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25 Nov 2022
by Darryl Curtis

Can paternalism have a positive role in the workplace?

Businesses need to take an ‘organisational’ rather than ‘paternal’ approach

Striking the balance between freedom of choice and paternalism.jpg 1


Paternalism often has negative connotations, being interpreted as authoritarian, restrictive or limiting liberty. This view is somewhat softened in a work environment, with notions of ‘being provided for’ or even benevolence. Nevertheless, freedom, choice, and autonomy are hampered under a purely paternalistic approach.

But when it comes to workplace benefits, what are the benefits of paternalism? How can an employer strike the right balance?

Investment in people

There are of course, legislative requirements and duty of care considerations with benefits and policies. Under an optimistic view, employers can be seen to have an ethical responsibility to the workforce. 

Commercially, employer provision unlocks several advantages for employees. Lower or no costs (directly or taxation savings), comprehensive cover, improved terms and conditions and ease of transaction. Collectively, these are rarely achievable as an individual consumer. 

In contrast for an employer, a purely paternalistic approach can have the pitfall of not generating the value to offset the cost and resource burden. If benefits are applied with a blanket approach, there will always be lesser value for certain groups and diminishing returns on engagement.

A pivot on paternalism

Simply mandating arbitrary policies and benefits is unlikely to provide meaningful advantages or resonate with employees. However, an important pivot can change perception and create value. 

By taking an ‘organisational’, over ‘paternal’ approach, an employer can ensure that provisions are aligned with the company mission, drive forward the people strategy, and reflect and embed the organisation's culture.

This is vital in improving employee wellbeing. It allows an employer to identify key issues the population is facing, formulate what success looks like and implement policies, benefits and support that address these. Furthermore, it encourages measuring effectiveness and adapting accordingly. This strategy is more holistic and moves away from short-term anecdotal success, towards aggregate and long-term improvements.

The employer’s evolving role

An employer is well positioned to influence, with an abundance of data ranging through demographics, pay, reward, absence, physical and mental health. Objective insights, plus subjective surveys, focus groups and feedback exercises tell the employee wellbeing story and allow meaningful intervention.

Traditionally, employers have been reticent to encroach on employees’ personal lives; however, the fine line between support and intrusion and uncertainty around the role of a business, has evolved. 

Importantly, businesses are held as trustworthy. According to the Edelman Trust Barometer 2022, businesses are seen as the most trusted institutions reviewed, over and above non-governmental organisations (NGOs), government and media. Combined with the mounting view that businesses also have a strong part to play in societal issues, an employer can, more than ever, make a difference in people's lives.  

There is also scope for employers to align corporate and employee goals. The current vanguard is environmental concerns, with enhancing corporate policies combined with employee initiatives. Electric vehicle purchase schemes, carbon offsetting, volunteering events, lift-share and ethical investment facilities all exemplify this synchronicity.

Modern paternalism

We have seen this balanced, almost hybrid approach of providing for employees but in a relevant and modernistic fashion, with support in previously underserved areas. 

Gender-specific health, fertility and parenthood, child and eldercare and life-event services are becoming more prevalent in the corporate environment. This dovetails with recognition that wellbeing does not begin and end with that individual but is highly influenced by family, friends, and social groups. Improving this ‘social wellbeing’ is not only appropriate but becoming vital. 

Financial wellbeing is another case in point. Traditionally a top-down approach, financial security was primarily served through pay, pension and protection benefits. However, financial capability, has gained more traction.

Financial education, planning, guidance, and coaching encourage and empower employees to understand their finances and make confident decisions. Combined with analysis tools, savings vehicles and advice, it can ensure that a multi-generational workforce with different financial circumstances is supported.

This area also exemplifies support as an expectation, not an intrusion. A 2022 CIPD study reveals that. More than four-fifths of employees (81%) whose employer has a financial wellbeing policy, say it’s important any future employer has such a policy.

Expanding freedom of choice

In a move away from archetypal paternalism, there is increasing recognition that employees are not all the same. Supporting the wellbeing, retainment and attraction of high-performing staff is not a one-size-fits-all solution. 

An employer can harness both paternalism’s advantages and freedom and democratisation, through choice within a framework. We have certainly seen this with platform technology, facilitating benefits an employee can amend or voluntarily select. If used effectively, this can enhance the people strategy, while creating employee choice to tailor the benefits package. This opens a world of interventions, services and perks for employees and families.

The challenge

As with many things, balance is key. If we move too far to either end of the spectrum, we lose the embedded value in paternal and autonomous approaches. Instead, a strategy that rhymes with both allows an employer to be clear in the mission, forward the culture and support employees, while recognising wellbeing and value mean many different things to many different people.

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