Have employers placed wellbeing at the centre of their company culture?

Need to know:

  • By changing working practices and bringing employee wellbeing into sharp focus, the pandemic is forcing employers to adapt their benefits strategies.
  • Working from home during the pandemic has increased the importance of the work-life balance, with employers offering greater flexibility to support this.
  • Wellbeing is about more than benefit spend and organisations must reflect their approach through their policies and culture if they want to attract and retain talent.

With the pandemic bringing health into sharp focus, wellbeing has become a much more important part of company culture. But, as well as making it more of a priority for employers and employees, it’s also changed what feeds into an organisation’s wellbeing strategy.

This shift is no surprise to Matthew Gregson, head of corporate at Howden Employee Benefits and Wellbeing. “We’ve never had a set of circumstances like this,” he says. “All aspects of employee wellbeing have come under intense pressure during the pandemic, whether that’s a lack of social interaction; work and financial pressures; or losing good habits around physical and mental health.

The detrimental effect the pandemic has had on employee wellbeing has been highlighted in numerous surveys. For example, research by Lloyd’s Register, Employee wellbeing during a pandemic, published in March 2021, found that 53% of UK employees experienced a negative working-from-home experience as a result of working longer hours, feeling more anxious or stress or feeling more isolated.

This has had a major effect on benefits strategies. “Whether it’s organisations looking at how they support their staff, or employees expecting more from their employers, it’s made wellbeing a much more important part of the benefits strategy,” Gregson adds.

Strategic change

As well as highlighting the importance of health and wellbeing support, the pandemic has also led to some significant changes in the way that people work, many of which will need to be absorbed into organisations’ benefits strategies. “The relevance of traditional benefits offerings has been found wanting,” says Alistair Dornan, director, organisational wellbeing consulting at Gallagher. “We’re seeing a real trend towards both employers and employees questioning whether what worked for many years is still relevant.”

Perhaps the biggest change was home working, which many organisations are looking to retain to some extent with hybrid working. This will change the type of benefits employees want and the way in which they’re delivered but also the way in which work is viewed from a wellbeing perspective.

“Employees working from home found that the separation between work and life didn’t exist anymore,” explains Gautam Sahgal, chief executive officer at Perkbox. “This realisation resulted in a shift in expectations, with employers and employees recognising that both aspects are important. It means that employers need to think about what makes someone happy in life, as well as at work.”

The pressures placed on women also came under the spotlight during the pandemic. Dornan says that with women often expected to take on caring and childcare responsibilities, they were disproportionately affected. “Gender pay and pension gaps were an issue before the pandemic but seeing women grossly affected by job loss, care burden and, increasingly, reengagement as economies reopen, has brought this into sharp focus,” he adds. “Benefit strategies must pivot to address these inequalities.”

Wellbeing benefits

The benefits that feed into an organisation’s strategy have evolved as a result of the pandemic too. Rather than simply offering a wellbeing app, or an employee assistance programme (EAP), the focus is on everything that can support wellbeing. This includes financial benefits, such as a pension and workplace savings, as well as the more traditional health-related benefits.

Some of the trends that emerged during lockdown will shape benefits going forward too. Virtual wellbeing benefits will remain an important part of the package, especially where organisations adopt a hybrid approach to working.

Delivering benefits in this way suits employees working from home but it also offers more convenience to those in the workplace. As an example, a GP appointment can be chopped from a morning off to get to the local surgery to a 30-minute video call at a time that suits.

Mary Asante, director at HR organisation HRi, believes hybrid working will force benefits to evolve in other ways too. “We’ll see more allowances and money towards working from home costs,” she says. “Workplace benefits will also have to adapt: fruit Fridays won’t work when half the workforce is at home.”

Allowing employees to pick and choose their wellbeing package is also important. Andrew Drake, client development director at Buck, recommends taking this to the max with a personalised pot. “Giving employees a pot to spend on anything they want related to wellbeing gives them flexibility and choice but also shows them the employer treats them as an adult,” he explains.

More innovation in this space is expected too. Gregson believes this will build on the prevention aspect of wellbeing. “Services that motivate behavioural change by letting an employee set a goal and then receive support and information to help them achieve it will become more popular,” he says. “Employers want to make wellbeing something that is sustainable and long-term, not just something for the pandemic.”

More than benefits

But, while benefits are a key component of a wellbeing strategy, Dornan warns that it has to be about more than this. “An organisation can’t buy its way to effective wellbeing,” he explains. “Employers need to set the strategy first, then think about procurement. Wellbeing has to be embedded in the culture and policies.”

To illustrate this, he points to some of the flexible working arrangements that emerged during lockdown. Rather than making allowances for home-schooling commitments, some employers expected employees to work their normal hours around them, with burnout often the end result. “I’d like to see employers double down on family friendly policies and lifestyle support for women and properly address the inequalities in the workplace,” Dornan adds. “This will create a culture in which wellbeing can flourish.”

Sahgal agrees. He says that ultimately, employers need to have empathy with employees. “It’s about putting the human back in human resources,” he says. “Organisations need to have a more holistic approach to wellbeing. It has to provide something of value to every employee. By understanding each employee and what makes them tick, individuals will be happier and the business more successful.”

Employee benefit

As well as being a business benefit, employees are also keen to see wellbeing on the workplace agenda. “Wellbeing is increasingly important among employees and candidates,” says Drake. “They will look at what wellbeing support organisations offer but also how employers treated staff during the pandemic. [Employers] that don’t focus on wellbeing will struggle.”

As an example, he says that one of the highlights of lockdown was dropping his daughter off at school every day. “Having the flexibility to be able to carry on doing that is important to my wellbeing. I would definitely take it into consideration when weighing up different opportunities,” he adds.

And, in a world where peer review websites such as Glassdoor make it easy for a candidate to see whether a potential employer lives by the list of benefits it offers, it’s essential that organisations take wellbeing very seriously. “It can’t just be mung beans, gym membership and lentils,” says Dornan. “To attract and retain talent, organisations must place wellbeing at the heart of the employee experience. It has to be authentic.”