Benefits keep employees working well

Employees need physical and psychological maintenance to keep them performing effectively and benefits can be the best tools, says Sam Barrett

Regular services, maintenance schedules and instruction manuals go along with everything from the office air conditioning system and photocopier to forklift trucks in the warehouse. But when it comes to employees, many organisations expect them to look after themselves, no matter what is thrown at them.

Dr Doug Wright, principal clinical consultant at Aviva Health, says: “It is a strange one. An employee who is feeling healthy and happy will perform better than one who is not. But very few employers think about this, perhaps because while their IT system, forklift truck or printer is either working or not, employees are much more complex.”

All sorts of factors influence employees’ ability to work well. First, there are the physical aspects required to do the job. These vary, but tend to be the area that is best looked after by employers through training and other health and safety measures. For example, someone working in a warehouse or driving a delivery van would need to understand how to lift objects properly.

Other health matters also affect performance. These include diet, exercise and hydration, but also encompass everything from oral health through to sorting out sports injuries and other niggles.

Mental health important

Mental health is important, too, because stress and worries about work or domestic problems can dampen morale, reduce productivity and lead to long-term absence. “There is also the psychological contract element,” says Wright.

“If someone likes working for an organisation and feels valued, they will put more in.”

As well as ensuring employees remain fit and able to work, employers can derive further benefits from maintaining staff health and wellbeing. Colin Bullen, head of health and risk benefits at Hewitt Associates, says: “Looking after employees delivers a number of benefits. They are more engaged, which results in improved productivity, and employers are also likely to see less absence, not only because employees are healthier, but also because they want to come in to work.”

Organisations that maintain their employees’ wellbeing will also reap benefits around turnover, with staff being less likely to leave if they are happy at work.

Now is a good time for organisations to move employees further up their agenda, says Michael Whitfield, chief executive of Thomsons Online Benefits. “A year on from the recession, there are an awful lot of shell-shocked employees around,” he says. “Many are feeling demotivated after seeing round after round of redundancies and employers must re-engage with them to prevent them moving on.”

Health and wellbeing are obvious areas where organisations can provide support for their employees and a wide range of benefits is available to help achieve this, including private medical insurance, health cash plans, health screenings and wellness events.

Benefits tailored to the workforce

To maximise the effectiveness of these benefits, they can be tailored to suit a workforce, thereby increasing usage and helping employees to value them more. For example, digital technology company Pace has a soft tissue injury specialist visit the workplace every fortnight because of a high risk of musculoskeletal problems among its employees. Karen Gamble, regional director at benefits consultancy Heath Lambert, which works with Pace, says:

“This saves a huge amount in terms of the time employees would have to take off. It can take as long as 18 weeks before they are seen by an NHS physiotherapist. This is perceived as a perk by employees, but for every £1 Pace spends, it saves £11.90 in time taken off.”

Another example of an organisation that targets benefits to its workforce is Marks and Spencer, which provides routine breast screenings to all female staff and female partners of employees between the ages of 40 and 70, on the completion of six months’ service.

Whichever health benefits are in place to keep employees performing at an optimum level, employers could use a sickness absence management tool to identify potential health problems at an early stage. David Prosser, strategic development manager at Axa PPP Healthcare, says: “This will throw up all manner of health issues, many of which would benefit from early intervention, but also whether there is a cultural problem. Employees do not come into work if they are not happy to be there.”

Protecting employees from unacceptable levels of stress is also important, and a number of benefits are available to help achieve this. Bullen recommends using an employee assistance programme (EAP) to keep employees mentally well. “It is not just about the stress in the workplace,” he says. “Most stress occurs outside the workplace but it can have a significant effect on how an employee performs.”

EAP can reduce staff absence

An EAP also has the potential to reduce staff absence, whether by offering a quick piece of legal advice or referral for face-to-face counselling. The saving could be in terms of time taken off to visit a solicitor or advice centre, for instance, or because an incident of stress does not develop into a long-term mental health issue.

Whitfield also recommends that employers be a little more innovative in this area. “Think about the things that could make a difference to employees’ lives,” he says. “Social activities such as cinema, theatre or book clubs, as well as simply going to the pub, can be very beneficial.”

Also within this area are benefits that help to empower employees, such as financial education and discounts on everything from day-to-day expenditure to more treat-style areas such as holidays and days out. Andy Philpott, marketing director at Accor Services, says such perks can be extremely powerful in making employees feel valued.

“If [employers] pick the sort of deals that will appeal to employees, then they will feel [their employer] has a good understanding of their needs,” he explains.

Flexible working affects attitiudes

Another area where benefits can make a real difference to the way an employee feels about their employer is flexible working. “Organisations do tend to assume core hours of nine to five as it is easy to manage, but employers would benefit if they focused on getting the work done instead,” says Wright.

