In theory, Covid-19 has made business focus on the basic needs of its people: salary, benefits, health and wellbeing. In practice, as our latest research shows, SME employers in particular might need consulting support from intermediaries to readjust – or even kickstart – their benefit and wellbeing programmes to ensure they are fit for purpose.
There still seems a strong focus on one-off perks – the kind of benefits that might be considered useful recruitment tools during times of scarce labour – over support for financial and mental wellbeing: two interconnected aspects that are needed right now and for the foreseeable, as unemployment increases, job vacancies decrease and pay and bonus cuts continue.
Furlough has now been extended to the end of March. At the same time, latest labour market data shows that redundancies increased in July to August by 113,000 over the year. The increase was the largest since April to June 2009. Job vacancies are below the pre Covid-19 pandemic levels and 40.5 per cent less than a year ago.
Where people are still in work, many employers are making structural changes to working patterns.
Against this backdrop, it’s perhaps unsurprising to find that 7 in 10 employees say the pandemic has had a negative impact on their overall mental wellbeing, with concerns related to personal finances representing the biggest issue.
While, until now, the focus for employers since the original lockdown has understandably rested on mandatory risk assessments to ensure workplaces are Covid-secure – the safety aspect – there’s also an urgent need to consider the employee wellbeing aspects.
Mental wellbeing has already taken a huge hit and more is yet to come. A well-constructed wellbeing programme, designed with the unique needs of each workforce in mind, could go a long way towards providing valued support.
This needn’t involve additional spend either. It might even save employers money. The focus should be on reallocating spend away from benefits and services that aren’t bringing any value, towards those that could.
Right now many individuals are focused squarely on paying the household bills, putting the dinner on the table and not even thinking about Christmas.
And although encouraging evidence, primarily amongst companies with 1,000+ employees, shows that certain, very relevant, benefits have seen a sharp increase in usage between April to June – such as employee assistance programmes (EAPs), mental wellbeing apps and virtual GPs – there’s a concern that the impetus to continue communicating these benefits and services will diminish as other priorities take hold during the deepening economic crisis, just when they were more needed than ever.
And what about all the small to medium sized companies that probably don’t have access to such services right now.
Legal & General carried out research amongst SMEs in August and found big disconnects between employer and employee opinions with regards to benefit priorities. One-off perks, such as celebrations, were still considered by SME employers to be the most used and valued benefit, followed by pensions and then gift vouchers.
In contrast, employees didn’t rate one-off perks in their top three at all. They were much more focused on benefits that could potentially help with their wellbeing, namely share save schemes, cash plans and health screening.
On protection benefits, there seemed more alignment of opinion, with 82 per cent of employers saying such benefits are relevant to their employees’ lives and circumstances, and 73 per cent of employees in agreement. Similarly, for added value benefits – such as EAPs – 89 per cent of employers said they were relevant in comparison to 75 per cent of employees.
US employee experience expert Josh Bersin neatly sums up what really matters to individuals using Maslow’s infamous hierarchy of needs and placing it in a work context. He comments that the pandemic has ensured a move from a focus on the top – personal growth, career – to a “laser focus on the bottom” – salary, benefits, health and wellbeing. Adding that: “In this new world, employee experience, wellbeing and trust should be at the very centre of company strategy.”
As an industry, we would do well to bear this in mind when helping employers of all shapes and sizes assess and design benefits and wellbeing programmes that mean business.