How to use Christmas incentives to engage staff

If you read nothing else, read this…

• Christmas is not a fun time for everyone. It can be a stressful period for employees who have health or money worries.

• Employers must be sensitive to employees’ individual circumstances around Christmas time, particularly those who have suffered some form of loss during the year, or who hold different religious beliefs.

• Christmas incentive packages should incorporate workplace savings schemes and employee assistance programmes (EAPs) where required.


Case study: Flex focuses BNP Paribas employees’ minds at Christmas

BNP Paribas uses its annual flexible benefits enrolment window in early December to keep employees engaged over the Christmas period, rather than creating a specific incentives package.

Sarah Oxford, head of compensation, benefits and international mobility at the French-headquartered bank, says taking a more general approach to the festive season and any potential employee concerns is better suited to its workforce.

“I would like to run workshops to help [employees] better manage their money, but it’s a very private matter, which is why a low-level communications strategy to let [employees] know what is out there subconsciously gets them thinking about their issues,” she says. “You have to consider that some employees do not celebrate Christmas.”

Core benefits that BNP Paribas offers employees via its flex scheme include a pension, private medical insurance (PMI), death in service, group income protection (GIP), holiday trading and health screenings. Staff have a two-week window between late November and early December to make their benefit choices.

Oxford uses usage statistics from the company’s employee assistance programme (EAP) to ascertain employees’ concerns each quarter, which help to tailor the communications strategy that is launched each September.

She says: “This year, [employees] are not asking for financial or stress support. For now, they are a pretty happy bunch.”


Employers should start preparing perks now to address the psychological impact of Christmas, says Clare Bettelley

Christmas is a time for rejoicing with family and friends, and celebrating another year on planet earth. It is about inclusion, togetherness and love, at least for the lucky ones among us. But for many people it is a painful reminder of any loss they have suffered during the year, perhaps a loved one or a job, or any difficulties they may face with work-life balance or their finances.

Alan King, president and managing director of Workplace Options, says: “Holidays [Christmas] can bring anxieties arising from interactions with families and colleagues, and the psychological and financial impacts. For example, if you are single or have recently lost someone, which is a significant change from the previous year, holidays tend to focus attention back on that loss. They are a reminder of what the person cannot do, such as buying [their loved one] gifts. The reality is, if someone loves and cares for you, an inability to buy for them really matters.”

Exacerbating such issues is end-of-year lethargy, so it is at times like these that employee benefits are more important than ever as a tool to engage and motivate a workforce. But how can employers offer meaningful and cost-effective incentives in a sensitive way that meets employees’ wide-ranging needs and challenges?

King suggests employers should start by creating a culture that acknowledges and accepts that people can feel vulnerable at Christmas. “It’s not about Father Christmas and jolly elves for everybody,” he says. “It is often about the opposite to that, so it is important that employers let people know it is OK to feel bad as well as to feel good.”

Support mechanisms

Employers next need to identify appropriate support mechanisms for vulnerable staff, such as employee assistance programmes (EAPs), which can be tailor-made to support people through the festive season by offering anything from someone to listen to those with emotional issues to practical support for those in debt. King says: “It is about [employees] being able to talk to someone and bringing a level of perspective around their lives. Few benefits tie these two thing together.”

Ad-hoc workshops on the financial impact of Christmas, for example, can also help support employees through the festivities.

Axa PPP Healthcare has organised a number of workshops for employers wanting to provide financial support through an EAP. Eugene Farrell, business manager at Axa PPP Healthcare, says: “They are about debt ahead of Christmas, but also during the post-Christmas aftermath of bills dropping on the doormat. They are debt workshops and money management workshops to get people to budget and plan sensibly.”

Farrell says many employers are keen to raise awareness of the pitfalls of employees over-stretching themselves to buy, say, the latest toys for their children. But he acknowledges the challenge: “We have all got a desire to give families as much as we can.”

