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SUPPORTING EMPLOYEES DURING FINANCIALLY CHALLENGING TIMES

In what continues to be a challenging time – both socially and economically – expectations from employees for their employers to step up is at an all-time high. This is beyond offering the standard benefits, now the role of the employer is more perceived as being the principal solution to the crisis. Along with the responsibility of meeting all aspects of wellbeing, this support is increasingly viewed as a moral obligation, whereby employees feel so strongly about their employer’s response that it significantly impacts attraction, retention, productivity and loyalty.

Caroline Foster, People Director – The National Autistic Society
Tracey Carpenter, Insider Threat Manager – CIFAS
Riaan Van Wyk, Senior Wellbeing Consultant – Barnett Waddingham
Sarah Fernandes, Director Of People – SSAFA
Jackie Tullett, Former HR Director, Talent & Employee Experience – British Business Bank
Louise Tofts, Head of HR – Finatal
Hilary Holder, Senior HR Business Partner – CAF
Kirsten Watts, Senior Business Development Consultant – Barnett Waddingham
Lea Charlery, People Partner – Open Signal
Lisa Porter, People Services Manager – LIED

HAVE EMPLOYEE EXPECTATIONS OF THEIR EMPLOYER CHANGED OVER THE LAST FEW YEARS?

Louise Tofts: Yes, the pandemic significantly raised expectations and HR became even more of a counsellor on money, childcare, benefits and generally what to do, as Government guidance was often less than clear. Consequently, HR became increasingly trusted to navigate through what was an unprecedented series of events.

Jackie Tullett: We were managing the Government’s COVID business response financial schemes and all our employees were critical workers. Colleagues were all working from home, which alleviated commuting costs, but we had other wellbeing challenges relating to work pressures and burnout. It was an intense time and many colleagues were working unsustainable hours. I’m not sure I would describe it as an obligation, but we put in place a range of wellbeing programmes, which was the right thing to do, but it wasn’t just in response to a financial wellbeing, it was much broader than that.

Tracey Carpenter: We’re in a much better position post-pandemic – where before employees were more reticent about their personal issues – now there is definitely more openness. Even if employers cannot afford to support their people financially, they can still make a difference by being flexible, such as allowing employees to work their hours over four days instead of five, to save on commuting and childcare for example. More thought, focus and guidance on hidden costs and small benefits can make a huge difference and employees feel supported and valued.

THAT PROFESSIONALS IN OUR MOST KEY SERVICES ARE RELIANT ON FOOD BANKS POSES THE BURNING QUESTION, WHAT IS THE SCOPE OF EMPLOYER OBLIGATION?

Caroline Foster: As a charity, the reality is that financially we cannot compete with conventional business wages. So, as the leader of the HR agenda, it requires carefully considered strategy around salary. There is such a focus on parity and I have a lot to do to change paradigms and build compelling total cash compensation strategies, for example, that can bring employees out of the average and start to differentiate in a meaningful way. For lower paid workers, the hourly rate absolutely has to be firmly featured as a strategic priority, looking ahead.

Sarah Fernandes: So much has changed – all of our employee contracts relate to hybrid-working and remote now – but what remains unchanged is the commitment to look after colleagues’ wellbeing and that includes financial wellbeing. Currently, I’m working on a holistic approach to total reward.

SHOULD FINANCIAL HEALTH BE CONSIDERED ALONGSIDE MENTAL HEALTH WELLBEING?

Lea Charlery: Of course, mental health and wellness is intrinsically linked to f financial and job security and, in terms of values, purpose, parity and fairness, these are essential tenets. We have instigated some salary adjustments and there’s still work to be done, as the cost of-living crisis continues.

Kirsten Watts: Employee expectation has indeed changed and there are a number of reasons why. Through COVID, there was a transition of expectation and employers accrued more responsibility and, post-pandemic, the lack of access to medical care, including dentists, has meant employers have had to review the level of support they provide. There are also generational changes, with young people entering the workplace, expecting personalisation, all adding up to a big challenge.