Working hours can be flexed in a variety of ways. As well as allowing the fairly common options of working part-time, job shares and changing hours to suit childcare arrangements, employers could vary their employees’ hours according to school terms and allow more remote working.

Flexible working arrangements can also go beyond these patterns. Ben Wells, senior consultant at Buck Consultants, says employers are much more open to letting staff take longer breaks from the workplace. “We are seeing employees go off for a six-month break to travel or have new experiences,” he says. “This can help to avoid burn-out and other health issues, but is also likely to help them develop as an employee and be of more value to the organisation.”

Another area where employers can show that they value their staff is when employees decide to start a family. “There is reticence among employers about staff going off to have babies, which might be understandable in smaller organisations,” says Whitfield. “But it is important to support these employees and help them back to work. They do not suddenly become bad employees when they have a baby.”

For example, organisations can offer staff flexibility around when they return from maternity leave and the hours they then work. This means that a high percentage of new mums return to the workplace in some capacity and their skills are not lost, Whitfield points out.

Employers can also offer practical support through benefits such as childcare vouchers, support groups and, where possible, on- or off-site nurseries.

Childcare vouchers improve perception

Such benefits can go a long way to improving the way employees feel about their organisation. In Accor Services’ Childcare Vouchers Research published in January, 86% of the employers surveyed said they believed their childcare voucher scheme improved employees’ perception of them as an employer.

Perhaps the most difficult factor to create to ensure employees feel valued and perform at their optimum level is the workplace culture. “Everything helps,” says Wright. “Although it is arguable whether [employers] get any significant benefit by trying any of these initiatives in isolation, together they help to create the right culture and that is what makes the difference to the way employees feel about work.”

Having management buy-in is essential, especially where employees are being asked to make changes to their health and lifestyle. Having champions within the workplace who help to motivate others can also be an effective way of building the right culture.

Wells also recommends that employers take a step back from the benefits package. “Most organisations design their benefits package around what their competitors offer,” he says. “But if they do this, it is never going to be a tool. Think more broadly about benefits and they will help to get the most from their employees.”

Communication is key

  • It is pointless to provide a raft of benefits that keep employees in top condition if they do not know they are available. Karen Gamble, regional director at Heath Lambert, says: “Without promotion, employers find the only employees who improve their health are the ones who would have anyway.”
  • Strategies that can be used to promote these benefits range from posters and features in a company newsletter through to online promotion, total reward statements and inter-departmental health-related challenges.
  • Employers could also brand their health strategy. Colin Bullen, head of health and risk benefits at Hewitt Associates, says: “Give it a name. This means they can pull it all together, whatever they introduce, and employees will instantly recognise it.”
  • Gain a better understanding of what employees want in order to target communications. Chris Ford, director of group risk at Jelf Employee Benefits, explains: “This will enable employers to target programmes more effectively.”
  • Train line managers to maximise benefits effectiveness and ensure staff know what is on offer. “Training line managers how to spot the early signs of stress and mental health problems is invaluable,” says Jelf’s Ford. “If they can identify and support an employee at an early stage, there is a greater chance of full recovery.”

Keeping employees well maintained

All sorts of benefits can be used to make employees feel valued, happy and productive in the workplace, including:

  • Sickness absence management tools
  • Private medical insurance
  • Health cash plans
  • Health screening
  • Wellness days
  • Employee assistance programme
  • Stress training
  • Flexible working arrangements
  • Training and development
  • Childcare vouchers
  • Discount vouchers
  • Social activities and team-building events
  • Employee of the year or month awards

Case study: Informa

Publishing company Informa employs 8,500 people worldwide and has been recognised as one of Britain’s top employers by the CRF Institute for three years running, scoring full marks for its pay and benefits package.

Thomas Humphris, head office HR and UK reward director at Informa, says: “Our benefits strategy focuses on two key areas: health and wealth. In this economic climate, we want to help employees’ money go further and provide them with benefits they appreciate, but we also recognise a happy, healthy workforce is a more productive one.”

As well as a wide range of discount vouchers on everything from holidays to shopping, Informa offers a number of health-related perks through its flexible benefits scheme. These include private medical insurance, a health cash plan, dental insurance, health screening and gym membership. All of these can be extended to family members, too.

The company also operates a flexible working policy, enabling employees to adapt their working lives to fit their lifestyle. “Anyone can apply to work part-time or work from home on a part-time or full-time basis,” says Humphris. “We try to be as flexible with employees as possible. This supports morale, but also means we get more back from our staff.”

For example, when one Informa employee moved back to Australia, they were able to continue doing their job by working from home.