Particular challenges

He also advises employers to be mindful of the basic fact that Christmas has its own particular challenges for everyone, irrespective of any money or health worries. “Christmas is the time of year when we are all off work and, in a way, thrust together in a household. In the summer, you can create space outside, but in winter people tend to stay indoors. We are not used to it and the relationship demands involved, such as who wants to watch what on television. We are together, but we are all isolated [thanks to technology].”

Similarly, employers must consider the simple fact that the lack of sunlight in winter tends to cause a less positive outlook among staff, which can affect their performance levels. Farrell says: “It is about employers being mindful that we all might be a little more grumpy, and supporting that.”

There are a number of incentives employers can offer to support employees over the Christmas period.

Love2reward’s Flexesaver plan, for example, is a savings scheme designed to help staff save for Christmas throughout the year and earn a 5% bonus on their savings when they receive the lump sum each November.

Meanwhile, EnergiseYou focuses on employees’ energy levels rather than finances. Founder and managing director Oliver Gray has seen employers adopt various methods to motivate staff through Christmas. His organisation runs workshops on sensible drinking and managing hangovers, as well as more comprehensive wellbeing programmes. “It is about trying to stay as healthy as possible in terms of food and exercise,” he says.

Gray also runs motivation and goal-setting programmes. “If employees can be really clear about their goal for the following year, it tends to keep them as motivated as possible,” he says. “In December, energy levels are lower because of [increased] workloads, because of the darkness, and because eating and drinking habits are generally worse, plus end-of-year lethargy kicks in.”

Short-term rewards such as massages are also popular Christmas incentives, which employers can use to thank employees for their work throughout the year.

Longer-term incentives

But Gray says employers should focus on longer-term incentives around the festive period. “In December and January, people suffer with their health and mood,” he says. “They tend to do worse things to combat this, such as drinking and eating more, and employers often encourage this. The more that can be done to get staff to focus on their health, the better, because performance will be affected otherwise.”

Once these support mechanisms are in place, employers can consider more traditional Christmas incentives, which in view of the continued economic downturn, should be benefits that help employees’ take-home pay stretch further.

The Voucher Shop offers a range of vouchers from retailers such as Amazon, Gap, Marks and Spencer, Next, House of Fraser and Selfridges. However, according to Kuljit Kaur, the provider’s head of business development, food and coffee retailers are proving increasingly popular. This is why The Voucher Shop has added Caffe Nero to its product range. Kaur says: “We are finding that within the food arena, the recession is not having the same impact as it is on clothing. Money is still being spent on coffee and food.”

The latest addition to The Voucher Shop’s product range is the Christmas celebration toolkit, a bespoke voucher package employers can use to reward staff.

Another type of incentive currently available is cinema tickets. Filmology, for example, offers corporate packages in the form of an employer-funded cinema ticket bundle or a web portal through which employees can buy discounted cinema tickets, with prices starting at £50.

Eco-friendly incentives are also currently of particular interest, with rewards such as National Garden Gift Vouchers available for budding gardeners. These vouchers not only enable recipients to buy Christmas gifts, decorations, seasonal plants and Christmas trees, but they also act as an eco-friendly tool with which to promote employee wellbeing and help to meet employers’ corporate social responsibility (CSR) obligations.

Voluntourism trips

Hands Up Holidays also ticks the CSR box by offering what it calls ‘luxury voluntourism trips’. These are bespoke trips to perform community development project work in a variety of locations around the globe. However, it is debatable how many employers would feel justified in offering such extravagant incentives in the current climate.

But Hands Up Holidays founder Christopher Hall says: “All that is required is to structure the targets that employees have to hit so that firstly the costs of the trip are factored in, and secondly sales and revenues are higher than they otherwise would have been, including taking into account the costs of the trip. For this reason, an incentive trip existing benefits package.

“If sales are below target, as you might expect during a downturn, then the trip does not take place. But if a trip does go ahead, that means sales and profits are higher, employees are rewarded and thanked, and the follow-on from this is that more jobs can be created, which is exactly what is needed to help get us out of the downturn.”

More practical travel incentives include airport lounge provider Servisair’s new corporate service, which offers gift certificates allowing access to 21 airport lounges in the UK, Canada and mainland Europe for employees to use when going on holiday.