Riaan van Wyk: If you chart the past 30 years, levels of employee expectation around financial issues have reflected the economy – obviously, in good times, that will reduce and in tough times it will rise. So, balance and pragmatism are key – employers shouldn’t just give in to everything. Sure, expectations surrounding financial support is piqued right now, but providing employers are consistent and sustainable in their support provision, unlike the pandemic which preceded, there really is nothing anomalous with this current crisis that cannot be countered with good, ethical policies and practical support.

DO YOU FEEL A MORAL OBLIGATION AS AN EMPLOYER IN THESE CHALLENGING TIMES?

Tracey Carpenter: Why would employers not want to support their employees to ensure that they are given the opportunity to bring their best selves to work? If employees are thinking that they can’t afford to eat, let alone pay bills, that will obviously impact their work. So, employers I feel do have that moral obligation – from a perspective of keeping the workforce safe and well. In many cases, we’re not talking about people living beyond their means, this is people struggling with the everyday financial pressures of life. Lisa Porter: Agreed and it needs to be a comprehensive and practical platform of support, not mere tokenism.

Caroline Foster: No employment contract describes the ethics, efficacy and morality of the responsibilities of an employer, beyond the basic hygiene issues. Yet employers fundamentally have a moral obligation to support people through tough times, for practical as well as moral reasons. The cost of absence, attrition, re recruitment, loss of skills and training up replacements, far outweighs the basic duty of care and support. We’re talking the bottom line and safeguarding wellbeing and creating a good employee experience.

Jackie Tullett: Paradoxically, remote working and virtual meetings broke down barriers. We could look into people’s lives outside of work and there was greater openness, candour and a sense of connection. The commercial benefits from being an ethical and equitable employer that provides wellbeing support and fosters an inclusive culture, cannot be denied. If organisations can articulate what they offer and genuinely bring it to life, with an overall positive employee experience, they will attract and keep good people.

Lisa Porter: Indeed, really innovative ideas can initially catch decision-maker interest, but can easily fizzle out when the costs are disclosed, but the potential is not always articulated compellingly.

Kirsten Watts: For sure, the moral obligation has increased from the pandemic and HR itself is always motivated by supporting people. But HR Directors need to make the business case strongly and consistently, CFOs will invariably point to other priorities and so I concur, winning hearts and minds in the boardroom is critical.

Riaan van Wyk: When we asked the question in our survey, 60 percent of our respondents indicated that employers do have a moral obligation to provide additional financial support during difficult times. In its broadest definition, if you support your people and contribute to their happiness and wellbeing, the likelihood is that they’re going to be more loyal and stay with you longer. Intuitively, it makes sense to support workers and it makes commercial sense too. But I think that if the focus is on the moral obligation, rather than the real commercial and resourcing imperatives, it is difficult to gain traction.

HAVE YOU WITNESSED IN-WORK POVERTY WITHIN YOUR OWN ORGANISATION?

Riaan van Wyk: Talking about finances at work, particularly when things are tough, really is a taboo subject and so in work poverty is incredibly difficult to identify and measure. In employee surveys, many people will not disclose this, even if it is the main reason they are underperforming or are absent from work. That is why it’s essential to make that link between mental wellbeing and f financial wellbeing, because the taboo around mental health has diminished to a point that people are more likely to confide. In linking financial and mental wellbeing, it then becomes easier to identify, act and measure.

Caroline Foster: It’s about pulling focus to reveal the bigger picture, in addition to f financial support, employers should also take more responsibility around social mobility and ensure that people are provided with opportunity and training. T his increases their earning potential and subsequent wealth, as well as brings skills relevance in the jobs market. My organisation supports people with autism and the statistic for people with neurodevelopmental disabilities, not just autism, is that 71 percent throughout their lifetime will remain either unemployed or underemployed. That statistic doesn’t change decade after decade and so opening up opportunities for minority groups has to be an urgent priority.

WHAT ARE THE COST-OF-LIVING CHALLENGES ACROSS THE DEMOGRAPHIC?

