More and more companies are offering benefits to attract and retain top talent, but often more rudimentary benefits are needed to create a springboard for employee wellbeing. In order to ensure companies reap the rewards, employers first need to understand the essential foundations for employee wellbeing.
Across the world, many people in employment find themselves living hand-to-mouth with nothing left at the end of the month. Before the COVID-19 crisis, the number of people in employment in the EU was at a record high, yet 17% of the population was at risk of poverty – even taking into account state and central benefits.
Governments are taking action to alleviate the strain, with 21 of the 27 EU member states now having an official minimum wage, while the EU is introducing a minimum wage across the board. However with a long-term economic recession anticipated following the COVID-19 pandemic, expected to be the worst since the Great Depression of the 1930s, these issues are likely to come home to roost for many people who were previously in secure jobs, in viable businesses.
While businesses have realised that what is on offer beyond a salary can help to drive productivity as well as improve the attractiveness of the company, there has been a range of assumptions as to what employees really want, and what really helps.
The growing uncertainty around finances – globally, and personally – is exposing at a fundamental level the real concerns of individuals.
A homogenous workforce?
In wealthier countries where the average standard of living is often higher, gym memberships, cycle-to-work schemes, and sports clubs have been seen as easy access options to improve physical wellbeing.
They are straightforward to provide, inexpensive compared to some other benefits, and can help people socially as well as physically. With employees happy to receive these small gestures for free, for employers it is a quick win.
But as workforces in international organisations are spread outside of their headquartered country – often in countries where labour is cheaper – head offices can have a tendency to perceive the entire workforce as the same entity. In other geographies, a new perspective may be needed to really understand what benefits would be of most use, or even accessible.
Assumptions can undermine good intentions. It is crucial to understand regional variations, including the cultural, financial, and educational differences between groups of employees across an organisation. Even with a workforce in the same location, there can be vast differences in employee expectation depending on the job level, or skill base.
Before designing a single benefits package for all employees, businesses need to better understand the situations of their employees. The cost of living is increasing, but inflation is not.
Wealth disparity is increasing across the world, and is becoming an issue for a growing number of people. Even in wealthier countries, while better salaries are available, the impact of city living can be hugely detrimental to wellbeing in a variety of ways, including physical health.
Sandrine Fleury, Communication Consulting Business Leader at Aon EMEA says that regardless of any differences, businesses need to address the same fundamental human needs:
‘There are differences between countries in terms of trends in what people need, however the foundations are universal. Financial wellbeing starts with accommodation and food for yourself and your family — other forms of wellbeing are of little interest if someone can’t feed themselves. These issues can affect anyone, in any country, at any time.’
The need for basic provisions should come as no surprise. While there is the sense that people believe more attractive benefits packages including flexible working, lots of social events, and advanced training and development will ensure people will want to work for you, Maslow described in the 1940’s how self-actualisation is built on the fundamentals of survival.
This can even affect people in good jobs. The short-term nature of modern employment means that perceived job security is lower – because of the loss of the ‘job-for-life,’ people are increasingly anxious about their futures, and even where job-hopping is a strategic move for faster career progression, this can undermine financial planning.
The COVID-19 pandemic clearly showed that both businesses and employees alike were unprepared for a sudden loss of income. While many employers have been focused on short-term, attractive benefits packages that are rooted in immediate employee appreciation, there has been less foresight as to what employees might need in the event of job loss.
Recognising the problem
Employers now recognise the importance of proper financial support outside of salaries and bonuses if they are going to form a lasting two-way relationship with their employees. Attitudes of ‘leave your problems at the door’ are seen as archaic and counterproductive, while not dealing with the problems can affect happiness and ultimately productivity.
But this is not about getting to the root of someone’s financial problems. At first, it is about identifying that someone has financial problems – only then can you help them.
There is a cohort of employees in any organisation that are on lower pay grades, or may have large families on a single income. Acknowledging that these groups exist and providing a bottom-up solution can provide the route for people to reach out for help.
