Green and healthy perks don’t make you a responsible business

Posted - January 3, 2019

Health secretary Matt Hancock has been telling employers they should offer the cycle to work scheme, counselling and fresh fruit in the workplace, reigniting the debate over which employee benefits are really worth investing in.

But it’s misguided advice. While offering wellness benefits and environmentally-friendly employee perks ticks the ‘caring employer’ boxes, these won’t engage your employees. And this is a concept that businesses of all sizes are failing to grasp.

Take cycling. Tens of thousands of UK businesses of all sizes offer a cycle to work scheme which lets employees save up to 48% on tax-free bikes and cycle accessories. Meanwhile, bike share schemes are a feature in most major cities, and San Francisco-based company Lime has just launched the UK’s first dockless electric bike fleet. In short, it’s easy to be a cyclist.

Plus, the argument for us all to be pro-cycling-to-work is compelling. It is estimated that every hour cycled adds an hour to your lifespan, it gets you fit and healthy, and it’s considerably cheaper to commute by bike than drive or take public transport. Employees that travel ‘actively’ to work and meetings reduce the burden on public transport, and reduce carbon emissions, in turn reducing their company’s carbon footprint.

A Sustrans survey found employees who cycle take half as many sick days as the average UK worker. Swedish researchers found that mental performance on tasks after physical exercise was better with fitter people than less fit people. And a British survey of almost 18,000 commuters found significant associations in psychological wellbeing for those who actively commute compared to travelling by car.

And yet, only 11.6% of adults in England use bicycles for travel purposes at least once a week or more frequently, according to the Department for Transport. Just 2% of all journeys in the UK are made by bike, compared to 30% of trips in the Netherlands.

Clearly, making cycling widely available is not enough to make a positive difference. It’s the same for other wellness perks. You can buy smart fitness trackers for your whole team, but they’ll be relegated to that drawer full of old mobile phones and spare chargers within the month if you don’t go a step further.

What I mean is that businesses also need to be promoting and incentivising benefits as well as enabling. Otherwise, you’re just paying lip service to corporate responsibility. Those companies that make fitness, health and active transport a part of their culture are the ones that see real engagement. And that’s what Matt Hancock needs to address next time he wades into employee benefits.

Here’s how to truly engage your employees. These three steps can be applied to any wellness or fitness benefits:

1.Enable

A YouGov survey for Sustrans found that 22% of adults don’t cycle to work because they believe their workplaces do not have adequate facilities for bicycles. The primary request from those surveyed was simply for a safe place to lock up their bikes. Some employers go further, offering showers, drying facilities and lockers for kit, indoor bike parking, an ‘accessories store’ with spare lights, chargers and dry kit.

One of the biggest barriers to cycling is concerns over safety. While employers can’t control the weather or the traffic, there are ways to help. Organising lunchtime group rides led by an experienced rider can help novice riders gain confidence. Helping your employees to map out safer, quieter routes to work can transform a journey of uncertainty into an enjoyable, leisurely commute. It can also help to get a couple of employees who are passionate about cycling to rally the troops, promote the benefits to colleagues and share their own safety tips. This has far more impact than the same message coming from HR or the boss.

For those put off cycling due to lack of fitness or confidence, or steep hills, an electric bike is a great option. This is just a bicycle that has an integrated electric motor to help to propel it forward, assisting the rider when pedalling and making inclines a breeze. There is an e-bike for everything, including folding models for commuters. Make your employees aware of the benefits of electric.

2. Promote

You’ve all read the studies. Fit and healthy workers have a reduced rate of absenteeism, better concentration levels, are more productive and less stressed. And, with the cost of fuel becoming ever-more prohibitive, and awareness of the damaging effects of climate change growing, travel by bike is the answer. Use stats in your internal communications to promote the benefits to your staff.

Also, be consistent: if you promote active travel but don’t recycle in your workplace, you’re sending out a very confusing message.

3. Incentivise

Because employees who take up cycle to work do not pay tax or National Insurance contributions on the amount due, they can save up to 48% against their salary sacrifice. Do the maths to make the financial savings to commuters really clear. Employees can work out their own saving, based on their annual salary and the retail cost of the bike and accessories, by using this calculator.

Next plc HQ in Leicester, which has made sustainable travel a part of its culture, offers covered bike parking and showers to green commuters. It also offers a generous financial reward in the form of a £5 voucher for every day an employee sustainably travels to work, which can be redeemed in local Next shops. Queen’s University Belfast hosts cycle to work breakfasts and offers safe parking, showers, lockers and downloadable maps.

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