Why more perks won’t guarantee engagement

Too often I see employers tick-box their way out of a workplace problem by buying benefits. This is the easy, lazy and most expensive way of using these HR tools. Employee wellbeing, for example, is frequently boiled down to putting in perks such as free fruit and mindfulness sessions with the management team left wondering why employees do not appreciate these lovely gifts.

The reason is that the big, hairy, difficult challenges have been glossed over. The upcoming REBA/Axa PPP Healthcare Employee Wellbeing Research 2019 (to be published on 20 June 2019) shows that 72.8% of employers believe that their high-pressure work environment is the biggest threat to employee wellbeing. This frightening proportion is a virtually unchanged statistic from our 2018 research.

How missing the point can damage staff wellbeing

If high-pressure working is the biggest threat, then offering staff counselling or running blood pressure clinics is a jaw-dropping reaction. A recent Tweet from a UK worker went viral a few weeks ago when she summed up the problem perfectly (in sentiment, if not in grammar): “Why is every job description like ‘This is a fast-paced environment! If you come work for us you’ll be so f*****g stressed! You will s**t out your own internal organs!! Pizza and ping-pong on Fridays’.” The reply thread is a must-read for every management team in the country.

If this level of workload is commonplace, no wonder so many company executives are concerned with mental wellbeing: 62% of our research respondents said it is the biggest wellbeing concern for their board. Employees feel overstretched, overstressed and under-valued.

Where a company puts its shareholders or venture capitalists ahead of its own employees there will be a problem. Seeing others get money off the back of your hard work is never going to play well, and permanently damages any sense of wellbeing.

Where a company believes that change is the new normal and staff need to be agile without well-supported development coaching, skills training and experienced, caring management then wellbeing will deteriorate. No perks can solve that folly.

Calling out toxic cultures and celebrating engagement heroes

Last month executives from France Télécom (now known as Orange) went on trial for treatment of staff. They stand accused of allegedly creating a climate that led to 19 employees taking their own lives. Less dramatically, but also tellingly, Uber workers went on strike in May days before the company listed on the New York Stock Exchange. They were asking for a minimum wage and holiday pay while watching Uber founders and investors about to make billions of dollars.

I have been reading Dan Lyons’ book, Lab Rats: Why modern work makes people miserable (Atlantic Book, 2019), and what had been making me feel uncomfortable for a while now, is spelt out very clearly in his pages: using employee benefits can be a great sleight of hand to justify paying people less than they should. The companies named and shamed in Dan’s book are not unable to pay people properly, they choose to treat ordinary staff badly in order for a few to get extremely rich.

There are many organisations which do treat staff well and reap the reward for everyone. Richer Sounds has had a fantastic reputation for many years for how it treats employees. Last month it’s owner Julian Richer announced a plan to hand over control of the TV and hi-fi retailer to staff, which will result in large cash bonuses for all 531 of them.

We need to make bigger heroes of these type of employers which do treat staff fairly, with dignity and where everyone shares the rewards for hard work. Employee benefits have their place to support business strategy, but it’s not to paper over the cracks of greedy management or poor culture.