Sandrine believes companies need to step up and change their way of thinking about people at the lower end of the social spectrum:
‘Hand-to-mouth living is a reality for a lot of people globally. If a company is committed to wellbeing, it needs to be in the DNA of the organisation itself. This is a mindset – not a top-down initiative.’
Getting someone to open up about financial difficulties can be a tricky first step. People can feel embarrassed, ashamed, or be in denial that there is a problem at all because of the consequences. This can be entirely cultural, based on the country you are in – where one’s finances are not normally the subject of open discussion – or can be brought on by a need to maintain status, or a sense of personal pride. Breaking these taboos is critical in taking steps forward.
Prevention & intervention
The COVID-19 pandemic showed how savings can suddenly become very useful in a crisis. Those able to support themselves without hindrance, or those less affected by rising unemployment, reduced hours, or government subsidies have been able to reprioritise; rearranging their lives in a way that better works for them.
As we reassess what is really important, there has been a rise in home exercise, spending time with children, and an opportunity to learn new skills or take up new hobbies that was not as easy as before the pandemic, when the routine for many was a daily grind. Employees will be reluctant to give up these new found freedoms of expression, and return to a world that lacks balance.
There are long-term lessons to be learned in individual wellness as well as the immediate health of the wider population. Preventing poor wellness in areas such as emotional wellbeing where working from home has opened the door to mindfulness, and professional wellbeing where introverts have been spared from office politics is the key to a brighter future for all.
While the situation has not been kind to many, losing sight of where improvements have been made on an individual level, and sharing this at a societal level once the health crisis is over would be a huge missed opportunity.
Once the pandemic and the measures to prevent infection are first reduced, and then completely lifted, the biggest tragedy would be to take nothing from the situation, and to have been victims to it.
However, it is important to remember that those who have been able to take advantage of the benefits are likely those who have been financially safe. Creating financial safety in the ‘new normal’ must be a fundamental priority for employers. Even where finances have not been immediately affected, financial wellbeing will continue to be an issue for many with the economic downturn that will follow.
Employees will continue to have a heightened sense of nervousness around their future finances. Indeed, if there is a ‘second wave,’ or something else entirely compounds the forthcoming financial crisis, there will be no excuse for employers who did not act – the immediate concern for employees will be ensuring they are safe from any further effects. What is more, unravelling the positive effects by undermining them with financial worries would waste the efforts of employers in other areas.
Sandrine believes a ground-up approach is required, where all employees are considered at risk, if the threat is ongoing as it will be in the months to come.
«Physical health is important – but it is undermined if a portion of your workforce are focused on getting through the month, or they are working without a contract, and financial protections are not in place for them. Other forms of wellbeing then become secondary, and are totally inaccessible.»
Sandrine Fleury, Communication Consulting Business Leader at Aon EMEA
Corporate responsibility and public perception
It was not only unemployment in the traditional sense that caused millions of people worldwide to be left without financial protections – either falling through contractual gaps, or not considered a ‘full time’ employee to begin with. Those who are self-employed, or on zero-hours contracts were suddenly financially exposed by their choice to work in this way – a choice that is often driven by broader, personal choices such as flexibility of hours that benefit broader wellbeing.
It was evidenced in the Aon Gig Economy report that there is a real difference in employer approaches to full-time and casual, or ‘gig’ workers. Workers who make these life choices such as delivery drivers, warehouse managers, security guards, and many of those in retail, have been reliant on governments stepping in because of the lack of financial protections from their employer after the COVID-19 situation left them exposed. Difficulties accessing aid funds made their jobs more difficult to put on hold, and coupled with the nature of the work, those who needed to continue working have also been at greater risk of infection during the pandemic. This is all while company reliance on gig work is growing.
Because of these factors, employers are under close scrutiny. Media attention and perceived government attitudes to super-rich business owners, have also exposed apparent unfairness of their treatment of both ‘gig’ employees and employees in general.
