How responsible are employers for their employees’ wellbeing?

Sanlam shares ways employers can make a difference in taking care of their employees.

Arguably, there’s another insidious epidemic running concurrently to the pandemic right now. That of burnout. Many are exhausted, afraid, depleted, and depressed. 

An Oracle and Workplace Intelligence study found that 2020 was the most stressful year people reported ever experiencing in their working lives. Eighty-five percent said newfound work-related stress was impacting their home environments. Seventy-eight percent reported the pandemic has negatively impacted their mental health.

And 76 percent said they thought their companies should be doing more to protect their mental health. Which raises an interesting question.

How responsible should employers be for their employees’ wellbeing? 
Workplace wellness is not a new concept. The global workplace wellness market was valued at USD 52.8 billion in 2020, and has a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 7.1 percent forecast from 2021 to 2028. It should hit USD 66.2 billion by 2027. 

Thousands of varying sector verticals have sprung up to assist employers in providing employee assistance programmes (EAPs) to employees. And Covid-19 may have accelerated this. 

Avishal Seeth, head of Sanlam Umbrella Solutions, says, “Covid-19 has highlighted the shortcomings of not including holistic wellbeing as part of the employee value proposition. Increasingly, employers are recognising the link between wellness and productivity in the workplace. 

He adds that people are a company’s greatest asset and the best people are becoming a scarce commodity. “Having a holistic employee value proposition is key from a retention and talent attraction perspective.”

Are employers doing anything for their employees’ wellness?

The pandemic has caused myriad mental health implications. Before Covid-19, it was estimated that one-third of South Africans will experience a common mental disorder in their lifetime. Now, Netcare is planning to add mental-health facilities to its hospitals as mental health volumes surge. 

Widespread retrenchments, layoffs, remote working and ongoing concern for oneself and one’s loved ones are all taking a toll. 

Boundaries have blurred between work and home life, leading to digital presenteeism – the burden of needing to feel connected and available around the clock. 

Then there’s the question of money. Many are struggling to make it through the month, leaning on loans to replace net income lost. 

Avishal says that Sanlam has seen members having to pause, cancel or cut down retirement contributions in the wake of retrenchments, furlough or being laid off. 

This has significant implications for people’s futures – which is extremely concerning in a country where just six percent of South Africans can retire comfortably.

Employees are ultimately responsible for their own financial, mental and physical wellbeing. But, there’s no getting around the fact that happier, less stressed people are likely to be better, more productive performers. 

Most individuals spend a lot of time at work. It’s in employers’ best interests to build on people’s personal resilience by providing work environments that are conducive to learning, growth and general happiness. 

What can employers do to really make a difference?

Right now, employers are dabbling in several services – from offering gym memberships and virtual yoga, to meditation app subscriptions, take-out vouchers, and even small stipends to allow team members to rent hot desks in co-working spaces. 

Helping people to know they are financially provided for post-retirement is one of the greatest gifts an employer can provide, especially amid the pandemic.

Avishal adds, “Sanlam research has shown that financial wellness is as important as – if not more than – physical wellness, given the effect financial ‘unwellness’ has on a person. In the current climate especially, knowing one is on track to retire comfortably reduces stress and ups output.” 

Avishal says there has been an increase in interest in the Sanlam Umbrella Fund over this period. An umbrella fund is a retirement fund that multiple unrelated employers can join to facilitate retirement savings – and other benefits – for their employees. 

Most employers want to make a positive difference to their employees’ lives. But, in the pandemic aftermath, many are revisiting their business models to focus on their core – and do not have capacity to manage a retirement fund. 

He adds that the POPIA legislation that comes into effect on 1 July has made compliance quite onerous. Managing a retirement fund takes competence and care, and one has to take on the liability that comes with being a trustee. An umbrella fund removes these concerns, providing a simple, cost-effective solution that bolsters an employee value proposition. 

Avishal explains, “Employees get the peace of mind that they’re providing for their future selves. They get access to educational material, free proactive benefit counselling and the chance to choose a solution that really works for them. Many umbrella funds have also branched into ecosystems built to facilitate success and confidence for members, by offering general wellness services in addition to the financial focus.”

Going forward, the global competition for top talent – especially those with scarce skills – will continue to escalate. Employers may not be responsible for their employees’ wellbeing.

He concluded that those that take holistic employee value propositions seriously will be the ones to ‘win’ and retain high-performers.