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How to retain staff when you can’t increase salaries

The HR dilemma

Human Resources leaders are often confronting ‘uniquely challenging’ circumstances. And right now is certainly no exception. But are there ways to navigate through this storm?

Heavy is the head that wears the HR crown

Human Resources (or People) has never been more challenging. Rampant inflation, a competitive job market, general uncertainty and (related to all these things) a growing mental health crisis - all along with the background of hybrid working - has created a perfect storm for HR departments. This is causing HR leaders to juggle with a range of competing responsibilities under a complex set of circumstances.

Yearning for earnings

With inflation rising rapidly, businesses are confronted by soaring cost pressures, including workforces calling for significant wage increases. And it’s not a problem that’s likely to go away anytime soon, with then Bank of England predicting that inflation won’t peak until mid-2023 all at the same time as forecasts that we could be in for the longest recession ever.

Figures from the ONS show that wages rose by 5% in the first half of this year. But when you take inflation into account, average pay actually fell by more than 2% compared to 12 months ago. Back in early 2022, the consultancy PwC said its modelling of wages and inflation showed inflation-adjusted earnings would be 2% lower at the end of the year, leaving the average UK household £900 worse off, “while the lowest earners could see their incomes fall by as much as £1,300”. The Resolution Foundation said the current fall in real wages was not projected to end until late 2023, and at that point average wages would be no higher than in 2007. The outlook is challenging.

But hiring & retaining staff remains difficult

Meanwhile, the pandemic has made people take stock of their lives and assess what’s important to them. Nearly two-thirds of UK-based employees, surveyed in a McKinsey study, said that COVID-19 has caused them to reflect on their purpose in life. And over half stated they are rethinking the type of work they do. Employers find themselves in the position of having to fight to keep their workforce, let alone hire the best new talent.

According to the UK Office of National Statistics, the number of UK job vacancies has hit a record high of 1.29m, reflecting the shortages of staff in the health, finance, construction and leisure sectors. In a recent survey, 59% of employers reported staff retention was more challenging than 12 months ago.

And a mental health crisis?

According to a poll conducted in Spring 2022 by Business Matters magazine, more than two in five UK companies consider mental health to be the biggest HR challenge currently facing their business, significantly outranking concerns regarding recruitment, Covid-related absence, bridging the skills gap and setting up and operating a hybrid working model.

Workers, too, are seeing their wellbeing as a priority. A recent international survey conducted by global insurance company Willis Towers Watson revealed that 46% of respondents preferred to have better health benefits than a bigger salary (although this was before the cost of living crisis really hit).

Not all bad news

Herein lies the solution to the problem for HR leaders. Even in these inflationary times, you don’t necessarily need to offer the biggest salary to employees – and the chances are, you can’t. But what you can do is listen to their needs and give them what they want.

In the post-pandemic workplace, people want to feel looked after and nurtured. Organisations can supplement a slight shortfall in salary with a decent and considered employee value proposition (EVP). An EVP is, in essence, the value a company offers its employees in return for the value they bring to the company. It encompasses the benefits, ethos and workplace culture of a company and – more and more – it is proving key in attracting, and retaining, talent.

An article published by HR Media organisation People Matters supports this: “There is a need [for employers] to rework their employee value proposition (EVP) so that they are not only able to attract diverse new talent but also retain those they have… Every organisation while rethinking about EVP should ensure that they are delivering the values which are helping the employees and nurturing them to be more productive, thus lowering attrition rates.”

And employees are clearly signifying that one of the key planks of any benefit package needs to be centred around their wellbeing. People Matters goes on to say: “The post-pandemic workplace requires a value proposition that is designed to provide a positive response by taking care of attributes which are critical towards a person’s whole life experience.” In other words, employers need to take a holistic approach to looking after their staff.


One way of showing employees that you actively care is to use a wellbeing engagement platform like BuddyBoost. BuddyBoost has a growing range of programmes where participants join a challenge to commit to doing something that’s good for them for at least 26 days in a month. Our products include BuddyBoost Active, Timeout, Good Food, Be Kind, Green and BuddyBoost Balance – with more wellbeing challenges on the way.

The common theme across all our interventions are buddies and community, which we use to generate mass engagement and to increase camaraderie amongst work colleagues.

In a world where businesses are desperate to attract (and retain) the best talent, but don’t necessarily have money to throw at the problem, strategic engagement that fosters collaboration and peer support is a cost-effective way of making your organisation attractive to work for.

As Monica Martin, a senior director at Willis Tower Watson, points out: “In this tight labour market, organisations that understand the importance that employees place on these core benefits and that provide highly valued benefit programs can differentiate themselves in their effort to become an employer of choice.

Faced with so many issues and such a competitive job market, the question isn’t so much whether HR leaders can afford to invest in programmes like BuddyBoost, as whether they can afford not to.


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