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Is the UK suffering from employee benefits inequality?

Research shows that gender, working hours and seniority all impacting how much access people think they have to workplace rewards

90% of UK HR managers are confident that they have got their employee benefits strategy right, but apparent benefits inequality exists among many UK workforces, with an estimated 35% of workers not receiving any rewards beyond pay at all, and male senior full-time workers claiming to get far more than their colleagues.

These are some of the findings of The Future of Work research study commissioned by Grass Roots Employee Solutions; for over one in three workers surveyed the benefit pot was apparently completely empty, while others claimed a variety of options available to them – flexitime, free food and drink, salary sacrifice schemes and stress counselling being among the most common. But this apparent benefits inequality could also be a result of benefits packages simply not appealing to certain types of worker and therefore not being remembered.

The figures suggest that the UK could be suffering a ‘gender benefits gap’ as well as a gender pay gap, with women saying they receive considerably less workplace benefits overall than men do. For example, 44% of women say that they do not receive wellbeing benefits like healthcare and gym facilities compared to 32% of men, and 48% of women don’t get productivity benefits like working from home or education funding in contrast to 35% of men. It’s a similar picture for job perks and financial benefits too. Women expect to receive less benefits in the future too, for instance 37% not expecting any perks compared to 27% of men.

Part time workers appear to fair worse than full timers on the benefits front too. Seven per cent of full time workers don’t receive any financial benefits beyond pay but 26% of part time roles are in this position. And over half of part timers receive no wellbeing or productivity support at all compared to around one third of full timers.

Senior staff also claim to receive more benefits across the board than their general workers do. While only 9% of directors claim no wellbeing perks for example, 55% in non-managerial roles say this. Only 8% of C-level executives are without productivity benefits compared to 58% of non-managers. The trend is similar for financial rewards and on the job perks too. In terms of specifics:

  • 18% of owners claim unlimited holiday but only 1% of those in non-management roles do
  • 23% of C-level execs get interest free loans compared to just 3% of non-managerial staff
  • 19% of directors get a ‘birthday holiday’ but only 4% of non-managers do
  • 47% of directors attend team building experiences compared to 15% of non-managers

“There could be many factors affecting why people appear to get different access to benefits and definitely some cases of inequality, but we think that the relevance of a benefits offer to different demographics of worker is also likely to impact their awareness of what’s available to them,” said Stephen Holt, commercial director at Grass Roots.

Grass Roots’ research shows the importance of offering varied benefits options to workers who want more flexibility over the perks they take, suggesting that HR managers may need to seek a wider range of personal voluntary benefits. In the research over 60 different benefits had all increased in provision and popularity over the last ten years but no single benefit was considered ‘essential’ to more than one third of workers, many much less so.

84% of respondents said that benefits are important to them staying loyal to their current job and 49% said underwhelming benefits would stop them from taking a new role.

Holt continued: “HR managers understand the importance of employee benefits but are constantly being asked to deliver more with less. However with careful planning it’s possible to offer a greater and more appealing choice of benefits that more people will take up, without increasing budgets.

“There’s also a keenness for the government to put more support behind mandatory ‘benefits for all’ like pension auto-enrolment and other salary sacrifice schemes with 65% supporting this - a great advantage to HR managers seeking cost effective and even cost neutral solutions.”

When asked what benefits they believe are likely to be most important to employees in the future, financial reward came out top, but next on the list was flexible working, closely followed by technology to enable employees to work in this way.

Also commenting on the research, John Arnold, a professor of organisation behaviour at Loughborough University, said: “There’s a strong tendency for HR managers to believe that more benefits are being offered than employees think there are. It suggests that clearer information about benefits is needed within organisations.

“In some cases, it might be the case that some benefits are only available to more senior members of an organisation. HR managers should be aware that benefits that are applied unequally run the risk of being perceived as unfair and doing more damage than good to employee commitment.”

The research also indicates that although a third of respondents want fixed working hours, two thirds either want the freedom to work whenever and from wherever they want or to have some degree of flexibility within a fixed working period. The flexibility required by the gig economy is also reflected in the research with 46% claiming they’d like to be able to balance two jobs in the future.

Many ‘nice to have’ benefits such as free gym membership or extra days off were completely overlooked in favour of the ability to work flexibly with almost half of employees (49%) hoping to achieve an improved work/life balance in the future. This benefit was particularly popular with those from age 25 to 65+, and even some of the youngest age group (18-24) recognise the benefits of working flexible hours with 30% choosing it as a top priority.