We are all affected by the natural world around us, something that astute HR professionals could take into account when evaluating their benefits offerings, writes Peter Crush
Did you know that, despite what you may have thought, science can find no link between our sense of wellbeing and sunny climes? Apparently, people are happiest in the cold, wet and windy Shetland and Orkney Islands; while studies have also proved people are no more content in sun-kissed California than they are in the rainy Midwest.
But why is this revelation important? Well, despite what the science may say, marketers still use a trick of the mind that they think really does exist – the feeling of needing to ‘beat the winter blues’.
Ad-land knows that come the change of the seasons, (particularly the turn from winter to summer), people are looking to hold on to things that make them feel a little bit better.
So, isn’t it time more benefits heads took a leaf from their colleagues’ books, and aligned their perks more closely to when people feel they need different things?
“It certainly makes sense to wrap some benefits with a change of weather,” says Stephen Holt, commercial director, employee solutions division, Grass Roots. “The most obvious is cycle to work. For most employees, taking part is only really in their minds when the weather’s good.”
Colleague Tracy O’Brien, product manager at Grass Roots, adds: “Employees want to know that if they choose to take cycling as a perk, they’ll benefit from (hopefully) brighter, longer evenings as well as warmer and drier weather.”
It’s certainly no surprise Bike Week 2016 (which this year is promoting ‘buddyriding’ where colleagues cycle to work together), is a summer affair running between 11-19 June. Meanwhile, Cycle to Work Day is on 14 September – still when the weather is good, and both of which are useful to use as hooks to drive cycle-to-work registration.
Cycling and summer go together
Statistics prove that promoting this perk now ready for the summer does work: Sustrans and the Office for National Statistics reveal a spike in uptake during the third and fourth quarters of the year, while now employers should be tapping into how they can help to gently improve fitness rather than create Lycra Louts.
Data from the Cycle to Work Alliance reveals 60% of new joiners to cycle to work schemes were either non-cyclists, novices or occasional cyclists who wanted to get fitter. The benefit for employers was also revealed: 60% of cyclists also said they got more done at work thanks to their new mode of commute.
But while cycling is the quintessential example of a summer-related perk, it also reveals a barrier common to trying to push many payroll-related seasonal perks (like salary sacrifice cars; buying extra summer holiday days) – and it’s the presence of inflexible windows for flexible benefits.
Historically, most enrolment windows for perks have tended to be in April. But seasonality has had nothing to do with it: it’s simply been a convenient fiscal year-end date. “Many employers, because they have annual enrolment windows, are only able to offer benefits to their staff at the end of a year,” says Holt. “We’d encourage employers to offer a second window.”
A better approach, say some, is to make use of the fact a perk might be outwardly seasonal – as a means to raise people’s initial interest in it – but then try to make it non-seasonal, too.
“It’s true that typically, we see cycle schemes seeing more people getting on board around the spring and summer time,” says Steve Edgell, Cycle Solutions. “But what employers should really be doing is presenting this type of perk as something that they wouldn’t want to give up when the weather gets worse. We work with employers to provide ‘virtual shop’ road shows all-year round, and we highlight safety kit and reflective clothing, which is more an autumnal consideration.
“We also run Dr Bike events – employees can leave their bikes with our technicians so that they give them a full safety check. This helps show that cycling is something they can do safely throughout the year.”
Edgell argues initiatives like these can help improve the still lowly 2-5% take-up rates that cycling typically encourages.
But is there an even better solution still? Arguably firms should think more broadly about a range of benefits that don’t have to involve a flexible benefits window at all. There are numerous employee perks companies are starting to introduce, to align giving something new to the time of the year, and a bit of inventive thinking can play dividends.
Lots of companies, for instance, are moving their Christmas party to different periods in the year (such as having a summer BBQ instead) – and doing this doesn’t affect the £150 per head amount that’s tax deductible from HMRC.
In fact it’s often not realised that employers can hold two events, if they like – a Christmas party and summer bash – as long as the £150 limit isn’t breached.
