Reaping rewards: Are employee benefits worth the cost?

After a tough financial year, many charities will be looking at ways to cut back. But should employee benefits be one of them?

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The pandemic hit charities across the UK hard and under financial strain, holding onto loyal and hard-working employees is more important than ever. The question is, how can charities look to retain staff, keep them happy and claw back a bit of much-needed income?

It’s been suggested that reducing employee benefits could be one way charities can cut back. By reducing benefits such enhanced pension contributions, season ticket loans and enhanced sick or maternity pay could be the difference between being in the red or in the green for many charities.

However, many charities believe that if the mental and physical wellbeing of staff is a priority, then employee benefits shouldn’t be considered in cuts. Justine Currell, executive director of modern slavery charity, Unseen UK, says that despite financial challenges, at no point did they consider cutting benefits.

“Like many charities, we were hit hard by the pandemic and lost a significant part of our income with live fundraising events cancelled and some significant donors unable to support us because of coronavirus related issues. Staff and survivors of modern slavery are central to what we do. Staff morale during the pandemic was therefore a key issue and at no time did we consider cutting benefits.”

Aspens, a charity providing care to people with autism, learning disabilities and complex needs in Kent, Susses and Bexley agrees: “If our team aren’t happy, this will inevitably have a knock-on effect on the people we care for and the quality of service we provide, therefore we don’t believe reducing benefits for our employees is a sensible or viable solution to making financial cutbacks.”

Blood Cancer UK has also decided against cutting employee benefits when looking at ways to cut back financially. “Our staff work so hard, and if we want them to stay with us and help us beat blood cancer, their benefits need to be fair and competitive with other organisations,” explains Jessica Badley, head of HR and OD at Blood Cancer UK.

“There is always a balancing act between how we use charitable funds alongside rewarding everyone fairly for the excellent work they do. And we also took into account that we couldn’t award a cost-of-living increase in 2020 due to financial pressures, so we absolutely did not want to cut benefits at the same time.”

In fact, in November 2019, Blood Cancer UK began a pay and benefits review. This was put on hold during the pandemic and has been picked up again earlier this year with specific goals, including: decreasing the gap between highest and lowest paid employees, ensuring pay and reward strategies matched ED&I objectives, reducing the gender pay gap and equalising benefits across the whole team.

The charity’s benefits are split into two main areas: financial wellbeing and mental health and wellbeing benefits. Financial benefits include a minimum salary of £25,000, enhanced pension contributions, enhanced sick pay and maternity, paternity and adoption leave, £1000 interest-free loan, season ticket loans and an additional day’s leave to move house.

Mental health and wellbeing benefits run alongside mental health first aiders and employee champions, in addition to Schwartz Rounds (conversations with staff about the emotional impacts of work) for all employees. Benefits include agile working, an internal wellbeing hub, 30 days’ annual leave plus bank holidays, five wellbeing days, an employee assistance programme which offers free, confidential counselling to all service staff, flu vaccinations, a request option for sabbaticals and supports the end period poverty campaign, supplying free period products in its offices.

Adapting to change

Instead of reducing employee benefits due to the pandemic, Blood Cancer UK actually decided to adapt them as a direct result of the pandemic. The charity no longer uses probation periods, and its benefits no longer tie into length of service.

“Our staff and team worked incredibly hard over the pandemic, no matter what challenges were thrown at them,” says Badley. “We wanted to ensure that they felt as secure in their roles as we could, and to reward them appropriately.”

As a direct result of staff feedback, the charity added in the additional five wellbeing days and focus days. Focus days are organisation-wide days, where everyone is focussed on activities, which aid their continual professional development. “It’s not a day to catch up on admin or complete your to-do list,” Badley adds.

Similarly, Aspens introduced an employee assistance programme as a result of the pandemic, which offers counselling and a support helpline. They also offer death in service benefits, vouchers of £100 each and access to discount cards such as the blue light card.

“We sent out a wellbeing survey to all staff in January this year (2021) as we entered another lockdown, asking for feedback on how staff were feeling, views on potential additional benefits and what more we could do as an organisation to support them,” says an Aspens spokesperson.

“We have used vouchers as a way of showing our gratitude to staff and to acknowledge their work over the last 18 months and the tremendous strain Covid has brought upon us all.”

Wellbeing became a priority for many charities across the country, and benefits changed to reflect that. Mid-pandemic, Currell explains that Unseen UK took the decision to invest in training and a wellbeing programme, which was launched this summer. “We wanted to send out a clear message that although times are incredibly tough, we are nothing without our professional and dedicated team and value them tremendously.”

Happy employees, happy finances

So what else can charities do to retain staff, even with excellent employee benefits? Aspens believes it is of “vital importance” to invest in employees. “Not all of these need to involve a large financial outlay, so much of it is about keeping the channels of communication open, showing gratitude and appreciation and senior management reflecting a supportive attitude to maintaining a healthy work-life balance.”

Good career development is attractive to employees, Aspens points out, in addition to paid sabbaticals, enhanced maternity and paternity pay and financial support for other courses not directly related to their everyday job.

Badley emphasises that a good culture within the charity is also important and doesn’t necessarily cost anything.

“If staff have autonomy and are trusted to do their jobs to the best of their ability, that will always retain them for longer than a gym membership or free breakfasts. And having inclusive ways of working can make such a difference to this. We see this most in our agile working approach – by allowing our staff responsibility and flexibility, they repay the organisation many times over through their dedication to the charity and our mission, and because they can bring their whole selves to work,” she concludes.

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