Why staff benefits count in the age of the economic squeeze

Discussing the merits of keeping employee wellbeing high in tough times.

Discussing the merits of keeping employee wellbeing high in tough times.

Economic conditions mean that inflation continues to outstrip wages for many, so now is the time to act on employee wellbeing benefits.

Every era has its own set of challenges – and the times we find ourselves in since the economic downturn are no exception. Interest on fixed-rate savings is trailing inflation by a significant amount, and according to economists, so are people’s salaries. One senior economist quoted in a recent Guardian article stated that wages are unlikely to outstrip inflation until ‘mid 2014’ but says that even if that’s the case ‘it will take lots of time to make up the lost ground’.

So what’s an SME to do, given the continued uncertainty of the economic backdrop? Obviously the rate of inflation is beyond the control of business, though perhaps government measures will have some effect on the cost of living over time. But where we are now is in a situation that, for SMEs, requires looking at things differently. And that means finding new ways to attract, reward and retain staff, add value to the organisation as a whole, and gain an edge over the competition.

One of the more interesting ideas that’s emerged over the past few months has been that of the Third Metric. Originally proposed by Arianna Huffington, the idea behind the Third Metric is the redefinition of success. Simply put, the concept is based around the belief that money plus power equals success is an outdated equation – and that success is now a more far-reaching and much broader term, incorporating factors such as:

· Health

· Family

· Sleep

· Work/life balance

· Enjoying work

Times have indeed moved on from those dark days of the 1980s when lunch was ‘for wimps’. There are any number of employee wellbeing studies that show skipping meals has a detrimental effect on concentration, productivity and the general ability to perform well in dealing with the challenges of the working day.

At the cutting edge of workplace wellbeing, Google is well known for its sleep pods, back massages and other staff benefits that to someone from the Gordon Gekko era would have seemed beyond comprehension – like something from the Willie Wonka factory. Indeed, one of the nicknames for the search giant’s Mountain View headquarters is Mountain View Chocolate Factory. But what’s not so often mentioned is the simple and unignorable fact that Google is a data specialist. And as a data specialist, they will be measuring the bottom line benefits of all the staff perks.

Of course, we can’t all be Google. But it’s worth considering the importance of various workplace conditions in terms of how much staff value them. From flexible working to group health insurance and help with childcare, there’s a raft of benefits that can be introduced specifically as a way of raising employee satisfaction and lowering sickness absence rates.

Another workplace wellbeing issue that crops up almost constantly is that of stress. In the US, stress is responsible for more absence than physical illness. And when you think about it, that is a huge, huge challenge. Is it something that can be overcome? Well, given that openness about mental health in the workplace is relatively recent, the chances are that, yes, a lot can be done. Awareness of the problem and training employees to self-manage stress will be part of the solution, while job design, management styles and other aspects of the workplace may also see radical change. In 2011, stress overtook musculoskeletal problems as the top reason for being off sick in the UK, so the challenge is equally significant this side of the Atlantic.

Given the choice between a workplace that focuses on employee engagement and offers a mix of staff benefits – and a workplace that offers similar remuneration but without the benefits, I’m sure the vast majority of prospective employees (as well as existing ones) would choose the former.

Further reading on employee benefits

Hunter Ruthven

Hunter Ruthven

Hunter was the Editor for GrowthBusiness.co.uk from 2012 to 2014, before moving on to Caspian Media Ltd to be Editor of Real Business.

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