It’s February. The “New year, new me” phase is all but a distant memory and fewer and fewer employees are making full use of the onsite staff gym. The free fruit initiative is beginning to ferment and grow fur. Uptake on the EAP is dwindling by the day despite increasing absence figures.
Employee benefits are a massive expense for every organisation and only when the uptake is strong can this expense be seen more of an investment. It increases wellbeing and in turn reduces sickness, improves morale and boosts productivity.
Where there is little or no uptake, this inevitably results in a financial loss - there is little or no return on investment. The organisation takes away the benefits to eliminate the financial loss, but then staff kick off, you give them back, and you’re back to square one.
Employee benefits can sometimes be seen as one of those phenomena where people pay no attention to them whatsoever until they are taken away from them, despite having no intention of using them. Sadly only a handful of employees take up what is offered to them.
So how do you go about maximising employee benefit uptake?
What do you offer?
Firstly, take stock of what is on offer and ask yourself the rationale behind why these are offered. Were they easy and quick to roll out? Were they a cheap option so to easily tick a box? Were they in response to a staff survey?
The last question touches on the strongest rationale organisations should build upon - is there an appetite for what is on offer? In other words, what do staff want? Have you asked them? If so, were there too many to offer?
Some organisations have approached this particular issue by allowing staff to tailor the benefits offered to them, either on a permanent, semi-permanent (eg annual) or monthly basis. This means that they choose what is most appropriate for them as and when they need them in their current lifestyle and circumstances.
Other questions you could be asking staff now are who’s using what and when. Establishing the demographic of users, the types of benefits that have the most uptake, and when this happens will really shed light on what’s working now. What do you think the reasons for their success are?
Are there specific groups of people using them, eg more women than men, more older than younger employees, more lower paid than higher paid employees?
Are there any times in the year that uptake peaks eg around Christmas or during the summer months? Linking the nature of the benefits to the time of year might shed an even brighter lighter of what is working and what the current appetite is.
If you have asked employees what they want and have given it to them, but yet still not making use of the benefits, then one of the issues could be accessibility.
How do you offer benefits?
Have you asked your staff how they access the benefits? Making it easy for staff to use their benefits takes away the bureaucracy from something that is supposed to be making worklife that bit better, not reminding them of tedious and lengthy processes. The easier you make it for staff to fully use their benefits the more likely they will make use of them.
Other accessibility issues beyond applying for them can also be the cause for disinterest. Do you only offer online discounts for particular shops? Some staff might not be comfortable in shopping online, might lack the technical skills to access it or might have a disability which restricts how they use computers. Are you making it fair as well as easy for all employees to access?
Accessing other benefits that require no IT use, for example gyms, will need to be assessed differently. Like most gym users, take up on these type of benefits rely heavily on personal motivation which is something an employer cannot force.
However, if there a strong healthy living ethos within the work culture or an initiative to reduce sickness absence, then consider communicating to employees to nudge their motivation.
How do you communicate the benefits?
Working on internal communications is a big step in nudging employees’ motivation. Our brains have a reward system that releases dopamine, a happy hormone, when we accomplish something. Illustrating the reward employees will receive when taking these benefits up will gently entice them into taking it up. Applying this sort of salesperson approach, ie answering their question “what’s in it for me” increases employees’ motivation and gives them an incentive to take these up.
The communications need to be innovative enough to not end up on someone’s trash can. Emails can only go so far. Do you have the scope to create a video, clip or testimonial of users shouting loud about how they use their benefits and what the consequences have been for them? Our brains also hate missing out on what other people have. Create the #FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) for them; make them not miss out.
Some organisations throw a Health and Wellbeing Day annually or twice a year, although there’s nothing stopping them from organising these on a more regular basis if the costs are kept low and the ROI is monitored.
These can run alongside national awareness days or weeks, for example National Obesity Awareness week, National Work Life week, and Veg Pledge day, to help develop themes to promote the benefits your organisation offers. The day(s) can look like anything that’s feasible for your workplace for example having a number of stalls in a communal area during lunch time, or allowing an hour or two for people to browse what’s on offer.
Inviting the proprietors of any benefits you offer (eg a yoga instructor from a local yoga group) will mean the benefits are promoted by the best possible people and puts a face to the benefits on offer.
The Awareness Days website has a free online calendar that lists all of the UK awareness days and weeks by month throughout the year.
Employee Assistance Programmes
Lack of uptake on EAPs should be assessed in a completely different perspective. EAPs have been set up to assist employees in times of hardship, be it martial or financial issues, stress as a carer, work-related depression or the legal practicalities of a spouse passing away.
As fellow HR professionals, I don’t need to explain how beneficial they are to organisations, and more importantly employees.
Low uptake on EAPs may be considered good. “We obviously have very happy staff! Look, no one needs any assistance, we’re simply marvellous at what we do.”
We all know this is not what low uptake is telling us, especially if we have other figures to contradict this, for example high absence figures.
As well as forming part of an internal (and ongoing) communications initiative, this may well be something to be considered in line manager training. No one knows their employees more than their line manager, compared to HR teams, senior management teams etc.
If a line manager hasn’t the capability or skills to approach an employee and have that conversation with them to point them towards the EAP then the employee is missing out. They have the impact and in turn and over time, so will the business.
Training managers to spot signs of stress or issues from home and encourage use of EAPs with prevent any issues escalating and turning into something a lot bigger.
Spending the time to really assess current initiatives and employee benefits and comparing this with uptake, accessibility, affordability and appetite will really pay off in dividends.
HR need to be the advocates of employee benefits so following any sort of assessment with a strong and engaging communications campaign, and continued monitoring, will ensure uptake exceeds break-even point (or at least meets it), happier and more healthy staff, and initiatives are meeting the organisation’s appetite and culture.
About Charles Goff-Deakins Assoc CIPD
Charles Goff-Deakins is an associate member of CIPD and works as a senior HR officer, having a particular interest in HR policy, learning and development, and employee engagement. As well as writing for HR Zone, Charles also writes about career management and professional development on his blog The Avid Doer.