With the Christmas and New Year festivities well and truly over, it can feel like a rather dreary time of the year for employees and employers, alike. It’s a time when employees’ credit card bills land on their doorsteps, after their Christmas spending, which can cause money worries. The ‘Winter Blues’ may set in and staff may be finding it difficult to stay motivated at work, leading to higher absence levels and even a rush to find a new job. There may also be adverse weather conditions to cope with, which can be disruptive and costly for employers.

With all this in mind, in this month’s HR Newsletter, we look at the key issues that employers commonly face and offer some positive solutions that may help see you through this, sometimes, difficult time of the year.

How to manage your business during severe weather conditions and/or travel disruption. Find out more..

Help your staff beat the winter blues! Find out more..

When is it too cold to work? Find out more..

What employers can do to support employees experiencing debt problems and in-work poverty. Find out more..

How you can help employees set to retire in 2020. Find out more..

Managing your business during severe weather conditions and/or travel disruption

This can be a common issue for businesses at this time of year. Employers have a duty to ensure the Health & Safety of their employees, so they should try to be as flexible as possible and should never encourage their employees to drive in dangerous weather conditions. In such situations, employers can speak to those employees affected to see if alternative arrangements can be made for the working day, which may include:

  • working from home (this may only be viable if the employee is already set up to work from home)
  • agreeing a period of annual leave
  • enforcing annual leave
  • permitting employees to use any banked time off in lieu.

Organisations who wish to enforce annual leave have to give the correct notice period, which is twice the length of the annual leave to be enforced eg. two days’ notice to enforce one day of annual leave. Alternatively, it may be appropriate to arrange a temporary period of flexible working of earlier or later starts according to what may be more practical because of the transport disruptions.

It is also worth bearing in mind that if employees are parents of children whose school is shut because teachers can’t get to work, they have a right to take time off for dependants when the normal care arrangements for their children break down, while they try to make other arrangements. Time off for dependants should normally last no more than 2 days per instance and employers should agree with the employee how the rest of the time, should they need it, is to be categorised.

There is no automatic legal right to be paid if the employee cannot get into work and do their job, but an employer may be required to pay them if they have any contractual or customary arrangements in place. If an employer does decide to pay for absence as a result of bad weather or travel issues, they should make it clear to employees that this is for a limited period only.
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Helping your staff beat the winter blues

Winter has a huge impact on the mental health and wellbeing of British workers, according to a recent survey, which reveals that over two-fifths (44%) of employees say winter has a negative effect on their mental wellbeing, half (51%) believe it adversely affects their mood and 30% state winter affects their productivity.

Over a third of respondents (35%) even identify themselves as suffering or having suffered from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) – a form of depression that becomes more severe in the winter –  and three-quarters (76%) say they have experienced or are currently experiencing stress in the workplace. This presents a rather gloomy prospect for employers who might be hoping to see the return of a refreshed and invigorated workforce after the Christmas break, as it is likely that the long, darker days will continue to have an impact on their wellbeing and productivity well into the New Year. It may also mean that some of their workforce decide to jump ship!

However, the survey also reveals some important ways that businesses can make a difference.  Workers believe the office environment in particular has a key role in helping to tackle the January blues, with office-based factors such as exposure to natural light (90%), quiet and private areas (76%) and social and collaborative workspaces (75%) all rated as being significantly more important in supporting mental health than traditional, workplace benefits, such as health insurance (62%) and gym memberships (58%).

Reviewing the office environment and engaging with staff is, therefore, an important first step for employers seeking to boost the wellbeing of their workforce.

So….here’s six New Year resolutions businesses should make to help tackle the symptoms of SAD and boost employee wellbeing:

Natural lighting: Nine in ten (90%) consider exposure to natural light as important in supporting their mental health and wellbeing at work, but only 63% currently have it in their workplace.  Wherever possible employers should introduce more natural lighting into the office, which may involve reconfiguring seating arrangements, if necessary, and removing any obstacles that are blocking out sunlight

Quiet areas: Three-quarters (76%) say quiet and private workspaces support their wellbeing at work, 82% value them – but only 40% of people have them in their workplace.  Employers can create a bespoke quiet area by re-thinking how space is currently used. You could designate part of the office a quiet area or reallocate a specific meeting room as the ‘quiet zone’

Social and communal areas: 77% value them and 75% think they’re important to support mental health, but only 51% have them.  Employers can create social areas by making existing communal areas, such as the kitchen, more welcoming with comfy seating and more relaxed, homely designs.

Inclusivity: Include everyone in decisions being made about the workplace; greater employee involvement will have a positive impact on staff productivity (70%) and mental wellbeing (56%).