Firms doing this include Volkswagen Financial Services and accountants/debt resolution firm One Advice Group. The latter actually has its own ‘Culture Club’ run by a staff committee, which also chooses other events – such as the BUPA Great Manchester Run, held every May, to run fitness sessions for participants.
Less obvious seasonal perks include promoting volunteering – where causes always need support at specific times of the year. At Durham University (which lets staff have the opportunity to volunteer for five days a year during work time), it has joined up with local groups to run a dedicated website promoting different opportunities as they arise, ranging from helping out at the annual regatta (June), to becoming town ‘Pointers’ – people who help signpost visitors to the town to key landmarks, or generally help with any questions people might have.
A recent trend has been to establish employee-run gardens – facilitating a different form of mental health and wellbeing. Firms with staff gardens include city law firm Olswang, which recently won a biodiversity award for also providing hives for 80,000 bees.
It now has its own Gardening and Bee Club where staff can escape busy office life, or become more involved by helping produce honey (which is offered to clients). Staff at the firm run planting days, while people take it in turn to water the plants twice daily. Last year the company even ran a sunflower-growing competition. Other organisations hoping staff will use its gardens to put down roots of their own include the Bloomsbury Street Hotel, which grows food, while on the roof of the Trades Union Congress, wildflowers are tended.
By applying some clever seasonal thinking, nothing, it seems, can be too outlandish. Over the winter, when the days were drawing in, consultancy BrightHR introduced ‘nap-time’ for employees in an effort to boost productivity, and it has created a sleep room to allow staff to take part in a pioneering study to test the power of napping on the job.
Certainly, the arrival of autumn can plunge people’s moods, which can effect productivity. So, the nap-room has been designed to have a soporific effect, with temperature, lighting and ambience created to induce sleep quickly.
Paul Harris, co-founder of BrightHR said: “We believe fun and play at work is key to productivity and creativity. Millennials dominate the workforce and are ‘always on’, who would think it is more professional to power through, as opposed to taking a power nap. So it’s important to educate on the power of sleep and the positive effect this has on productivity.”
He’s put some thought into how seasonal changes can be accommodated. The question is, have you?
Here comes summer – who does what seasonal benefits
- Comparethemarket.com owner BGL Group hosts a free summer ball for employees, partners and children, as well as ad-hoc BBQs with bouncy castles and village fête-style games
- FMI, the Irish field management agency (7th in the Great Places to Work list 2013), holds a ‘Free ice cream Friday’ in the last week of June
- Supply chain consulting company Crimson & Co uses the summer to come up with a range of sports-related ‘Crimson Challenges’ including 10k runs, triathlons, orienteering and cycle tours
- Any time the mercury rises above 25º, staff at recruitment firm Eyears can wear more comfortable ‘summer dress’
- As soon as the clocks go forward in the spring, staff at PepsiCo can work ‘summer hours’ by building up a Friday afternoon off if they work an extra hour Monday to Thursday
- In the summer, watch maker Fossil Group UK allows employees to clock off at midday every other Friday
Winter: Statistically, the winter months (particularly around the New Year), are the worst for depression and anxiety, and the Office for National Statistics finds January to be the month when most people file for divorce.
The Royal Mail has recently acknowledged this, and last September it launched an 18-month long pilot separation support service called Dialogue First to help employees who are in the process of separating from their partners. It comes in the form of an Employee Assistance Programme, which includes access to half an hour’s legal consultation, to try and help staff pursue mediation.
Autumn: With shorter days comes the statistic that, according to PMI Group, nearly a quarter of UK employers have encountered Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). To counter this, night workers at Airparks’ Luton and Birmingham Airport car parks have – since January – been trialling light boxes made by Lumie as part of the firm’s health and wellbeing initiatives to promote better sleep.
Already it is finding that exposing staff to bursts of bright light during staff’s waking cycle (either in middle of a night shift or during the day at home) is boosting alertness, combating tiredness and reducing the time it that takes employees to adjust to shifts.