Employers embrace the ‘big society’

More and more employers are embracing broader social issues, but does that let the state off the hook?

Mental Health


Every week brings more announcements about employers doing things on a range of social issues, from domestic violence to supporting people’s mental health through Covid to helping to ‘level up’ the country.

Last week, for instance, Zurich announced it is to roll out a universal basic income pilot project that will see 500 people receive a monthly basic income over three years. Former Cabinet minister Justine Greening and others spoke at Women in Hospitality, Travel and Leisure’s Festival of Inclusion of how employers can be drivers of social inclusion and leading FTSE100 companies announced that they had signed up to a pledge to put purpose and a broader impact on their communities and society before profit.

Many leading employers have employee assistance programmes that offer counselling and signpost to other support, some offer back-up childcare and social care support, many are ahead of the game on equal parenting, they have domestic violence champions and mental health first aiders to tackle stigma and again signpost to help.

Which is great if you work for one of these employers, but most people probably don’t so are they in danger of widening the social divide and letting the government off the hook?

I was listening to a talk the other day by a Swiss professor. Henry Peter, professor of law at the University of Geneva and director of its Centre for Philanthropy, questioned whether states could bring the kind of global systemic change required to tackle global issues like climate change and social inequality because they were too slow and too focused on narrow territorial issues. He said private sector companies could be more agile, acting more quickly and taking the risks that states cannot afford to take, said Professor Peter. He spoke of an OECD multidisciplinary project which found that states have more to gain than lose by involving the private sector in initiatives for the common good. Corporates could not ignore social and environmental issues, he said, and were increasingly expected to behave in a socially responsible manner by their customers, by the public and by their stakeholders. “Social expectations form a new normative law which is more powerful, global and immediate than any state law,” said Professor Peter.

His comments came as shareholders at Ocado revolted at the retailer’s AGM over a lack of female board members and the High Pay Centre think-tank and trade unions wrote to large investors urging them to vote against UK firms with wide pay gaps between management and workers. Former head of the Bank of England Mark Carney has become a climate change campaigner and says that climate change is the biggest commercial opportunity for business.

But can you rely on business, shareholders and market forces? Isn’t that what got us into the mess we are in? Unlike governments, shareholders are not accountable to anyone but themselves.

Yet there comes a time when making more profit is not good for business. It’s not sustainable to keep making money if the world around you is disappearing. It’s not good for business to promote wider social divisions and greater inequality. Peace is generally good for business – unless they are in the arms trade.

Businesses are made up of people and most of them want to feel good about themselves. To get the best people you need to motivate them. Talking to people who are mental health champions or domestic violence champions or mentors or sponsors, you feel that they have a sense of pride in what they are doing. Businesses should not underestimate that as a recruitment and retention tool and as a key motivator.

Yes, there are growing divisions between those employers whose leaders get the need for a wider social role and those who don’t or simply don’t feel they have the resources to do so. Yes, there is a sense that businesses are taking over what the state should be doing, meaning that those who don’t work for companies with the resources to do all these things are in danger of slipping through the net. But bigger businesses are also reaching out to their supply chain and supporting them. There are mental health hubs being set up for SMEs and other resources. And hopefully changes in business, for instance, equal parenting policies – and the data to back them up, will eventually lead to legislative changes.

It is vital that any changes rather than disguise lack of government action on these urgent issues are used to accelerate it.

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