What impact is the war in Ukraine having on benefits strategies?

  • Employee support during the war in Ukraine might include evacuating staff and providing flexible, practical support for those directly affected.
  • Organisations should also remember the importance of mental health support for all employees, including senior managers.
  • In addition to day-to-day considerations, businesses should understand the wider ramifications of world events on other elements, such as pensions and life insurance.

The war in Ukraine, and the associated fallout of a mass exodus from the country, has impacted many organisations and individuals, including those in the UK.

As a result, some of the benefits employers already have in place have kicked into action. For others, events playing out on the global stage have simply highlighted the need to provide additional support to those directly or indirectly affected.

Practical support

The impact has, of course, been hardest on organisations with operations based in Ukraine. Sally Llewellyn, regional security director,  Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA) at International SOS, says her business has been supporting both its own employees, and those of its clients.

“This includes assisting organisations with internal relocation, evacuations, advising on the security and medical situation on the ground, as well as providing risk mitigation advice for staff still in Ukraine,” she says.

“Organisations that have been most effective in assisting their workforce in Ukraine are those with contingency planning in place and clear communication and decision-making structures.

“This enabled them to understand the scale of their staff exposure and their employees’ ability and desire to move from impacted areas, and to make quick decisions with the appropriate authority to enable assistance in a timely and co-ordinated manner.”

Software development firm Amdaris was one such business, with 25 employees operating out of Odessa in Ukraine.

Glyn Blaize, group chief operating officer (COO) of Amdaris, says: “At the outbreak of the conflict, we immediately relocated all of our Ukrainian team members who wanted to leave Ukraine, as well as their families, to other delivery centres in safe countries.

“There were some issues with the relocation of some team members in terms of currency devaluation and access to funds. Our finance team worked tirelessly to make sure no Ukrainian employees were materially worse off, and ensured they had daily allowances in order to maintain their safety, security and comfort as much as possible.”

The business has also been on hand to provide practical support for its wider workforce on a day-to-day basis.

“We have increased flexibility over working hours and offered compassionate support including paid exceptional leave and wellbeing checks,” Blaize explains.

“We have someone on the ground who continues to support our employees in Ukraine with daily check-ins and pastoral care.”

This care goes beyond the confines of the current business, and is part of a wider commitment: “We have made two pledges of support to the wider software development community.,” he adds “Firstly, we have offered secure employment to any developer, QA or project manager with relevant skills who has been forced to leave Ukraine. Secondly, we have offered our support as an emergency supplier to any [organisation] working with Russian or Belarusian technology suppliers.”

Unseen crisis

Beyond the immediate concerns around getting employees to safety, or supporting them with financial and pastoral care while still in Ukraine, organisations can also help their staff, via benefits, with the psychological impact of this crisis.

Jane Hulme, HR director at Unum, says: “Many employees may be feeling the effects of a geopolitical crisis in ways that managers don’t see.

“Employees may have friends or family members in areas who may be affected, and witnessing major world events unfold can take a toll on mental health. We see current events as a catalyst to step up wellbeing initiatives, particularly by providing access to mental health resources.”

There are three ways in which employers can help, says Daniel Stander, an employment lawyer at international law firm Vedder Price, and an accredited mental health first-aider.

“[Organisations] can offer check-ins by line managers in a one-to-one setting, or contact with mental health champions or first-aiders if available,” he explains.

“They can also provide trauma management and counselling services through an employee assistance programme [EAP], and support for employees to better deal with the situation by taking compassionate leave off at short notice.”

Where an existing condition has worsened or been exacerbated, employers should provide referrals for medical advice or treatment, adds Stander.

Directing employees who want to make a practical impact to charities such as the Ukraine Red Cross can also help with their own mental health, by providing the feeling that they are making a difference, says Joel Gujral, CEO and founder of MYNDUP.

“A good first step is to help employees feel like they’re having a positive impact on those in need of protection,” he explains. “Leaders should also prioritise mental health and work closely with managers to ensure they can quickly spot signs of distress among teams.”

While the focus might be on those employees directly affected, it is also important to consider the mental health of senior management, who may need support in coping with the additional pressure of leading during a time of conflict, adds Gujral.

The broader picture

While the focus might at first be on any immediate danger to staff or their wellbeing, it is important to remember that world events such as this can have a serious knock-on effect in other areas, such as pensions.

Rachel Meadows, head of proposition, pensions and savings at Broadstone, explains: “The biggest impact to pension investments so far has been an increase in members seeking to better understand whether their money is exposed to Russian companies and markets.

“Most default funds have very minimal exposure to Russia in any event, if at all, so the widescale direct impacts are limited. The bigger impact has been to global markets impacted by investor confidence, reflected impacts of sanctions on countries imposing them, and on expectations of further supply chain impacts to come.”

Life insurance policies have also come under scrutiny, particularly for those with employees in Ukraine, says Brian Kropp, chief of HR research at Gartner.

“Organisations are checking to see if their policy will cover employees if they are killed during a war,” he explains.

“If it doesn’t, HR leaders will need to figure out how best to support the families of employees who lose their lives. Equally, employers will look at how to support employees conscripted into the military, by creating paid leaves of absence in which they continue to pay the employee.

“Several [organisations] are prepaying their employees through to the end of April or May to ensure they have enough money.”

A further financial impact of the war has been to push the cost of living even higher, causing the cost of food, petrol, heating and other basics to rise significantly. While the impact employers can have here is limited, there are ways in which they can help which may become more of a focus in the months to come.

Jonathan Watts-Lay, director at Wealth at Work, says: “Many leading workplaces now provide support through financial wellbeing programmes that include financial education and guidance. This can help employees improve their financial resilience and take control of their finances.”

Keeping the peace

As with any major political or social event, there will always be those with differing beliefs and ideologies. While staff should not feel silenced, this might be the time for HR professionals to remind employees of their responsibilities towards one another, and of the sensitive nature of the subject.

Stander says: “Analogous to the febrile environment which has existed around Brexit and Covid-19, recent events may also cause conflict in the workplace between individuals with differing views.

“If employers are concerned about the nature of the discourse which may arise in their workplace, it may be a good opportunity to remind employees of the organisation’s bullying and harassment policies, and that disciplinary action will ensure if those with opposing views do not treat others with respect and dignity.”

At a time when world events are leaving many feeling uncertain and threatened, businesses have the chance to step up to the plate, providing a safe space as well as practical and financial support.