Louise Tofts: Most of our employees are young – below 40 years of age – living in London. We’ve a very open, psychologically safe business and they are open about financial issues, as they are with health. Generally, it will be guiding them to budget, as they have student loan payments and London rent to budget for. Graduates also share and help each other and meet up to share experiences.

Jackie Tullett: When we look at exit data, we can of course see that people cite different reasons for leaving, but the underlying point is that most are looking for an opportunity that offers more money. This really is an overall theme, that’s driven by different factors for different people. Incidentally, one of the implications of hybrid working is that people reported saving money from reduced commuting costs.

THE CLICHÉD ONE-SIZE-DOES- NOT-FIT-ALL, SEEMS TO RESONATE ACROSS THIS.

Kirsten Watts: Completely, understanding the differences across the demographic of a workplace – as well as not making assumptions – is essential to equity and efficacy. This is because there are so many permutations to people’s financial challenges, because of the complexities of life – from young people wanting to buy their first property – to the squeezed middle with older children to support and elder care, to older workers, facing a longer career than they anticipated. We know that some people are holding down two-or-three jobs and some are choosing between heating and eating. Undoubtedly, data gives you so much insight, but it will only provide aspects of the big picture and that’s where line managers play a key role. Of course, visibility is an issue in remote working, but again this needs to be part of the general wellbeing catchup.

WHERE DO YOU FEEL THAT EMPLOYER’S RESPONSIBILITY ENDS?

Caroline Foster: I’m thinking that there can be a line drawn to demarcate the boundaries of responsibility. It’s much more about adult-to-adult trusting relationships and open, unjudgmental and realistic conversations around helping people make sound judgments and take courses of action surrounding their finances. Tracey Carpenter: It really needs to be on a case-by-case basis – depending on circumstances – because much of the support an employer can offer, is about signposting.

Jackie Tullett: Different factions of a business need to focus on their areas of responsibility. The board’s primary responsibility is to the shareholders and making sure that a business operates with efficacy. For a line manager, it’s enabling the effectiveness of people in their team – which is now expected to include greater awareness and open conversations around wellbeing. Meanwhile, HR needs to make sure there is a strong set of benefits, policies and support programmes.

Louise Tofts: As a head of HR, I feel my responsibility is to ensure I do everything I can to help employees with financial difficulty, but there will be a limit to that and being aware of what that limit is more a case of judgement of what is right for a particular circumstance, as opposed to a boundary marked in stone.

Sarah Fernandes: The profound duty is to be aware – provide those safe channels where people can talk- because if employees are saying one thing but experiencing another, the implications will be felt elsewhere, in attrition rates and re-recruiting. It’s about opening up, but also being data-led, showing the board compelling reasons.

Lisa Porter: The first important step is acknowledgement that a crisis exists, then next create the solutions that balance employee assistance with the needs of operating the business.

Lea Charlery: For me, this isn’t just about helping people through a financial crisis, a duty of care is standard best practice for HR, rather than being reactive and proactive when red flags are waved.

Kirsten Watts: There is definitely a need for a moral compass and making decisions on a case-by-case basis. It’s not necessarily about direct financial support – that is often just a quick fix – to make a long term and sustainable change, you need to plan a route, supporting where necessary and signposting to external benefits and support services.

Riaan van Wyk: Ultimately, where the line is drawn, we must address the issue of people risk inside the business. Companies need to consider that if they don’t support their employees, the impacts on productivity, engagement, wellbeing and attrition are going to be negative, resulting in stress on the business.

Louise Tofts: Agreed and it’s not just the risk that people will leave, it’s also if they will stay and underperform.

Caroline Foster: All of this requires extraordinary, unstoppable leadership capability – in and out of boardrooms – to innovate, problem solve and disrupt. It’s not just thinking outside the box, it’s 360-degree thinking and the spotlight is on leaders and their privileged position, to level the playing field. That requires leaders with intellect, emotional quotient and a repertoire that can change organisations, change communities, change politics and change the world.

HOW CAN COMPANY VALUES HELP MANAGE EMPLOYEE EXPECTATIONS?

