Where do the parameters of employers’ responsibility to wellbeing lie?


Need to know:

  • We live in a very open age, but employers must still tread carefully when it comes to employees’ personal lives.
  • Physical, mental and financial wellbeing is all-important to employees’ productivity and they will be looking to employers to help in the midst of the Covid-19 (Coronavirus) pandemic.
  • Employers should focus on empowering staff to make well-informed decisions through consistent education and signposting, while being careful not to cross the line into giving financial advice.

We live in an unprecedented era of openness. Where our grandparents might have made office small talk about the weather, millennials exchange views on self-help, wellness and mental health across their desks, perhaps breaking at lunchtime for some meditation.

The structure of our lives has also changed beyond recognition. Traditional work and home barriers are blurring, thanks to technology. Naeema Choudry, employment partner at law firm Eversheds Sutherland, says: “Many businesses are realising that long gone are the days when employees were expected to leave their personal lives at home and not bring them into the workplace.

“Increasing digitalisation in all aspects of life and the globalisation of the workplace has meant that employees will check emails and take calls outside of working hours and in return, at times, have to organise their lives during working time. As such, it is not always possible to compartmentalise employees’ personal and professional lives.”

The Covid-19 (Coronavirus) pandemic could blur the lines even further, as working from home, with the inevitable accompanying glimpses into employees’ personal lives, becomes the default.

It would be entirely reasonable for employers to feel confused about the role they should play in this brave new world. When workers share more of their personal lives with them, how do they make sure they are helping staff when they need it, without becoming intrusive? What problems can employers support staff with and when should they leave well alone?

Employers may have the best of intentions but if they are seen to stray too far into employees’ personal lives, they are likely to be met with hostility, however open the culture is at work.

There are some guiding principles to bear in mind when approaching this difficult and sensitive area.

Why employers should care 

Many employers are already convinced of the reasons why they should care about their employees’ wellbeing. In the middle of a Coronavirus pandemic, keeping employees mentally well is more challenging and important than ever.

“Never has the mental health of employees been so much in the limelight as in the era of Covid-19 where many employees are having to adjust to working from home at short notice without the support network of colleagues,” says Choudry.

The starting point for any of those conversations is if an employer has an employee who is physically, emotionally and mentally healthy, they are likely to be more productive, says Steve Herbert, head of benefits strategy at Howden Employee Benefits and Wellbeing. “That is going to be vital at the end of this [Coronavirus] crisis because every employer is going to take a massive hit,” he says.

Employer’s philosophy

Whenever communications experts Like Minds is engaged to communicate a reward or benefits programme, it first tries to understand the nature of the relationship the employer is trying to create, says Nick Throp, the organisation’s co-founder. This often becomes a conversation about an employer’s philosophy. Is it paternalistic? Does it believe in talking to people adult-to-adult? Or is it flexible?

Establishing where they sit on this spectrum will help employers to make practical decisions about how best to support people. For instance, when it comes to financial wellbeing, some employers are comfortable linking their propositions to a financial adviser. Others are much more nervous. Having a clear sense of identity as an employer will make the decision easier.

Empower people to make informed choices

Instead of asking someone directly about a perceived personal problem, employers should make sure they give people opportunities to ask for help.

Iain Thomson, director of incentive and recognition at employee engagement consultancy Sodexo Exchange, says: “It is a dangerous game to even try to attempt to understand someone’s whole life. We suggest that our clients make sure they have qualified, valid information which is available to all employees, so they can make decisions based on their own circumstances.”

Matt Jenkin, partner and head of employment law at Moorcrofts, adds: “All [employers] can do is make people aware of the support that is there. If they don’t want to take up the support, that is down to them.”

Employers should tread carefully when it comes to areas like pensions and investments and be sure to avoid giving financial advice to their staff, says Jenkin: “[Employers] can give them the information, but it is up to them what they do with it. As an employer you don’t want to be so helpful that you are advising them on the latest mortgage products, or things like that.”

The introduction of pensions freedom and choice means employees face big decisions when they reach 55 years old. “That is where it is giving people access to the advice they need, rather than the employer being seen to be giving advice,” says Jenkin. “I know lots of employers will now be inviting advisers in to provide advice, particularly if employees are getting close to retirement.”

Signpost useful resources. People may be especially concerned about being frugal in today’s uncertain economy. Employers could share tools with their workers, like frugal cook Jack Monroe’s blog, which contains plenty of recipe inspiration, says Herbert.

Set boundaries

An organisation should set out the expectation of what the business is expected to do and an individual’s professional responsibilities. “If someone is delivering their obligations, I don’t think [personal issues are] something you should approach as an employer,” says Thomson.

“If someone has a gambling problem but it isn’t impacting on their work, then I think [employers] should leave that individual to make their own choices.”

Use data

Employers may not always be able to identify individuals who are struggling, but they can use data to identify and address problems like debt or poor financial planning.

Jenkin recalls one example he heard about. A call centre with a young workforce was experiencing a drop-off in attendance at the end of the month. “[It] thought employees at that stage had lost enthusiasm, but it did some surveys and found that some of the younger members of staff had spent all their money, and literally couldn’t afford to buy a train ticket. it put in place a basic financial management system, teaching them how to do a budget, things like that. That improved absence rates considerably.”

Keep the conversation going

It is very common for employers to invest in great wellbeing resources, but see low take-up rates, says Herbert. To counter this, they should repeat what is on offer consistently through a variety of channels.

“I think we are increasingly moving away from the idea of large-scale campaigns around reward and benefits to a more editorially-driven style of communications and engagement which is sustained over a longer period of time,” says Throp. “It tends to be bits of content here and there as [the employer] develops that conversation over time, rather than trying to do everything within a three-month period.”

Throp cites writer and motivational speaker Simon Sinek’s focus on the importance of consistency, rather than impact: “[Employers] are a bit obsessed with impact. They like a big campaign and lots of things happening, whereas the thing that actually makes a difference is the everyday. Sinek uses the analogy that it isn’t the dentist which keeps your teeth healthy, it is you cleaning them every day. You still need to go to the dentist, but it is that regular action that’s important.”

In the midst of a Coronavirus pandemic, wellbeing is more important than ever. It is all too tempting to use crutches like wine, online shopping or gambling as distractions in this difficult time. Employers have a key role to play keeping people healthy, and workers will be looking to them for information and reassurance.

As Throp says: “People need mental wellbeing more now than ever and a lot of employees, particularly furloughed employees, will find themselves in situations they never expected to find themselves in. To be fair, [employers] are in situations they never expected to find themselves in either. The [employer] is not in a position to make life better for people, otherwise they wouldn’t be furloughed in the first place, but one thing it can do is keep in touch and provide connection and support that people psychologically will need.”