The role of employee benefits in nurturing a stable and healthy workforce is often misunderstood by employers. Wojciech Dochan explains how to keep staff happy in their jobs.
Employers have an important role to play in promoting a good work environment by providing high quality jobs. Those jobs should come ready-made with autonomy, security, and a reasonable balance between effort and reward, and between skill level and demand. On the other hand, poor management, organisation and working conditions can each undermine employees, their confidence and their contribution to the company.
Employee morale and performance are at their highest when individuals feel valued and happy at work. Ensuring that workers feel adequately rewarded and looked after by their employer is a key element of this, and the role that employee benefits play should not be underestimated.
Although the situation is gradually changing, UK employers have not previously considered it their role to improve the health and wellbeing of their employees but it is important this should change. While they may agree that a healthy workforce is key to their success, many have unfortunately been slow to act.
Getting in the way
There are three main factors that may contribute to this: lack of a clear definition around the provision of employee benefits in the workplace; poor understanding of incentives to increase employee buy-in; and no clear business case or evaluation of direct financial return that demonstrates their impact on tangible business benefits for the company.
There are many types of employee benefit that can be offered by an employer. They range from financially-orientated benefits such as pensions, life insurance, savings products and access to financial advice, to those that are more focused on employee health and wellbeing such as employee assistance programmes (EAPs), flexible working, gym memberships, income protection (IP) and health insurance. Some companies may even choose to offer a concierge service.
It is common sense to ensure that, wherever possible, the people who make up organisations are in good health and feel good about themselves and their work environment. A ‘well’ workforce – one fit in both body and mind – will be easier to maintain, more productive, better motivated, have less sickness absence and stay with the company longer, which in turn should lead to reduced temporary staff and recruitment costs.
A happy workforce
The importance of employers focusing on the overall happiness and wellbeing of their employees is evidenced by Unum’s most recent annual Job Satisfaction Survey which reveals a strong correlation between the number of days that an employee takes off work sick each year and their level of job satisfaction. The average number of sick days taken in the past year by workers recording 20% or lower in terms of job satisfaction was 10. By comparison, employees who are over 80% satisfied with their job on average took just five days off in the past 12 months. The national average according to the survey is five and a half days of sick leave per person over the past year.
This is where having a support service in place, such as an EAP, could be a great help. As we move further into recessionary times, it is likely that employees will increasingly need somewhere or someone to turn to in order to talk about concerns regarding job security and/or other financial worries. These days, employers are under immense pressure to provide emotional and practical support for their workers. Yet when the focus is on managing resources and meeting customer demands, it can be hard to keep on top of all the people issues that affect productivity.
An EAP is a workplace benefit program that can be offered by an employer, sometimes in conjunction with a corporate health or income protection insurance plan. It is intended to help employees deal with problems that might adversely impact their work performance, health, and wellbeing, ranging from child and elder care problems to personal or work-related issues. Some programmes also provide services targeted towards the employer, such as help with the drafting of legal documents or assistance with human resource issues.
One example of a work-related issue that can have an enormous impact on employees and their productivity is stress-related illness. This is becoming increasingly prevalent among workers in the UK with, according to the Labour Force Survey 2008, an estimated 442,000 workers feeling they were experiencing work-related stress at a level that was making them ill. It is therefore important that employees are given access to the right level of support at the earliest stage possible.
Research conducted by Unum earlier this year revealed that 51% of UK workers believe their work has been impacted over the past two years due to stresses and worries.
The most common stresses cited by workers were worrying about personal health issues (38% of respondents) or other personal issues (37%), followed by that caused by the cost of living or not being able to pay off debts (32% and 25% respectively).
Overall, effective EAP can play a vital role in helping an employer to manage their personnel and ensure that their welfare is a priority. Advantages to the business should include increased productivity as the service allows the organisation to get on with what it does best without distractions. It should also ultimately aid retention and help to reduce the incidence of sickness absence through the alleviation of stress levels among employees.
Looking after employees when they are at work is important, but so too is ensuring that they will be looked after should their mental or physical health take a turn for the worse, leaving them unable to work for an extended period. 17, 000 people reach their sixth week of statutory sick pay each week in the UK and one in five of these people will stay off sick and eventually leave work, according to a Health and safety executive report: Working together to prevent sickness absence becoming job loss.
For this reason, group IP is an important but woefully undersold employee benefit. It can be invaluable in ensuring that workers feel protected and well looked after by their employer, safe in the knowledge that their income is protected in the event that they should fall ill.
Some group IP schemes will go further by providing the employee and employer with access to a good rehabilitation and occupational health service which will do all that is necessary to assist the employee should they become unable to work for a long time due to mental or physical illness or injury.
The case for investing in employee health and wellbeing is compelling. The key concept for employers and management personnel to understand is that workers are assets that should be enhanced and in which they need to invest. It is only common sense to ensure that, wherever possible, the people who make up organisations are in good health and feel good about themselves and their work environment. Having a healthy, productive workforce is essential to business performance, particularly during difficult economic times, and establishing a scheme of employee benefits can play an important part in this and in retaining valuable employees.
Wojciech Dochan is head of commercial marketing at Unum
Thursday 12 March
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