19th Dec 2022
3 Min Read

Avoiding a winter of discontent. Communicating in a cost of living crisis

Charlie Feasby
Charlie Feasby
People & Change
Anxiety and depression are on the rise; energy bills are skyrocketing; millions of adults are going without food for a day because they can’t afford to eat. We’ve seen internal communications teams stuck between the conflicting needs of their stakeholders and their audience. That’s why we’ve pulled together these observations and learnings to help you communicate through a tough winter.

Record levels of inflation, soaring energy prices and economic uncertainty is pushing more people into financial stress. Though the UK government’s energy rebate is a welcome boost to some, it’s merely a drop in the ocean to many who are facing rising energy bills: with the average annual cost projected to hit more than £3,500. And 2.4 million adults in the UK have gone without food for a day because they could not afford to eat, a figure that shouldn’t belong in the 21st century.

The fact that winter can be challenging isn’t news to most. But it will affect some groups significantly more than others. Governments and charities can help, but businesses of course have a role to play in supporting people too.

Some organisations are already taking action. HSBC and Virgin Media O2 are giving extra payments to their people, whereas John Lewis and Waitrose are offering free food over the winter – and we predict these kinds of activities will increase.

Here’s our curated list of advice from the large organisations we work with:

Don’t act without asking

Different groups will be affected by the crisis in different ways – and one person’s individual experience may be different from the majority of their colleagues. That’s why listening matters, particularly in times of crisis. Give your people plenty of chances to feed back, so you can gauge how they’re feeling: either through one-to-one meetings with managers or fellow colleagues, or group settings. There’s no point acting until you know what needs to be done.

However you do it, make sure you create an environment where people feel comfortable to say how they really feel and talk about anything. People will have different reactions – make sure everyone’s voice is heard.

Don’t put D&I on the backburner

Everyone will experience the crisis differently, but some groups are affected more severely than others. In any crisis, women and people from minority backgrounds tend to feel the pinch more.

For example, 20.4 per cent of women work below the real living wage – in comparison with 14 per cent of men – while women’s savings amount to a third less than men’s. That’s before we consider that many women are more likely to have caring responsibilities that keep them from increasing paid working hours.

Similarly, people from ethnic minority backgrounds are more likely to be in insecure work – 24 per cent versus 19 per cent for white British people. BAME people spend a higher percentage of their income on rent, which results in them being twice as likely to have no savings.

Double down on your D&I efforts to make sure you recognise the disparities for different groups – and support those most in need. Keep close to employee resource groups so you can hear first-hand how the crisis is affecting different segments of your people and continue listening so you’re better prepared for the future. Doing this in partnership with colleagues can get help to those who need it most, without waiting for them to speak up.

Make time in the workplace more valuable

Most companies are embracing a flexible working environment after the pandemic proved that remote teams are just as efficient, collaborative and capable of delivering compared to those in the workplace.

Though rising energy costs might make working from home more challenging, it may still be cheaper for colleagues to work remotely rather than face the commute – especially when factoring in extra costs.

If colleagues want to come into the building – or if your policy dictates they should – make that time more valuable. Create ‘anchor days’ for whole teams to collaborate and learn from each other, support travelling workers by subsidising commuting or childcare costs or offer subsidies to make lunches a little less costly.

Minding mental health

There’s been a 25 per cent increase in anxiety and depression worldwide since the pandemic, and, in the UK, the number of people contacting the leading charity Mental Health UK has increased by 98 per cent. The crisis is also the biggest concern of millennials and Gen Z, overtaking climate change from last year.

Face-to-face communication can help with these concerns. Encourage employees to spend time together, rather than working from home, to help them break out of negative thought cycles. If they are working from home, offer advice to protect employees’ mental health online from things such as doomscrolling and misinformation. While spending less time on the internet is a solution, it’s not always practical: signpost to advice shared by the likes of BACP, including setting time limits and focusing on what you can control over what you can’t.

Promote your existing support, such as financial and wellbeing programmes, employee hardship funds or signposts to organisations with resources such as Mental Health UK and the NHS. Grand gestures are great, but the smaller, immediate actions can be equally appreciated.

Say something

Whatever you do, don’t stay silent during a crisis. And when you do speak up or take action, honesty and transparency are essential – especially in explaining your decisions as a business.

Avoid giving advice on energy-saving or cost-saving methods: you’re not providing a solution, rather placing the responsibility back onto the employee. Review your communications plans and look out for tone-deaf messaging; instead, harness understanding and empathy.

Review planned events and activities and how they could be perceived. Lavish events, gifts and extravagant parties may not land well, so consider combining events and celebrations with other messaging like an up-to-date employee value proposition, benefits and rewards.

When discussing incentives, make sure you get the right people in the room, such as line managers, and highlight employee wellbeing as the priority. Many companies are offering their employees food, money and shopping discounts, insulation support and other financial benefits.

Conclusion: Employees are the priority

Remember, whatever you do for your customers, offer something at least as good if not better for your employees. Make your people your priority and keep the conversation with them going to make sure no one is left behind. Those who are take action now may find things look a lot brighter on the other side.

The solution to the cost-of-living crisis: make employees the priority.

Need more advice on how to guide your people through the difficult winter? Get in touch

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