As we all recognise, the COVID-19 pandemic has introduced new norms for employers to contend with, including employee expectations around flexibility in the way they work, as well as expectations around what employers should provide for employees’ broader wellbeing. These employee demands come amidst a war for attracting talent, arising from a period of historic low unemployment and underemployment, where employers face a real battle to find – and retain – the right people.
In addition, recent cost of living pressures brought about by economic conditions are putting employees under increasing financial stress, placing focus on what should be an employer’s duty of care in supporting their employees in this regard.
To share views and insights into the opportunities and challenges that this presents for employers, we brought together a group of expert and experienced employer representatives, each representing vastly different organisations with unique people strategies and cultures. In this first in a series of employer roundtable discussions hosted by Australian Retirement Trust’s Education Manager, Joshua van Gestel, we spoke to David Mollison, NRMA’s General Manager, People Services; James Orr, Head of Reward, Performance & Governance for Bendigo & Adelaide Bank; and Helen Jackson, Australian Retirement Trust’s Chief People Officer.
It was the words shared by James Orr at the conclusion of the discussion that we will start with: “If we think about employee wellbeing right now it’s probably more important than ever … It’s more central, more complex and broader than ever before.”
How did COVID-19 change the focus of employee wellbeing?
The impact of COVID-19 “accelerated concepts that were already out there – and put it on steroids (for employers)”, said Helen Jackson.
“(We) just really needed to start to connect in a different way with our people. Having the empathy, having the caring, having flexing where appropriate ... just recognising the amount of stress that is on everyone.”
In the case of NRMA, David Mollison explained that this increased focus on the mental state of employees during COVID-19 has led to a transformation of their people strategy.
“Where we’ve seen a massive shift is in psychological wellbeing. That’s something we’re on a journey to understand – how we can be impactful and caring in that way.”
NRMA’s focus became about “how do we make it more than just your wellbeing when you interact with us from a work perspective … there’s a real opportunity there to care for people end-to-end not just when they’re on the job.”
David explained, as an example, how the change in where employees worked led NRMA to update its Employee Assistance Program (EAP) with the assistance of their provider, in recognition of the increase in domestic violence they have witnessed more broadly in the community during COVID.
“Anytime you or a family member want to call someone, if you’re feeling unsafe, they will stay on the phone with you ... or they will check in on you”.
James Orr mirrors many of these sentiments, noting that for Bendigo and Adelaide Bank: “Wellbeing right now is interesting and has changed in the past two years. COVID has obviously made work, health and safety – probably not something a bank had thought about other than the obvious security issues – something now obviously that’s front of mind … making sure we have a safe workplace in lots of different environments, and that people’s physical and mental wellbeing is important. But the other side of that obviously is financial wellbeing and making sure that finances aren’t a stressor to our people.”
Helen also cited the recent floods in Queensland and New South Wales as an example where employers – and the benefits they offer – have had to change.
“It’s about reacting quickly to needs,” Helen said, providing the example of Australian Retirement Trust almost immediately offering employees special leave at this time.
"This really helped people with their emotional wellbeing – whether they themselves were besieged or they were helping others."
How does a wellbeing strategy fit within a broader people strategy?
"The question about how a wellbeing strategy fits within a people strategy I think is a very pertinent one," James reflected. At Bendigo and Adelaide Bank "it’s quite central and we often talk about that our purpose as a People and Culture function is to support our people so they can support our customers … wellbeing is obviously a key part of that."
The unique structure of Bendigo and Adelaide Bank, where half of its 500 branches are owned through franchise arrangements, is vital to its identity.
"We have about 1,500 people employed by these individual community banks. It’s very central to who we are, to our history, and our value proposition.”
James went on to explain that “our people are obviously key parts of the communities they live within, and we have always taken a very considered view about how we help our people have good and happy lives and contribute to their community more broadly … and not just to their work life."
In discussing NRMA’s experience, David explained that helping people through their roadside assistance business, which celebrated its 100th birthday last year, flows through the DNA of the whole organisation.
"In a time of need, when they’ve broken down on the side of the road, they get the help. We’re people helping people … that extends to how we look after our people because it’s a core component in how we deliver our service."
David noted that "people broadly are making reassessments about 'what’s the type of work I want to do, what’s the type of organisation I want to be in'. We’re doing a really good job in attracting people who want to work for a values-based organisation and being of service."
Australian Retirement Trust has seen the wellbeing of its employees, as well as its cultural aspirations, become a key component of the recent merger between Sunsuper and QSuper. Helen shared how the merger has created an exciting period of opportunity for the organisation.
"We had our culture ethos designed with our people through an online interactive tool where people could make suggestions and vote up on ideas about the culture they’d like to see (at the merged organisation)", prior to the merger even occurring.
“That was really our due north,” Helen said. “It’s being taken extremely seriously by the Board … the Executive and the Leadership team to do it appropriately.”
Helen further explained how the Fund's focus on customer centricity led to the organisation moving to a set of cultural aspirations, which include: striving to serve, stepping out and stepping forward, stronger together, and spirited and caring. "From a people and strategy perspective that wellbeing comes in really across all of these aspects ... because (we need) to be authentic to our members and how we deliver. We're a people driven organisation".
She acknowledged too that the recent merger has placed stress on people across the business and that the need for resilience to change would be an ongoing area of support. "We (continue to) work with our people to give tools, techniques, abilities to support each other as we step forward."
Where to from here for employee wellbeing?
David noted that for many, including peers and teams, “I think we had a very literal, black and white kind of thinking about what does wellbeing look like. Because people come into an office, they do their work, and so therefore the ability to care and check in on people is a lot easier.”