Jackie Tullett: There should certainly be alignment, because company values must drive everything. That includes employee value proposition and how we put in place the right sort of support for our people. It must also link to our values aligned behaviours – how we treat each other, customers and stakeholders. Recognition – when colleagues go above and beyond – goes a long way too, in encouraging a can-do mindset, beyond basic work obligations.

Louise Tofts: We’ve recently articulated our company values and communicated them and now, we’re threading them through everything that we do. That’s to manage employee expectations – through cohesion in EAP – and linking all of the things that we do currently, to support employees. I’m now thinking about how we communicate our values around our benefits – from the big tangible things like private healthcare – to the intangible things like conversations and support.

Sarah Fernandes: We recently revamped our values and standards and it’s very much promoting what we stand for and our commitment to our beneficiaries. Internally, that translates into behaviours for our employees and it is something that will continuously evolve.

Caroline Foster: Where I believe differences can be made is at every touch point of the employee lifecycle, right from the descriptions in job adverts, to selection protocols and experiences right through the employee lifecycle and exit. The employers that comprehensively have this right are those that put transparency and trust first.

Jackie Tullett: I believe you can manage expectations by demonstrating company values – ‘what it’s like to work here’ – through to every decision that’s made at all stages. Company values inform the programmes and signposting we develop.

Lea Charlery: The crux of our debate today is financial and one important value is that all employees should be rewarded equitably. We now have a bonus structure, whereby if the company does well, everyone receives a bonus.

Caroline Foster: Money influences human behaviour and drives motivations, that’s traditionally how sales people are incentivised, but if colleagues that say, carry out a service for customers are not rewarded, that is a questionable arrangement. Perception is key here and the challenge for leaders and HR itself is not to perceive the wide workforce as “the biggest cost” and more consider it “the greatest asset”.

Riaan van Wyk: Value is a word that you can interpret in several different ways and the term “managing expectations”, tends to have a negative connotation to it, even though the intent behind it is meant to be positive. In his book, Sapiens, the author, Harari, looks at the evolution of the human species and he posits that, the main thing that separated homo sapiens from other species, is our ability to believe in a common story, a common idea. You can include in that what eventually became belief systems and religions and, in the modern day, that is the same as belonging to a company, group or club. When people pull together and believe, that’s where the group binds over common values and have a shared vision and belief.

IS YOUR BENEFITS OFFERING FIT FOR PURPOSE TO MEET THESE NEW EMPLOYEE EXPECTATIONS?

Jackie Tullett: We have evolved our offering, particularly around our wellbeing support, which we know our colleagues really value – they like to feel that the bank is supporting them – and we’re really focusing on our communications to make sure everyone’s aware of all parts of our overall offer.

Louise Tofts: We carried out research with a cross-section of our employees last year and physical and mental wellbeing were significant and so we’ve now introduced paid for gym membership and private medical health, which is knew to our business. Surprisingly, pensions came out low and so we took an ethical stance on encouraging, informing and guiding people to think about their pensions contributions. Interestingly, this has piqued colleagues’ interest and many more are asking what they should be doing to future-proof.

Kirsten Watts: Employers are taking a more holistic viewpoint around the benefits that they offer and they are reviewing benefits to check they are fit for purpose, in this new working era, meets wellbeing needs and are a good use of spend. Importantly, they are communicating that in a way that employees can understand and engage with, to fit into their lives.

IS IT YOUR EXPERIENCE THAT BUSINESSES ARE JUST STACKED WITH BENEFITS THAT LACK COHESION?

Kirsten Watts: Yes, as we’ve discussed today, much of what constituted benefits of the past, are no longer relevant to this new working era and don’t meet the requirements of employees. There’s a lot of duplication across benefits and I would seriously advise employers to review their policies, to make sure they are fit for purpose.

Caroline Foster: Last year, we conducted research on our benefits and introduced an impressive portfolio that includes a fully funded, discounted cash back, and salary sacrifice. Employees are engaging in benefits in different ways and different reasons and I’m determined over the next two years to transform benefits, to support and enhance employee experience.

