How can voluntary benefits support employees in uncertain times?

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  • Employers should have an understanding of the issues their employees face in order to produce targeted and appreciated voluntary benefits strategies.
  • To combat the cost-of-living crisis, employees can use spend and save platforms to save money on a day-to-day expenditures and weekly grocery shopping.
  • Employees react better to communications that they consider relevant to their personal circumstances, so employers should used targeted guidance and support about benefits available.

A good benefits package is the most important thing that 42% of employees look for in employment, according to June 2023 research by benefits provider Zest. This suggests that benefits are a valuable tool to attract and retain individuals that might be facing challenges, such as money or health issues. So, what support can voluntary benefits offer in uncertain times?

Benefits for different issues

Key to ensuring employees get the most out of what is on offer is to target benefits communications to specific groups at times when they are more likely to engage with these.

For example, prior to school holidays, employers could demonstrate how certain benefits can offer support, such as using voluntary discount schemes for money off leisure and dining activities. Matt Russell, chief executive officer of Zest, says:  “Employers could send a targeted email to all working parents just before the summer holidays to remind them of this benefit, so employees with children utilise relevant benefits.”

As the cost-of-living crisis continues to squeeze budgets, spend and save platforms that enable employees to take advantage of discounts on day-to-day expenditures and weekly grocery shopping, while also saving, are useful. Additionally, a home and electronics salary sacrifice benefit could be a lifeline for some employees at Christmas and for emergency purchases to help them to avoid high credit alternatives, and offer tax and national insurance (NI) savings.

A voluntary benefits programme that includes green cars or bikes for work and that offers supportive financial options when purchasing these is also useful, says James Tilley, director at Vivup Employee Benefits. “This can help when people are buying an electric vehicle, replacing a vehicle in London because of the Ultra Low Emission Zone, or using a [bikes-for-work] scheme.”

Voluntary benefits can help employees manage their finances in both the short and long term. Additionally, mental wellbeing can be bolstered by counselling services through mental health education and apps, and mindfulness programmes that employees can pay for via their employer, says Craig Williams, director of employee benefits at Broadstone.

Providing choice

Offering a diverse range of voluntary benefits can boost financial, physical and emotional wellbeing in the workplace and support employees during uncertain times like the current cost-of-living crisis. Tax and NI savings available via salary sacrifice arrangements can be used to support these; electric vehicle or bikes-for work schemes are good examples of initiatives that also combat climate change or reach a carbon neutral or net zero goal. Meanwhile, some employers offer support to allow employees to save on living expenditures such as energy and broadband.

“Through allowing employees to choose according to their personal circumstances, such as health, financial goals or work-life balance, employers can foster engagement by encouraging staff to make informed choices that directly address their specific challenges and aspirations, resulting in higher satisfaction, improved wellbeing and a stronger connection to the organisation,” says Williams.

Promoting voluntary benefits

The key to successfully promoting a voluntary benefits package and having a more focused, targeted and appreciated strategy, is having a clear understanding of the issues employees face. Conducting research through employee pulse surveys will help employers create a picture of trends and themes in order to determine which benefits are the most relevant.

Clear and concise communication through benefits platforms, emails, newsletters and presentations can explain the advantages of voluntary benefits and how these address specific challenges.

Employers should provide targeted guidance and support to different sections of their workforce, as employees react better to meaningful communication that is relevant to their personal circumstances, adds Williams.

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“The focus should always be on the value that a benefit provides rather than the detail,” he says. “Employees should be continuously reminded about the availability and value of the benefits on offer throughout the year, perhaps via a flexible and targeted communication calendar centred around key annual wellbeing events and holidays to encourage take-up.”

There are a range of voluntary benefits that employers can offer to support their workforce in uncertain times. It is imperative, however, that they find out what is needed to ensure that what they provide is truly effective.