Employee Benefits Future Strategy 2006 – Sponsor’s comment: After hours support a must

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Employers are facing an unprecedented transition in the nature of their relationship with employees. Low levels of unemployment and a lack of skilled workers have created a shift in power from the employer to the employee.

No longer is the offer of work or the prospect of long-term employment enough to generate loyalty. Recent research from Investors In People shows that nearly a quarter of the workforce expects to spend less than a year in their current role.

The desire to better balance work with life outside is a key priority, with as many as one in ten employees prepared to take a pay cut in order to work fewer hours according to the Trades Union Congress.

Employers seeking to attract, retain and motivate the best people must reconsider the extent to which policies and benefits support employees with issues that would have once been considered unrelated to work.

The Carphone Warehouse has recognised that difficulties with personal debt could affect some of its 7,000 employees. It gives them the opportunity to apply for an interest-free hardship loan when their finances get out of control. Employees also have access to a debt specialist – to agree a manageable repayment system, and confidential emotional support – with advisers from Employee Advisory Resource constantly on hand to help them deal with the issues that led them into debt in the first place.

Perhaps the most accepted means of helping employees with life outside of work is enabling working parents to better balance work with family life. The government has done much to encourage employers to do more, improving maternity and paternity rights and giving adoptive parents paid leave for the first time.

However, becoming an ’employer of choice’ takes more than meeting legal requirements. Ofsted, the school and childcare inspectorate, offers home working, career breaks of up to five years and up to ten days paid leave for emergency childcare. In addition, it reimburses parents up to £230 per child for play scheme expenses and is making use of a new tax break to help working parents save up to £1,066 a year. Those staff who use vouchers also have access to a helpline providing personal support on everything from returning to work after maternity leave to finding emergency childcare.

Other employers, including PricewaterhouseCoopers, are extending statutory requirements introduced to help parents to all employees, by offering them the right to request flexible working.

In general, there is an increased trend for employers to reconsider ‘compliance issues’ as ‘mandatory benefits’. Rather than adopting a minimum level employee assistance programme to comply with new Health and Safety Executive guidelines on stress, forward-thinking employers are going beyond the basic requirement to do what will be of greatest benefit to both the individual and the organisation. The mantra is ‘prevention is better than cure’ and the focus has shifted from avoiding court cases to enabling employees to stay well and perform at their best.

The other significant trend is that the lack of pension savings and introduction of anti-ageism legislation will encourage more of us to work for longer. This poses a new challenge for employers, not least because by 2010, the Work Foundation estimates that over 10 million workers will have responsibility for caring for an elderly relative, putting even more pressure on the average employee’s ability to balance work with family responsibility.

If stress-related absence and instances of ‘special leave’ are not to increase, employers will need to offer even more flexible working arrangements, and consider how best to provide support and advice for people facing the challenges associated with looking after an elderly dependant. Failure to do so could see policies branded as ‘ageist’.

With three-quarters of the HR professionals we worked with in 2005 claiming that work-life balance policies have a positive effect on retention, and 70% saying that it has improved staff morale, one thing is clear: the better people are able to balance their lives with their duties to their employer, the better their performance. Not only in terms of results but also in terms of loyalty and commitment.