Kirsten Watts: Again, it pays to look across the employee demographic, track changes and adapt. Right now, a popular benefits platform is discount sites delivered by a flexible benefits platform alongside other initiatives. If you want to do something with discounts and offer net pay versions, the providers are now giving much better rates.

HOW DOES THIS RELATE TO YOUR ORGANISATION’S ABILITY TO ATTRACT TALENT AND RETAIN PEOPLE WHO YOU WANT TO KEEP HOLD OF?

Jackie Tullett: We’re an economic development bank and because we’re an arms-length Government body, we don’t have the financial flexibility that some employers do to attract and keep talent. Employees want to work for values-driven companies that truly care and where they can feel valued for who they are. Which is why we focus so strongly on our employee value proposition and, for us, purpose is a key driver.

Kirsten Watts: Companies are investing – not necessarily more – but differently, into benefits and EVP and communication is improving, particularly digitally. People are thinking about their world post-COVID and while I completely understand many focusing on their finances in this crisis, for those that are not, people are increasingly mindful of their health and the importance of time, namely work/life balance. Then there are support services – including financial support services and domestic abuse helplines for example – which are so needed.

Riaan van Wyk: As we know, there’s a shortage in the labour market and part of the reason is that talent isn’t really moving around as much – the mindset being that perhaps the grass might not be greener on the other side after all. Interestingly, our research found that the number one reason people gave for resigning from their jobs over the past two years, was being unhappy in the workplace and not for financial reasons. That points to employee experience being the top of the agenda for HR, to capitalise on the trend for talent staying put and making sure that they are engaged and productive, while they are there.

Sarah Fernandes: Attraction is all about reputation and as the well-worn phrase has it, that takes years to gain and an instant to lose. The point is, once people are attracted by a reputation, that has to be backed up in reality in the longer term.

Caroline Foster: Lest we forget, there are huge numbers of people in heightened f financial distress and if they’re being ignored, it’s a natural part of our primal instinct to seek out a better situation and that also gives a degree of wrestling control back from the rigours of the crisis.

DO YOU THINK GOVERNMENT IS DOING ENOUGH TO SUPPORT PEOPLE WHO ARE STRUGGLING FINANCIALLY?

Caroline Foster: Where Government could be more proactive is supporting people who are most deprived in our society and opening up life opportunities that can change lives for the better. Jackie Tullett: At the most fundamental policy level, priorities should include education and food strategies and initiatives to improve the skill base, productivity and resilience of the UK’s workforce.

Louise Tofts: For me, Government needs to take a look at education as a means of providing opportunity and levelling up. It’s great that so many students are benefitting from university, but the fees, as we know, are massive and will inevitably have an impact on students from more deprived backgrounds. For me, education should be accessible to all, regardless of financial status.

Sarah Fernandes: I wholeheartedly agree on education, but in context with today’s debate, those on minimum wage simply cannot afford energy prices and in this day and age, that should not be the case. Lisa Porter: Government has to gain a grip on the big issues that impact us all – healthcare, energy, the environment and pensions.

Lea Charlery: Indeed, Government would like more people to be out in the workplace, paying taxes, being re- and upskilled and not being a burden on the state. But when you look at the cost of childcare, that simply is not realistic for many and that has implications on society and is a waste of potential resources, talent and skills. There has to be a better way of supporting parents, as well as carers, to enable people to work, have careers and afford to live.

Riaan van Wyk: I can’t believe that in 2024 that we don’t have required f financial education at school level. It’s such a low-hanging fruit and it will make so much of a difference. If you invest at grassroots level, that’s an intervention that everybody would be behind. Then a little bit further along the scale, make tertiary education more affordable through subsidies and incentivise employers to take control. It’s important to tackle this early, not when the problem’s already developed.

Kirsten Watts: Agreed, there is only so much employers can do, Government needs to support employers, so that they can in turn support employees to have better experiences and opportunities. T his could be through tax incentives for those that invest in benefits. After all, what employers provide takes some of the burden off Government, social services and the NHS. But it’s the lower end of the workforce where change really needs to happen.

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