He also acknowledged that given how much has moved in the world so quickly, it is clear that there are aspects of wellbeing offerings that aren’t as strong anymore.
“Wellbeing and engagement were around discounts or discounts to services … I don’t think that cuts it anymore. It doesn’t really connect people to what’s important or how we are supporting their wellbeing.
“The world has changed, especially in considering many employees are now working from home. There’s this real sense from people of ‘I am feeling busier, I am feeling burnt out, I’m doing more and more work’.
He suggested that “we need to start a conversation around ‘what do we start to turn off’, because there seems to be a mindset of taking more and more on, but not actually stopping anything … of asking is this still adding value.”
James observed that the world has changed too when it comes to what potential employees are looking for.
“Candidates are going through things with a fine-tooth comb now … more so than they would have in the past. Things like work from home, approach to flexible working … it’s an interesting conundrum in recruiting people right now. Most people want the certainty that its two days a week in the office or no days or five days, whereas we take the approach of what works for you and your team.”
James also noted that “it is interesting what people think about of benefits and wellbeing … we do get the question about why don’t we have discounts to this or that.” James went on to explain that it is HR People, those in culture and leadership roles that as part of their job define and orientate what wellbeing can be.
He said that at Bendigo and Adelaide Bank where they have been heading is “a lot more focused on two things: one is psychological safety both for health and safety teams, but also in terms of risk culture to ensure that people feel comfortable to raise issues, and also how development effectively plays into employee wellbeing. We know people are anxious about their future and what their jobs might look like in the future. We’ve invested heavily in things like LinkedIn learning and different self-directed opportunities for people, which we are finding really resonates with them now and in thinking about what they may be doing in ten years’ time.”
In thinking about the future of wellbeing benefits, Helen noted that there “is an operational answer and a strategic answer. If we think about our legal obligations as employers and our duty of care under workplace health and safety legislation, they’ve been high bars but COVID has brought up another high bar in that the workplace has now expanded profoundly as the workplace for many now includes their home.”
Coupled with this, Helen said that strategic issues around conflicting human needs are playing out for employers.
“One is the need (of employees) for autonomy …people want to work when they can, where they can, how they can, but also our second human need for connection and for socialisation. As employers how do we give that flexibility and balance?”
All the panellists agreed that they know they don’t have all the answers, so how do they engage their people?
Helen noted that “I think that this is really important … to find out what is important to our people. The world has changed, and we have had to review old ways. Probing, testing, learning from others.”
With peers and leaders “I think there is a lot of opportunity for us – I think it is an evolving space,” David suggested.
“I think we are at a point where it is test and learn … we don’t know what we don’t know and it really is about how do we get agile in our thinking and do small little pilot projects and look at what works and how do we roll that out. We also have to recognise we have very different business units … it’s not a one size fits all, so we really have to get nimble in how we think about this.”
Where does financial wellbeing fit, including superannuation benefits?
While James agreed that a focus on employee physical and mental wellbeing increased during COVID-19, Bendigo and Adelaide Bank also focuses on improving the financial wellbeing of employees:
“We have a range of financial services products and benefits in place … we want to make sure we have very compelling offers to our staff.
“We (also) want them to bank with us … to better their lives,” which it was also noted allows them to share and understand their customers’ experience.
James noted that “we’re also more broadly focussed on those other issues of (financial) wellbeing like retirement saving and protecting individuals from accidents through Death & TPD insurance, something that we also have a long history of focussing on and delivering through different ways. The value we see is in the education that is offered and in providing scaled programs. How do we maximise the value there?”
He also noted the importance of strong advocacy internally.
“There are things you do (as an employer for your employees) because they are the right thing to do – this includes education and financial advice. This becomes more and more important.”
David cited NRMA’s recent decision in regard to Superannuation Guarantee for its employees.
“We’re there to serve the members, and by extension our customers, and, so, there’s a real strong support from the board down to make sure that we do the right thing by our employees. A classic example of how we’ve done that is the mandated superannuation increases. We’ve made the decision as an organisation that we will pay for that in addition to, rather than employees having to absorb it into, their base pay. Because that’s a way that we make sure that people are not disadvantaged … because we do feel that superannuation is a great benefit for people and we want to make sure that they’re ready for retirement.”
In thinking about the experience of NRMA, David noted that “It is ok as an employer to say you are coming here to work, contribute and to be your best self – but we also want you to come and think about your long term future because you don’t come to work for the length of time you do if you find you can’t support yourself in retirement.”
He noted that it’s important to build this language in an organisation, and “the partnership with Australian Retirement Trust helps us in that evolution.”
As this discussion shows, all panellists views and comments agreed with the statement by James, that employee wellbeing is "...more central, more complex and broader than ever before." They also agreed in the importance of working together with peers - in the testing and sharing of ideas and experiences, in forming a new language for wellbeing in a changing landscape. There was also agreement on the importance of successful partnerships in supporting their people.
For more information on how Australian Retirement Trust can partner with you to support your people, please contact your Relationship Manager or Specialist, visit our Employer hub or call us on 13 11 84.
Disclaimer and disclosure This article has been prepared and issued by Australian Retirement Trust Pty Ltd ABN 88 010 720 840 AFSL 228975, the trustee and issuer of Australian Retirement Trust ABN 60 905 115 063. Any advice contained in this document is general advice only and does not take into account any particular person’s objectives, financial situation or needs. Accordingly, you should consider how appropriate the advice is to your own objectives, financial circumstances and needs before acting. You should consider the Product Disclosure Statement (’PDS’) and Target Market Determination (‘TMD’) before acquiring any financial product. A PDS and TMD is available by visiting australianretirementtrust.com.au/pds or calling 13 11 84.