Encourage passion: Research shows that workers who feel like they have a meaning and significance in their jobs are more likely to stay with their organisations, championing through the bleak winter blues. The onus is thus on employers to ensure workers understand their value, making it clear how their role contributes to the goals of the business.

Enable flexibility: Nearly a fifth of UK workers believe they’d be more productive if presented with flexible working opportunities. So, winter is a great time to demonstrate that flexibility is at the heart of your business – giving your staff the flexibility they need to get through the dark winter months.
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The Chill Factor!  When is it too cold to work?

The Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 lay down particular requirements for most aspects of the working environment. Regulation 7 deals specifically with the temperature in indoor workplaces and states that:

‘During working hours, the temperature in all workplaces inside buildings shall be reasonable.’

However, the application of the regulation depends on the nature of the workplace and the level of activity undertaken by workers. Contrary to popular belief, there is no law for minimum or maximum working temperatures, eg when it’s too cold or too hot to work. However, HSE guidance suggests a minimum of 16ºC, or 13ºC if employees are doing physical work. There is no legal requirement to meet these exact numbers, however, employers are expected to consider the individual circumstances of the workplace and what would be a comfortable temperature for their workers.

If the temperature was to drop below the 16ºC mark, the associated Approved Code of Practice indicates that the employer should take the relevant steps to help bring the temperature in the office or workplace back up to that temperature. If a large number of employees bring concerns about the temperature, the employer will have to consider whether the current approach to keeping the workplace warm is adequate as part of their ‘duty of care’.   If the cold weather really begins to bite, the HSE recommend the following measures to prevent thermal discomfort in a cold workplace:

  • Reduce cold exposure by minimising processes that involve spending time in cold areas.
  • Provide adequate heating, including extra heaters if required.
  • Provide suitable protective equipment to deal with harsh temperatures.
  • Reduce draughts.
  • Introduce alternative working patterns such as flexible working, or working from home to minimise employee exposure to a cold workplace.
  • Provide enough breaks for workers to make hot drinks and/or spend time in heated areas.
  • Provide appropriate insulating floor covering or protective footwear if employees are expected to stand for extended periods of time.

Another way to ensure that the organisation is able to adapt to falling workplace temperatures is to be prepared. It is, therefore, advisable for employers to conduct a thorough risk assessment regarding the effects of extreme temperatures in their workplace, so that contingencies can be put in place, if necessary.
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Call for employers to help employees facing debt problems and in-work poverty

It’s that time of year, again, when many of us gasp in horror as we open our post-Christmas credit card bills! Evidence suggests that money worries and in-work poverty are becoming increasing issues for UK workers, not just at Christmas but all year round. The extent of the problem can be seen from number of food banks, which has risen from 29 at the height of the financial crisis, to well over 2,000 today. These charitable organisations are being relied upon by those in work, as well as those not in work. The reality is that in virtually every organisation – even ones paying higher than average salaries – there will be at least some employees living well below the poverty line. A November 2018 United Nations report found:

  • 60% of those in poverty in the UK are in families where someone works
  • 8 million people are in poverty even though all adults in that family work full-time
  • Families with two parents working full-time at the national minimum wage are still 11% short of the income needed to raise a child.

All the evidence suggests that in-work poverty is now a genuine problem in the UK, and by extension for employers. Such financial pressures and distractions are likely to have a negative effect on employee engagement, health (particularly mental wellbeing) and absence levels. Research suggests that 50% of employees who are struggling financially are less productive, while 55% admit to working less carefully as a result of emotional problems that come from their financial stress. Any or all of these factors are likely to be damaging to the organisation’s overall productivity and it is, therefore, very much in the employer’s interest to do what they can to tackle these issues and support employees appropriately.

Whilst in an ideal world, increasing the salaries of the lowest paid employees might be a solution to this problem, for many organisations this would not be economically viable. If salary adjustment is not an option, then it may be necessary to review the other components of the compensation and benefits package. This review should look at the extent to which current offerings are fully understood and/or utilized by staff and whether there are more effective ways to assist those under financial pressure.

Many employers offer employee discount schemes, for example, which can genuinely help employees’ salary go that bit further. But this will only help staff if the discounts are on items that they value and/or that they would have purchased anyway. Employers must also ensure that staff know about the potential savings and are able to easily access them.

The Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) is now considered to be a mainstay of employee benefit offerings, but it is sometimes under-promoted and underused. A key component of many EAPs is independent debt management support. EAPs also often include counselling services as standard, which can be a particularly useful tool for those employees who may be feeling genuinely stressed as a result of debt pressures. So, it is worth revisiting the EAP with the aim of making workers aware of the support on offer and how to access it.