Mood-enhancing incentives are another cost-effective incentive for employers to consider. Rock Choir, for example, offers people the chance to join its national network of singing groups, which can help them relax and unwind from the stresses of work.

Music downloads

Some of the newer incentives to hit the employee benefits market include, launched in 2010, which is a music download store that donates 50% of its net profit to charity. Through the provider, employers can send staff gift cards and e-gifts containing music download vouchers.

But organisations need to couple their careful selection of seasonal incentives with staff training to help line managers recognise and respond to employees who may find Christmas tough going. Jonathan Watts-Lay, director at Wealth at Work, says: “People who need to discuss their issues the most get so bogged down with their problems and can’t see the wood for the trees that they don’t go out looking for this stuff.”

Watts-Lay recalls a case involving a reliable employee who had worked for a public sector organisation for more than 20 years and whose performance levels had started to deteriorate. “The employer was almost going to sack her, but when it sat her down to try to understand what was going on, it discovered that credit card debt was the issue,” he says. “She had got herself into a situation which was taking over her life.”

What the employee did not know, and what the employer had failed to communicate, was that access to a discounted loan scheme was available as part of an EAP the organisation provided through its benefits package.

Whatever an employer’s preferred approach to Christmas benefits, it should remember that a small gesture can sometimes mean more than a grand statement, which is why it should put thought into individual employee preferences.

The Voucher Shop’s Kaur adds: “Whether or not individual employees celebrate Christmas, it is a time of year that offers the opportunity to reflect on the previous year, look forward to the next and show employees that their efforts are appreciated.

“It can be used as a great opportunity to enhance employee morale and ensure everyone goes into the New Year on the right foot. A little can go a long way at Christmas.”


Christmas incentives package ideas

• Cinema tickets
• Retail discount vouchers
• Volunteering holidays
• Workplace savings initiatives
• Employee assistance programmes (EAPs)


Viewpoint by Charles Cotton, adviser, performance and reward at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development’s Employee outlook: summer 2012 survey, published in May, found that more than half of employees are facing financial struggles, so it is important that employers recognise this when introducing or changing an incentive scheme, especially one that is themed around, or linked to, Christmas.

With many employees so desperate to boost their income, reward departments need to be more vigilant than ever that such initiatives do not inadvertently encourage the wrong types of behaviours, values and attitudes as employees focus on money. Employers planning a Christmas incentive scheme should also focus on alleviating or preventing employee financial distress for it to be effective, otherwise the danger is that the incentive will end up undermining the organisation’s culture and brand and, eventually, its long-term viability.

Employers should be mindful that Christmas and the New Year is not only the time to offer employee incentives, but an opportunity to review the past as well as to look ahead to the future. That said, this is something all employers should be doing on an ongoing basis.

Employees are more likely to take a longer-term perspective around this time, too, and, as a consequence of this reflection, they are likely to be more receptive to employer messages. Employers can take advantage of this to communicate the successes of the past year, and what will and may change within the contexts of the economy, the industry and the organisation.

A Christmas party is one way of communicating the successes of the past year, as well as recognising the achievements of individuals and teams. While pay is increasingly individualised and transactional, other rewards, such as organisational and departmental events, can help underline that success is a collective endeavour.

An end-of-year event is also an expression of the culture of the organisation and should be used to support this by reflecting and reinforcing the values, attitudes and behaviours that are critical. It can be a useful organisational tool to foster the appropriate culture and engagement, but it needs to be done sensitively. In today’s increasingly diverse and demanding workforce, it is important for employers to gauge how employees are feeling and make sure any collective benefits reflect the needs and wants of the entire workforce.

A Christmas gathering is also an event to look into the future. It is an opportunity for business leaders to make themselves visible and approachable to a large segment of their workforce in a relatively informal setting. They can use this to briefly articulate not only what is being celebrated and why, but also to map out the future and build a compelling vision that helps energise the workforce and enhance their commitment to the organisation.

Read more on staff motivation