Smarkets backs employee mental health with suite of wellbeing benefits

Talent in the technology sector is highly sought after; like many industries, technology organisations are competing for the top applicants, and to do so means offering a competitive suite of benefits, appealing work or an attractive workplace culture. Financial technology start-up Smarkets claims all three.

Susan Pinto, HR manager, says: “Our aim is to make the company appealing to talent in a growing competitive market, especially within the technological industry. It’s very competitive and engineers are very sought after so [organisations] really compete with each other. Our benefits and culture are a big package in that sense.”

The organisation launched in 2010 and now has 114 employees, the majority of which (around 80) work from the headquarters in London’s St Katharine Docks. The rest work in Smarkets’ Malta or Los Angeles offices, where the chief executive officer (CEO) is based.

A large part of the workforce has a technical background and is very diverse in nationality: half of the tech workforce comes from the European Economic Area (EEA), and the rest is split between UK workers and visa-holders from outside of the EEA.

Pay transparency

The organisation has strived to build a unique workplace to attract and retain talented individuals, and has built its culture around four values: ownership, innovation, openness and nurture.

Under its openness value, Smarkets offers full pay transparency and employees are able to suggest their own salary. This is discussed openly with their team members and team leader to decide if it is justified.

All salaries are published on the organisation’s internal wiki pages. “It has a big return on investment in terms of employee trust and engagement,” says Pinto. “It can be very easy for an [employer] to compromise and to downgrade transparency, invoking a need for expediency or as difficult to manage. We still hold onto it and find ways of working around the agility of processes but not compromising our transparency.”

This means that the employer is immune from pay discrepancies based on unfair factors or discrimination such as gender, ethnicity or age, because the details are available for everyone to scrutinise, explains Pinto.

All employees are aware of salary reviews, the criteria and processes involved. “One thing that really helps is that by making the process known in detail, people trust that it is running smoothly in the background; they feel less compelled to check, they just want to know the end results in terms of the new salaries being published,” explains Pinto.

Employee wellbeing

The nurture value at Smarkets aims to create a work environment with a strong sense of community. This is evident in the hub of the organisation, a break-out area that hosts a table tennis table, TV and computer consoles, and also its onsite restaurant with a team of chefs and a communal dining area.

Employees can work flexible eight-hour days around core hours of 11am to 5pm, so the chefs  provide breakfast, lunch or dinner, five days a week.  During the onboarding process, new starters will spend a morning with the chefs and learn to cook a new dish. “The chefs are lovely to work with, and they are a team just as important as the technical team,” says Pinto.

As well as ensuring employees’ nutritional wellbeing needs are met, Smarkets promotes a culture of good mental health. The organisation provides an employee counselling scheme, something that Pinto helped create along with a colleague and the chief operating officer (COO).

It supports the organisation’s view of looking at employees in a holistic sense, says Pinto: “It’s very much known that if there are things that are affecting employees in their personal lives or work, there is a bleeding effect, and we thought that in order to further aid our employees, by offering this scheme and allowing them to make use of counselling in a more realistic way, it can improve their wellbeing.

“By improving their wellbeing, it then really improves who they are at work, who they are outside of work. And, of course, if you look at it in a more corporate way, it improves productivity, it improves engagement, so it tends to give back to the company.”

The scheme is part-funded (75%) by the organisation on a reimbursement basis, and employees are free to decide on their best course of therapy, after an initial light-touch one-on-one with Pinto, who herself has a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a master’s in occupational psychology.

In February 2020, to coincide with the national mental health awareness Time to Talk day, Smarkets launched a new initiative of tête-à-tête. The scheme aims to support employees’ mental wellbeing by bringing together small groups to discuss whatever is on their mind. The scheme is voluntary, and is not counselling or group therapy, but just an opportunity for employees to talk things through with their peers.

“It’s interesting to see how people have such common struggles or challenges, despite coming from such different places,” explains Pinto. “They share advice, feedback and support. If needed, then we nudge someone to look into our counselling scheme.”

The organisation also runs weekly meditation and yoga sessions.

Just prior to the UK government’s Covid-19 response in March, which advised employees to work from home where possible, Smarkets had begun trialling home working on a team-by-team basis to see how it would work for the organisation.

Now a reality for an unknown period of time, the organisation is keen to continue its support of employees’ mental wellbeing by holding the tête-à-tête sessions online via group video calls.

Employees are able to share how they are dealing with working from home for an extended period of time, and the employer hopes to combat the feelings of isolation it can bring. A member of the leadership team is now present in the groups to answer any queries from employees.

Parental support

As the organisation has grown, its reward strategy has developed. In looking to increase its gender diversity, which currently stands at 13% female, Smarkets offers a number of childcare support options to attract and retain working mothers.

The organisation has a dedicated room where, if an employee’s childcare provision falls through, they can work from and bring their child into work. There is also an on-call nanny, which an employee can use up to five times within a year.

Pinto says: “It’s very common that sometimes childcare falls through, and, especially with a lot of expat workers, they don’t have a network of families around them to help, so we have to be a little more accommodating in the workplace for those situations.”

Smarkets strives to embed its values through its people policies and processes. It encourages employees to suggest any areas of improvement and to come up with proposals because it recognises that its policies and benefits strategy plays a large role in competing for the best talent in the industry.

At a glance

Smarkets is a financial exchange that allows individuals to trade on the outcome of a range of events: political events, current affairs and sports.

The workforce is largely made up of employees with a technical background and includes software engineers, data scientists, mathematicians and quantitative analysts, as well as the usual business support functions. It has around 114 employees working in offices in London, Malta and Los Angeles. Employees average age is 25 to 35, and 13% are female.

The average length of service is two years.

Business objectives that impact employee benefits

To make the organisation appealing to talent in a growing competitive market through benefits, offering appealing work and attractive culture.

Career history

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Susana Pinto, HR manager, joined Smarkets in 2016. Prior to joining the organisation, Pinto worked as an HR consultant in a talent management firm.

Pinto joined Smarkets as an HR administrator to help with HR and hiring, but has grown to specialise in HR. Her role involves the scaling up of the cultural values, which then feed into the benefits and people policies. She was involved in the introduction of pay transparency at the organisation and co-created the counselling scheme to promote employee wellbeing.