priorities for the future
When looking ahead Greenhalgh said employee wellbeing should be front and centre of HR planning.
She said: “We need to make sure we are keeping our people well, because they’re dealing with an incredibly fast-paced environment. It comes with all the expectations and all the challenges, both internally with the role and for them as individuals externally in their own lives.
“It’s about making sure that we’ve got wellness programmes and support and strategies in place to cope with that, but also looking at retention, and making sure we know where our critical points of failure are which will help the organisation to continue to grow and evolve.”
Arnaud identified retention as a major issue for the months ahead.
She said: “First and foremost, I would say focus on retaining people because if you do lose them, it will be harder and more expensive to get them back.
“If you are a company that sort of depends on a certain level of personnel to get your services and products across, that could be very impactful as well.”
Linking the two challenges, Greenhalgh said, is personal development which often gets forgotten in a downturn.
“Development of individuals is important. We need to be careful not to forget that people still want to develop us as individuals and in their career trajectory.”