Expert voice: reaping the value of soft benefits

21st Jun 2012
Share this content

It's a basic fact of human nature that we all like to feel valued and nurtured.

But with tight budgets making it increasingly difficult to reward staff with big pay rises, organisations are, in many instances, looking at offering so-called soft benefits instead.   And office perks such as sporting activities, gym membership and in-house wellbeing support groups are certainly popular with staff.   A survey carried out earlier this year of more than 2,000 workers from around the UK found that 88% felt that their employers should provide them with more support around personal health and wellbeing issues. Indeed, an astonishing 45% of respondents said that they'd even be prepared to switch employers for the sake of a better benefits package - even if their salary remained the same.   Russ Piper, chief executive of private health insurance provider Sovereign Health Care, which carried out the survey, says: "In many UK companies, it appears that, while pay has remained frozen, employee workloads have increased. This unrewarded extra work can lead to low morale and employee discontent."   Many companies now offer perks to their staff ranging from gym membership to massages and relaxation sessions - and 72% of survey respondents said that this was something that they'd like to see more of. Meanwhile, those employers that have introduced these kinds of soft benefits say that the advantages are substantial - and the cost often comparatively low.  Feel-good benefits  Psychologist Andrew Baird from the University of Derby, explains: "If you look, the chances are that this sort of thing will reduce absenteeism and increase productivity, so the cost might not be that great."   Although a lot of people say they don't actually use the services on offer, the fact that they are there acts as a comfort. “One of the problems we have is that there isn't an awful lot of satisfaction in the work we do nowadays. The more you can give them a sense of self-worth within the workplace, the better," Baird advises.   In-office massages, once pretty much the preserve of London media companies, are now relatively mainstream, with contractors offering five-minute 'in-chair' sessions to relieve stress during the working day.   Some companies offer meditation or yoga groups too, while corporate gym membership has become even more widespread. It's now offered by around a quarter of employers, either free-of-charge or at a discounted rate, often through salary sacrifice schemes. Membership discounts can be negotiated with local or national gym operators.   But many employers go a great deal further by providing their workers with a wide variety of 'feel-good' health benefits.   Louise Tibbert, head of HR and organisational development at Hertfordshire County Council, believes, for one, that: "Whilst individual employees need to take responsibility for their health and wellbeing, we also have a responsibility as an employer to provide a supportive working environment. Wellbeing also links closely to levels of employee engagement – something else that Hertfordshire is working hard to maintain."  Communication is key  As a result, the local authority offers a mind-boggling array of health benefits to its workers. "The County Council already hosts a number of activities at its main sites, which can help staff improve wellbeing at a time convenient to them. These include a massage clinic, lunch time walks, Tai Chi, meditation classes, Zumba and Pilates," Tibbert says.   But the organisation is also introducing a range of new health education activities. It is about to start lunchtime ‘stop smoking’ sessions in conjunction with the NHS at its main sites and intends to do something similar around weight loss in the New Year.   Tibbert explains that such groups are run by staff, which means that other employees are much more ready to feel they can get involved. The Council, meanwhile, has tried to sure that all of the events are as well publicised as possible in order to encourage even more workers to attend.   It has also established a wellbeing focus group and has even set up a wellbeing network on social media site, Yammer, where employees can exchange tips on a variety of health-related topics.   But publicising such initiatives effectively is crucial, not least because a failure to communicate the benefits appears to be something of a theme. But it is not just employees who remain in the dark – it is often managers too.   In Sovereign's survey, for example, an astonishing 85% of this group admitted that they did not understand the full range of benefits and support that staff had available to them.   This scenario is much less of a problem for small organisations, however, of course. Chaz Brooks, who heads up his own PR agency, says that, as he employs a team of less than a dozen, bringing in health and wellbeing benefits can be a matter of consensus and very low-cost - table football was introduced, in one case.  Happier workers  "We've been an Investor in People since 2002 so we've been through four lots of assessments. Last time, the assessor said we had the best work/life balance of any company he's assessed," Brooks claims.   His philosophy is that the more you enjoy work, the better you perform and so the aim is to create a positive working environment. “The good relationship we have between us as a team alleviates a lot of the stress. We have a very low turnover of staff," Brooks says.   But providing many wellbeing benefits requires a reasonable amount of investment and organisations do need to take care about how they offer them - particularly in today’s economic climate, which has been marked by pay freezes and redundancies for many.   "If there's a reduction in income, people can say 'why are you giving us this, why don't you give us a pay rise instead?'," says Derby University’s Baird. "Where it tends to be effective is in high-end businesses where there's a bit of cash."   Nonetheless, offering soft benefits does not need to break the bank - and can make a big difference to employee job satisfaction levels.   "The message from the research is clear," Sovereign's Piper says. "Organisations need to review their ‘softer’ benefits and provide more health and wellbeing support. This will help counteract the increased pressure of the workplace and could result in more productive, higher motivated and happier employees."  

Replies (1)

Please login or register to join the discussion.

By David Evans
03rd Dec 2012 14:36

Enjoyed reading this piece. It is important organisations are varied in their approach to employee benefits. Money and bonuses are not he only motivators or people, rather, workers engage more with benefits that help them at that moment in time. Whether its more days off or health benefits, it is important that organisations take the time to undertsand what would be of the best value to their employees. 


-- Dave Evans, commercial director at accessplanit, specialising in training administration software and learning management system.

Thanks (0)