Myth: employee perks keep people engaged
Yoga studios, rainbow slides, NASA sleep pods, organic lunches, daily ice cream allowances, volleyball courts, climbing walls, gyms, saunas, massage, ping-pong tables, games arcades, puppytoriums, hair salons, in-office scooters, childcare, acupuncture, Olympic-sized pools for SCUBA-certification at lunch, Botox-injection rooms, tanning beds, wine bars, food trucks, mini supermarkets, karaoke parties, music jam sessions and 100-seat theatres – according to the media, these make up the modern office and “keep employees happy”.
The transition to the virtual office has brought with it new creativity. Westpac organised virtual zoo and museum visits, while other companies have offered virtual escape room experiences, remote flower-arranging and cocktail-making courses, virtual bingo tournaments and watercolour classes, Lego championships on Zoom “for employees with their home-bound kids”, doughnut home deliveries, care packages and more – to help employees adjust.
Out of the office, employee perks have become a burgeoning industry. Third-party providers are promising everything from employee discounts to gender reassignment surgery and egg, sperm and embryo freezing, as well as house cleaning, concierge services, relocation assistance, dry cleaning, festival tickets, trips to Disney World, health and insurance benefits, student loan pay downs, plus free transportation to and from work – all to keep employees happy.
What the evidence says
Perks can deliver bursts of happiness, but they don’t keep people engaged. Long hours, overloaded to-do lists, poorly designed and dead-end jobs, ill-trained managers and bullying colleagues can quickly erase any memory of the free organic sandwich that an employee had after their nap in the NASA pod at noon.
“Awesome”, “unusual” and “unbelievable employee perks” promoted in the media serve to generate powerful clickbait headlines, attract job candidates, surprise and delight current employees, and deliver short-term wins for an organisation – but they only scratch the surface.
The release of ISO 45003 reminded us that workplaces are complex ecosystems and a multitude of factors influence employee satisfaction and engagement – including how work is organised, social factors at work, and the safety of the work environment.
Factors contributing to an engaged and mentally healthy workplace
The dark side of perks
Too many employee perks might also be a bad thing. “These benefits are not being offered out of largess. It’s done because organisations want employees to work 24/7. If you never have to leave to get your dry cleaning, to go to the gym, to eat or even go to bed, you can work all the time. They’re golden handcuffs,” says Gerald Ledford, a senior research scientist at the Center for Effective Organizations at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business.
Perks can also lure employees into a false sense of security. For example, an employee taking advantage of flexible work practices might think everything’s rosy, but beneath an organisation’s diplomatic veneer, their colleagues and managers can perceive those employees as unprofessional and lacking commitment – which is penalising their career prospects. Conversely, an employee not taking advantage of perks and flexible work practices might be punished by the organisation for not taking part in policies put in place to incentivise them.
Putnam, Myers and Gaillard say, “We tie these tensions, and the management of them, to an overarching dilemma in implementing workplace flexibility, the autonomy–control paradox”. This occurs when management wants to create an environment with a high level of autonomy, but simultaneously retain high levels of monitoring and oversight.
This post is the final excerpt from our report: 5 myths of employee wellbeing. The report provides decision-makers with an evidence-based approach for their employee wellbeing strategy, as well as a user-friendly overview of wellbeing metrics.
The illustration below shares an overview of our arguments in the report, but if you’d like to deep-dive into the evidence for each myth, please download our full report here.
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Sonder is a leading Australian wellbeing and safety company accredited by the Australian Council on Healthcare Standards (ACHS). Our solution is a technology-driven platform supported by 24/7 safety, medical, and mental health experts. This is backed up by a physical responder network that can be onsite quickly for complex scenarios, plus a capability to deliver unique and timely data insights which drive meaningful business decisions.