Finally, as very few of the UK’s working population has ever received any formal financial education, it might also be worth providing access to such a service for employees. This is a relatively low-cost option which can help demystify financial issues, while also giving some practical hints and tips to help them save on everyday costs.
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How you can support employees who will be retiring in 2020

The New Year is the perfect time for employees to take stock of their finances and those who are approaching retirement will have a number of decisions to make given the freedom and choice in pensions. Many will turn to their workplace for support with this. Therefore, WEALTH at work has created a list of 6 steps employers can take to help employees who are retiring in 2020.

  1. Suggest they put a retirement plan together – Before making any decisions about retirement, employees should put a plan together which considers how much income they will need in retirement to meet their day-to-day living expenses (household bills etc.), discretionary income (holidays, hobbies etc.) and how their income needs may change over time. They should then work out whether they have sufficient savings to meet their needs by looking at all their assets including all pensions, ISAs, shares and general savings and what they are all worth. Research has found that most people live longer than expected, so employees should keep this in mind when doing their sums. For example, the government estimates that life expectancy in the UK for people aged 65 in 2016 to 2018, will be around 83.6 for men and around 86 for women.
  2. Encourage them to find out about their options – Employees who have a Defined Contribution (DC) pension will need to decide how to access their income whether that is through income drawdown, buying an annuity or taking it as a cash lump sum or indeed a combination of these options. Yet research by Employee Benefits found that 74% of employers see uncertainty about how to make decisions when accessing pensions as a key concern for employees as they approach retirement.  Financial education, guidance and/or regulated financial advice can help employees understand exactly what each option means and which approach best suits their needs.
  3. Facilitate awareness of the tax rules – Often employees don’t realise that typically, only the first 25% of a DC pension is tax free (calculations for DB schemes will differ) and that the remaining 75% is taxed as earned income. Employees could find themselves paying more tax than they need to if they don’t plan carefully.  For example, a poll of over 70 employers found that 91% of them believe that employees do not understand the tax rules when withdrawing money from their pension. It’s really important to make sure employees take the time to understand these rules as it may be possible to save significant amounts in tax.
  4. Encourage “shopping around” – Employees should be encouraged to shop around before making any decisions about purchasing any retirement products. Which? found in 2019 that shopping around for an annuity can increase an individual’s retirement income by 20%. However, the FCA found that only 11% of pensions were accessed to purchase an annuity this year and an increasing number of people are accessing their pension through income drawdown. It is crucial that employees do as much research as possible to ensure they select a retirement option that best suits their needs. This means finding a solution that enables them to access the right amount of cash as and when they want it, and for as long as they need it.
  5. Educate about scams – Scammers often use highly professional looking websites and marketing literature to lure individuals in, and they tend to sound completely legitimate. Findings from the FCA and The Pensions Regulator show that victims of pension scams could lose 22 years’ worth of savings within 24 hours. So, whatever employees are planning to do with their retirement savings, it’s really important that they understand the risk of scams and how to protect themselves. They can do this by checking whether any company that they’re planning to use is registered with the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) https://register.fca.org.uk/ and they can also visit the FCA’s ScamSmart website which includes a warning list of companies operating without authorisation or running scams fca.org.uk/scamsmart.
  6. Promote the importance of regulated advice – Many people are concerned about the cost of regulated advice without realising that when they buy retirement products through, for example, online brokers, there are commissions to be paid which can cost just as much, if not more than getting advice. Employees should understand the importance of seeking regulated advice. After all, research from the International Longevity Centre carried out in 2017 suggests that ‘affluent’ individuals who received advice accumulated on average £30,882 more in pension wealth than those who didn’t take advice. Regulated advice also provides the benefit of consumer protection for the advice given, as well as a retirement plan tailored to an individual’s needs.

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This newsletter was curated by Nicole Squires, MA, Chartered MCIPD, an Executive Consultant at People Based Solutions. People Based Solutions is an HR support company that specialises in supporting small and medium sized businesses meet all of their HR commitments. If you want to know how People Based solutions can help you meet your HR and Employment Law obligations click here for your free HR Health Check. Alternatively, you can call us on 01925 425 857, send an e-mail to enquries@peoplebasedsolutions.co.uk or Click Her18e to visit our website.

If you want to know more about what we do, company policesworkplace policies, how we support home based, remote and flexible working, or HR services for small businesses, get in touch. Our local knowledge can be based on experience in dealing with certain areas of work to help with Health and Safety at your Warrington workplace. We can also travel around small businesses in Warrington, Liverpool, Manchester and beyond to cover our training and inductions.

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