Bonus schemes, tax avoidance, and high salaries – general wealth disparity – is causing many people to ask questions as to where the responsibility lies, and where the system is failing.
While often the choice of the individual, the wider population is now also more aware that the cost to governments either through salary support programs, or company bailouts, will ultimately fall on them through taxes in years to come.
From a brand perspective, doing the right thing by your employees – whether contracted or not – and having a fair system that protects people at a societal level, and having the provisions to help your employees cope is growing in popular opinion. Failure to do so could well have consequences in the future, and could affect businesses ability to attract and retain talent, as well as remain viable in the marketplace.
From a rising, resilient perspective, companies need to have a better handle on the ethical implications of the protections they offer to their employees, if they are going to see them as trustworthy.
Building from the ground up
Having a clear framework in place is the first step in ensuring you are thinking about all pillars of wellbeing, and tailoring each of these by country, job function, and job level will ensure you are making broader considerations.
There may be other local factors, but it is important you find a way to get this insight. Where people are less forthcoming about personal problems, anonymised surveys would be a good starting point, or where people are ready to speak more openly, forums may be a place to start to provide solutions to problems.
There is a strong argument that asking your employees in each of these groups about the difficulties they face in their work and personal lives will give good insight into the causes of stress. Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs) are a good way to provide information, as well as access to the support that is needed at an individual level, which also allows the employee to lead the conversation and access the provisions confidentially, and exactly when they need it.
Education of all employees, training line managers to handle difficult conversations and situations, as well as having visible senior sponsorship, are all key to enabling good communication.
The COVID-19 pandemic has begun to normalise financial conversations in countries where previously discussing personal finances has been off limits.
Sandrine focuses on ensuring the right frameworks are in place to get the information to workforces, ensuring employers are not only providing benefits, they reap the rewards of their efforts:
‘As well as having the right employee benefits in place, it’s important employees understand what is available to them. As a first step, it is critical that leadership plays an active role in ensuring these initiatives are taken seriously, normalising these conversations. Secondly, a clear communications plan, along with the adequate resources to deliver the plan, is vital. If employees don’t want to engage with wellbeing, don’t understand it, or if the benefits aren’t communicated at all, this is a huge missed opportunity.’
In many companies, their communication strategies do not do justice to the provisions that are available to their workforces, essentially wasting budgets. Without learning more about what is available, where it can be accessed, and crucially how it will help people, even if people know there is a benefits scheme – they are unlikely to use it. Sandrine agrees:
«We need to open this conversation now. Employees are missing out on advice and guidance because they don’t know it is available. It’s crucial that pensions, health cover, and life insurances are all understood – and crucially; what comes from the company, and what comes from the government, to ensure people can have confidence in their futures.»
Sandrine Fleury, Communication Consulting Business Leader at Aon EMEA
Post-pandemic, as the world adjusts to the ‘new normal,’ providing a foundation of employee benefits that give fundamental stability and reassurance to workforces will not only be expected, the companies who fail to plan for such eventualities may be more exposed by staff attraction, retention, and under greater scrutiny outside of the organisation too.
Meeting this situation head on, companies that are prepared to do the right thing and put their people first will position themselves as brave, trustworthy, and empowering. While immediate threats remain real for many, employees and businesses should consider turning their attention back to the future.
Sandrine believes alleviating threats to finances is crucial, as people are spending energy on solutions to problems, when solutions may already be available to them.
‘If people are in a position of hardship, they will look around for ways to alleviate the strain. By helping them first understand what is available in terms of financial support and information, and providing flexible employee benefits filling the gaps in what they need, they will be able to create the wellbeing they need.’
With greater financial security in place, employees will be able to focus on objectives such as personal development, career progression, or simpler pastimes such as socialising.
By considering workplaces as a platform where people can meet all of the challenges life brings and achieve their goals, the workplace of tomorrow will emerge.