COVID-19 – advice for employers. Read now.

HR Insights Winter 2020/21

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How to build team spirit and morale with limited social and physical interaction

We may have joyously – but quietly – cheered in 2021 but the challenges that we have faced in 2020 have not been shed or left behind with the dawning of a new year.

The last 10 months have been tumultuous, with companies across the country – and indeed the world – having to grapple with a new way of working.

The mass home-working directive proved a steep learning curve for all but many employers and employees adapted quickly in this period of disruption, and the transition to new working practices was smoother than expected.

Indeed, many companies adapted so well that they are preparing for a permanent reshaping of business operations, with home working expected to become the norm rather than a temporary trend.

Any period of change comes with its challenges, and one of the key hurdles businesses are faced with in the new age of home working is employee isolation and the associated low morale.

When it comes to worker wellbeing, efforts have traditionally been concentrated on improving physical and mental health, but as the impact of social isolation has become more widely known, understood, and keenly felt, the onus is slowly shifting to making provisions for social wellbeing too.

Social isolation is a key modern-day workplace issue, exacerbated by the rise in the flexible, remote and virtual working, the gig economy, and the increase in the number of working caregivers, and the current climate only serves to compound this problem.

All too often, mid-morning coffee breaks, canteen catch-ups and a chat with a neighbouring colleague is undervalued and the benefits overlooked.  The omission of simple human interaction can have a profound effect on employees and efforts to replicate such connection through virtual means, though well-intentioned, may prove fruitless, if not conducted in the right way.

If employees do not have a sense of belonging, or feel on the fringe, their output may not only be affected, but their overall wellbeing too.

By creating a supportive environment, where employees can successfully foster social connections and maintain meaningful relationships, companies can ensure they are on a more holistic route to wellbeing and begin to forge a physically thriving, emotionally balanced and socially connected workforce.

Making social wellbeing a priority

Promoting social wellbeing is a mutually beneficial pursuit.  Whilst employees enjoy a greater sense of belonging, and feel more emotionally supported and appreciated, employers benefit from a motivated, loyal, productive and socially cohesive workforce.

Indeed, there is growing recognition of the importance of social wellbeing amongst businesses.

According to Willis Towers Watson’s 2020 COVID-19 Benefits Survey, improving social connections was one of the top benefits priorities for businesses, cited by almost one quarter (23 per cent) of UK companies.

This was undoubtedly accelerated by the pandemic, but there was certainly appetite to enhance social wellbeing before the coronavirus outbreak.

In Willis Towers Watson’s Benefits Trends Survey 2019, more than one third (35 per cent) of UK companies said that social wellbeing was an emerging focus for their business.

Furthermore, 88 per cent of businesses said they will focus on strategies to build a culture of inclusion and wellbeing in the workplace that encourages a supportive work environment over the coming years – a rise from the current 57 per cent.

In order to effectively incorporate social wellbeing into a wellness strategy, it must be seen as a key priority, on a par with physical and mental wellbeing, rather than being viewed as a ‘nice to have’, non-essential or temporary ‘fix’.

As well as working to gain board level support for social wellbeing initiatives, companies can underline their commitment by leveraging employee communications, for example, the active promotion of buddy schemes and virtual coffee mornings.

Tapping into technology to stay connected

Technology has been a key player in staying connected during the pandemic – both professionally and socially – and it would be prudent of businesses to continue to take full advantage of these platforms.

According to the WTW COVID-19 Benefits Survey, 92 per cent of UK businesses increased access to videoconferencing, to allow for virtual meetings to keep employees connected around work after the pandemic hit.

Regular team meetings are not only a practical means of managing workflow, but can help employees feel a sense of shared endeavour and comradery.  As well as being an opportunity to catch-up, these meetings can be a platform for sharing success stories and celebrating company-wide, team or individual achievements and milestones.

For many employees, the workplace is where they get most of their social interaction, so companies should ensure that their communications with employees are not just task-focused.

Social catch-ups and virtual activities, such as coffee mornings, ‘cake-offs’, quizzes, and charity fundraisers, can help boost morale, lift spirits and evoke a sense of inclusion.

Indeed, the COVID-19 survey found that 70 per cent of UK companies had fostered opportunities for employees to connect for non-work purposes, as a result of the pandemic.

For CSR activity, companies can put the choice into the hands of the workers and build social distancing-adherent volunteering opportunities around causes their employees feel passionate about, be it telephone befriending services for older people or virtual mentor schemes.

Linking with wider wellbeing

In order to effectively ward off feelings of isolation and boost social cohesiveness, it is important to recognise how social wellbeing fits into the wider wellbeing picture.

With the right strategy in place, companies can take a multi-faceted approach to wellbeing, which incorporates all elements.

From a physical health perspective, for some workers, lockdown will have inspired them to become fitter and healthier, whereas, for others, the change in routine will have had a negative impact on physical fitness, with their normal routine interrupted by gyms and studio closures.

Arming employees with regular, practical, encouraging knowledge can help give them the start they need to get their activity levels up, adapt to their situation, and avoid getting ‘stuck in a rut’.

By incorporating gamification into physical wellbeing strategies, companies can also boost comradery and engagement amongst employees.  This could include an employee-led support group, or ‘fitness forum’, where employees can swap tips on different types of exercises, run league tables and share their successes.

Sharing healthy recipes with employees, and encouraging employees to do the same, can help encourage good nutrition, bring colleagues together, as well as keep them distracted during isolation.

Emotional wellbeing is another consideration.

Employees are at risk of feeling “out of sight, out of mind” when isolated from their peers and managers for extended periods of time, so ensuring they feel counted and included is important.

Regular check-ins and wellbeing surveys can help companies gauge anxiety and stress levels on an individual, team and company-wide basis, as well as reinforce their commitment to employee emotional wellbeing.

Encouragingly, over a quarter (28 per cent) of employers have taken action to measure employee anxiety during the pandemic, with a further 47 per cent planning or considering this action, according to the COVID-19 survey.

As well as offering enhanced access to tech-focused mental health support, such as health apps, online support forums, wellbeing webinars, and mindfulness tools, businesses could look at adapting their Mental Health First Aid support, so that volunteers can offer remote sessions to their peers and colleagues can benefit from peer support.

Employees may have a preferred medium, so offering different ways for colleagues to connect, such as instant messaging, video, telephone or email, may help to boost engagement and encourage openness.

Companies are recognising the importance of bolstering peer relationships, with 46 per cent of UK companies saying that they are promoting employee groups, champions, and networks to encourage employee discussions among those with common interests or situation, as a result of the pandemic.

A nudge in the right direction

Although technology proved to be a blessing during the trying times of late, facilitating the somewhat seamless transition to home working and supporting social connection, companies should be wary of the disadvantages – namely digital fatigue.

Enhanced dependence on technology has created a culture where employees are always ‘one-click-away’ and the line between the work day and down time can become blurred.

Companies should take care not to overwhelm employees with a constant stream of video calls, whether it be for professional or social means, and reinforce the importance of finding balance between their work and private life.

When it comes to encouraging social connection, rather than try to coerce employees into ‘forced fun’, employers should instead aim to create a supportive, empathetic and mutually respective culture, in which employees can bond naturally, on their own terms.

In essence, employers should give employees the tools to build connections, rather than instruct them on how to do so.

Asking for feedback, analysing receptiveness to initiatives, and measuring engagement with different activities will give companies a full picture of what works and what doesn’t.

Whilst participation should be encouraged, it should be made clear that initiatives and activities are not obligatory.  By building social wellbeing strategy around people’s shared interests and passions though, the likelihood of disengagement is greatly reduced.

It is important that companies remember that these are unprecedented times and a great deal of flexibility will be needed in order to effectively adapt to the changing needs of the workforce – wherever they should be based.

But by choosing to see social wellbeing as a fundamental component of wellbeing strategies, and taking the appropriate action to support a more socially connected workforce, companies can be assured that they will be better placed to weather the storm and emerge with a healthy, cohesive and resilient employee base.

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Pulse Points Autumn 2020

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HR Insights Autumn 2020

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REBA Employee Wellbeing Congress 2020

Willis Towers Watson Health and Benefits will be attending the virtual REBA Employee Wellbeing Congress 2020 from 9-30 September.

Will you be joining us? Get your tickets now.

Agenda

9, 16 and 23 September – all day

We’ll be on our virtual stand where we can help you understand the wellbeing needs of your workforce, as well as sharing the latest trends and insights on your employee wellbeing and benefits programmes. You can also ask us for a personalised modernisation assessment of your benefits programme to see how you compare with your competitors.

16 September – 11am

Social media has most of us hooked. But how can you turn screen-time obsession into a force for good? We demonstrate how to create the same level of engagement in your organisation.

16 September – 3pm

Employers are increasingly thinking about female health in the workplace. Join us for a roundtable to discuss how to create an inclusive strategy that supports female health to help improve engagement and productivity.

23 September – 10.15am

Today’s employees are struggling with financial and health-related issues which have an impact on employee wellbeing and productivity. We share the latest wellbeing insights from 40,000 employees across 27 countries to help you support your employees and understand their wellbeing needs.

Sign up now to get your tickets

 

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Pulse Points Summer 2020

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HR Insights Summer 2020

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COVID-19 Benefits Survey Report – UK

42% of companies have made, or are planning to make, significant changes to their benefit programmes as a result of COVID-19.

Our latest survey looks at the impact of the pandemic and reveals the changes employers are planning to their benefits programmes to ensure employee wellbeing while optimising cost management.

Based on input from 177 employers across the UK, this survey gives valuable insights into:

  • Top priorities for enhancing wellbeing benefits
  • The increasing focus on mental health support
  • The closer focus on cost management and ROI
  • Attitudes towards telemedicine
  • Attitudes towards COVID-19 testing
  • Anticipated absence and related costs
  • Impact on furloughing employees

 

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Two-in-five UK companies are changing their employee benefit programmes due to COVID-19

Two-fifths (42%) of companies have made, or are planning to make, significant changes to their benefit programmes as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and the impact it has had on the way people work, according to a study by Willis Towers Watson. A third of employers are also likely to revise their healthcare strategies for 2021.

Cost management

Willis Towers Watson’s survey of UK employers found that many firms are anticipating significant cost increases in the benefits they provide employees. Nearly half (44%) are expecting sick leave costs to increase, while over a third (34%) think that Group Life Assurance and Dependent Pension costs will also rise. A quarter (25%) are expecting an increase in healthcare costs and Group Income Protection and (37%) are planning to review the way their medical benefit plans are designed.

For those employers who have had to furlough some staff, almost all – between 87-98% depending on the individual benefit – are maintaining existing benefits for furloughed employees.

Kevin Newman, managing director of Willis Towers Watson’s UK Health & Benefits business, said: “The COVID-19 pandemic will prompt big changes in employee benefit programmes for many companies. Some will be forced to get better value from their benefits, both from a cost and communications perspective. Some will look to enhance certain areas and dial-down others as priorities shift. But most companies at some point are likely to look at what they currently provide employees and ask, ‘are these benefits still relevant and is the balance still right for the new working environment?’”

Benefit change

With two-in-five employers making, or planning, benefit changes and a third of companies looking at their healthcare strategies for next year too, there are key areas that companies are focusing on to make sure their benefits programmes are fit for purpose during and after the pandemic.

Encouragingly for employees, more companies are looking to enhance certain benefits than reduce them. Specifically, top priorities for enhancing benefits include: wellbeing programmes (60%); mental health and stress management services (58%); annual leave policies (26%); and voluntary benefits (23%).

Benefits most likely to be reduced include: annual leave (8%); Retirement benefits (5%); health care benefits (4%); and sick leave (4%).

In addition, over a quarter (28%) of employers have taken action to measure employee anxiety during the current period, with a further 47% planning or considering this action. Furthermore, two-in-five (39%) employers have provided, or expanded, access to telemedicine and a small proportion (7%) will be facilitating access to COVID-19 testing.

Newman said: “More companies are looking to enhance benefits than reduce them as a result of the pandemic. But areas such as annual leave appear to be a priority for expansion for some and reduction for others, showing the divergent circumstances different employers find themselves in.”

Communication priorities

In addition to adapting employee benefits to suit the needs of the workforce, employers are also keen to make the most of existing benefit structures by communicating their relevance for this pandemic period as clearly as possible.

Almost two-thirds (61%) think that communication of benefits and wellbeing programmes will be a top priority this year. Top of the list for awareness raising are Employee Assistance Programmes (79%); online mental health services (65%); and Wellbeing apps (47%).

Newman said: “Re-shaping and re-planning benefits will be important, but most elements of a company’s employee benefit programme will continue to serve their employees well if the relevance is communicated effectively.

“In times of stress and uncertainty, Employee Assistance Programmes and mental health services become even more important and employees that haven’t used these services in the past may need reminding that companies often have a network of valuable support services available to employees.”

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The role of employee benefits in fostering diversity and inclusion

Diversity and inclusion is fast becoming a corporate imperative, as an increasing number of business leaders seek to cultivate a culture of inclusivity through the creation of dedicated strategies.

The prioritisation of D&I is gaining traction across multiple industries and divisions, with 60% of UK employers now planning to incorporate inclusion and diversity into their benefits design, according to our Benefit Trends Survey (2019).

Employers are tending towards a more holistic view on broad issues across reward, working practices, (flexible and remote working), policies (family leave, sabbaticals), and benefits (healthcare, life, income protection and retirement). And fulfilling D&I objectives is becoming a fundamental element of this approach.

Today, more than ever, business leaders recognise the benefits of having a truly diverse workforce and appreciate the innovation, ideas and perspectives that can be gained from having alternative life experience and backgrounds.

Benefits remain a critical area where employers can demonstrate their commitment to D&I and to the creation of an inclusive, progressive and safe environment in which all employees can thrive.

In recent years, much of the focus in the UK stemmed from gender pay reporting requirements, as well as opportunities for BAME (Black, and Minority Ethnic) and neuro-diverse employees, such as those living with autism, Asperger’s syndrome, dyslexia, ADHD and dyscalculia.

Policies

Flexible working practices are recognised as supporting employees achieve a better balance between work and non-work commitments. Indeed, employees who frequently work from home are twice as likely to say their job allows them a healthy work/life balance than those who have no flexible arrangements in place (56% vs 25%), found our 2020 Global Benefit Attitudes Survey.

There is also a correlation between flexible working options and employee engagement, with half (50%) of frequent flexible workers reporting that they are highly engaged with their job, compared to just one quarter (25%) of non-flexible workers.

Widespread flexible and remote working, prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic, acted as a forced pilot for companies, testing many of the reservations that traditional employers had on the feasibility of such policies.

Over the past 12 months, parental leave has come under the spotlight, with a significant increase in the number of employers seeking to benchmark their policies.

Employers are taking action to enhance the duration of leave, improve the provision for fathers and to adopt a wider, more inclusive policy to support parents “however they become parents”, in a nod to adoption, surrogacy and same-sex parents.

Evidently, shared parental leave legislation still requires development, but progressive employers are using it as a minimum standard, with the goal to exceed rather than simply meet legal obligations.

At present, Standard Life Aberdeen has one of the most progressive policies; 52 weeks leave, of which 40 will be fully paid, irrespective of gender, and flexibility over when leave is taken, up to two years from birth or placement (adoption).

The policy means that the primary caregiver does not have to share their entitlement or end their parental leave early.

An array of employers across the technology, professional services and finance sectors have made notable enhancements in their parental leave policies, which is reflected by the responses from the 1000+ participants of the WTW’s Benefits Data Source 2019.

Employee benefits

For too long, the UK’s benefits marketplace has failed to keep up with societal changes, evolving family constructs and changes in behaviour and expectations.

In fact, many of the developments in recent times have been driven by the Reward and HR community questioning how their benefits can better reflect the way employees live their lives in 2020 and beyond.

Employers can start assessing benefits against inclusion and diversity measurables by asking:

  • How many of our employees will work beyond Age 65?
  • Do our insurances continue to provide cover past this date? Many are still incorrectly limited to the previous default retirement age, whilst others potentially penalise older employees by providing a higher cost to employees over the age of 65.
  • Are our Life Assurance or Spouses Pension Benefits reflective of the modern family? Spouses/Dependants Pensions provide an income (taxed at the beneficiary’s marginal rate) to spouses and their children for a number of years in the event of their death. But, if all employees were eligible to receive this, especially if they are unattached or have no children, the employer cost is likely to outweigh the benefit to much of the workforce.
  • Are our medical benefits accessible and relevant to all? Using Telemedicine/Virtual GP services has seen broad adoption amongst employers which undoubtedly represents progress. Gender Dysphoria coverage, for employees going through the gender reassignment journey, has seen a significant rise amongst many of the largest employers (typically within self-funded healthcare trusts). Extending coverage to cover several chronic medical conditions, which have traditionally been excluded, has also been piloted amongst large, progressive employers with healthcare trusts.

The business case for D&I in employee benefits and policies

Besides the moral and societal imperative, there is a strong and well-developed business case to support the focus of inclusion and diversity in the workplace.

According to 2018 research by the Centre for Economics and Business Research, the UK’s most diverse workplaces (across gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation) are 12 percentage points more likely to financially outperform their industry average than the least diverse firms.

Further findings suggest that employers with the most developed diversity policy are 15 percentage points more likely to financially outperform those with less focus on diversity.

Ultimately, inclusion and diversity does not exist in a vacuum. If we are to close the gender pay gap and provide a more inclusive working culture, which enables individuals to bring their whole-selves to work, we must ensure that our working practices, rewards and benefits reflect and support this objective.

Fundamentally, these are the yardsticks that employees and prospective employees will increasingly look for in an employer – the impact of which will go far beyond the rhetoric and mission statements.

First published on REBA

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