Workforce and benefit cuts show signs of moderating

There are signs that deep workforce, pay and benefit cuts are moderating as businesses budget for the remainder of 2009, according to Mercer’s latest Leading Through Unprecedented Times globalsurvey.
 
The survey, conducted in May, includes responses from more than 2,100 organisations with employees and operations in more than 90 countries.

The findings summarise challenges related to talent, compensation, benefits and investment strategy that organisations are facing as a result of the current economy. The new survey updates a global survey Mercer originally conducted in November 2008.
 
While the findings reveal continued actions taken by companies to relieve cost pressures – workforce reductions, salary freezes, reduced contributions to retirement plans and increased costs for health benefits – equally notable is the fact that organisations are not generally taking actions in response to the economic downturn such as cutting pay and eliminating benefit programmes altogether.

The findings also show clearly how the economy is having a different impact in different regions of the world and various industries.

Some 58 percent of organisations worldwide plan some cuts to their workforce in the remainder of 2009 compared to 66 percent that had implemented workforce cuts in the six months prior to the survey.

Significantly, however, only 5 percent of these organisations plan deep cuts (more than 10 percent of staff) in the remainder of the year, compared to 13 percent that made such cuts in the six months preceding the survey.
 
The percentage of companies planning layoffs in the next six months varies by region, with less of a change expected in Europe compared to the prior six months.

Some 71 percent of European survey respondents said their companies made workforce cuts in the prior six months and this pace is expected to hold steady at 70 percent in the remainder of the year.

But in Europe, as in other regions, the number of companies planning substantial cuts (more than 10 percent of the workforce) is expected to drop to 10 percent from the 16 percent that had made such cuts in the prior six months.
 
The majority of US-based companies also said they had made at least some workforce cuts in the prior six months (74 percent), but fewer companies (64 percent) plan cuts by the end of the year.

Some 59 percent of Asian companies responding to the survey made cuts in the prior six months and are also less likely to make cuts in the next six months (45 percent of respondents).

 

The number of Asian companies planning significant cuts of more than 10 percent falls sharply from the number that made such cuts in the prior six months – from 14 percent to 4 percent.
 
About three-quarters (76 percent) of manufacturing and technology/computer services companies reduced staff this year compared to firms in finance/banking (69 percent) and professional services (67 percent).

Manufacturing firms (68 percent) and technology/computer services firms (67 percent) are most likely to reduce their workforces in the remainder of the year.
 
Despite the impact of the weak economy, many companies remain focused on their most valuable employees. More than one-third of organisations globally (37 percent) say they will continue to hire key talent even as they reduce their workforce overall.

Approximately another third of organisations (35 percent) plan to hire talent to replacement levels only, while 15 percent expect overall workforce reductions and 12 percent expect to expand their workforces in 2009.
 
Mercer’s study also shows that organisations are beginning to use or consider alternative work arrangements to control workforce costs.

Ten percent globally have already instituted voluntary reductions in hours with a corresponding reduction in pay, while 12 percent have instituted such a programme on a mandatory basis.

Roughly an equal number of organisations are considering similar actions in the remainder of 2009. Popularity of these programmes varies by industry.

Twenty-nine percent of manufacturing firms have instituted mandatory reduced hours compared to 13 percent of technology/computer services firms and 3 percent of finance/banking firms. 
 
Organisations globally are almost equally divided on whether their 2009 base pay budgets will be more than their 2008 budgets (31 percent), equal to 2008 budgets (33 percent) or less than 2008 budgets (36 percent).
 
They have been more likely to freeze pay levels or defer pay increases than to implement pay cuts. In the past six months, 51 percent froze salaries at 2008 pay levels for at least part of their employee population; 32 percent froze pay enterprise-wide.

Just 30 percent deferred 2009 pay increases and even fewer (13 percent) decreased salaries from 2008 levels. Interestingly, more than half of organisations (54 percent) in the technology industry froze pay company-wide while only 28 percent of finance/banking firms did.

For the remainder of 2009, most organisations plan to freeze salaries at 2008 levels or make 2009 pay increases as planned.
 
Regarding annual bonus payments, 57 percent of organisations globally awarded smaller bonus payouts for 2009 (based on 2008 performance) compared to 2008 awards (based on 2007 performance). Just 20 percent granted higher bonus payments in 2009 compared to 2008.
 
“As a result of the economic downturn and current labour market conditions, organisations are moving away from pay based on market competitiveness and are, instead focusing on internal affordability,” said Steve Gross, worldwide partner in Mercer’s human capital consulting business.

“Companies need to be careful not to stray too far from market rates of pay or they may find themselves at a significant disadvantage when the economy improves and the labour market becomes more balanced.”
 
With respect to defined contribution retirement plans, 73 percent of organisations globally do not plan to reduce the level of employer contributions in the remainder of 2009.

Notably, 14 percent of them have already done so in the past six months. To date, a third have reviewed their overall fund line-ups (32 percent) and reviewed both investment and administrative fees (33 percent), while 43 percent are likely to take these actions by year-end.
 
Regarding defined benefit plans, 37 percent of organisations plan to get a better understanding of these plans and take actions to mitigate the inherent risk in them.

Within the six months prior to the survey, 34 percent have already done so. Looking ahead, organisations are more likely to change the investment strategy to reduce risk (38 percent) rather than change the funding policy (25 percent); 14 percent and 12 percent, respectively, have already taken these steps.

Only 16 percent of organisations are likely to cut back or stop accruals in the remainder of the year; 10 percent have already done so.
 
Although health benefit utilisation often increases during a recession, the majority of companies (94 percent) have not eliminated any current health and group benefit programmes to control expenses this year.

Instead, most increased employee contributions for health coverage and raised employee cost-sharing of the programme. And many organisations plan to do the same for next year’s health care plan.
 
Over the past six months, 29 percent of respondents added wellness programmes and another 38 percent reported that they are likely or highly likely to do so.

Just over a quarter of respondents (26 percent) increased premium contributions. Increased employee contributions are most common in the United States (45 percent) and among organisations with more than 10,000 employees (34 percent). One-quarter (23 percent) have also intensified efforts to understand cost drivers.

Looking ahead, organisations are very or somewhat likely to turn to the changes they know will produce predictable results – continue to increase employee contributions (58 percent), require cost sharing (50 percent) and offer lower-cost plan options (41 percent).
 
“Coming into 2009, employers turned to time-tested tactics that would have an immediate cost impact,” said Linda Havlin, worldwide partner in Mercer’s health and benefits consulting business.

“Now they are exploring more strategic solutions, including wellness and behaviour change, that have the potential for a bigger impact, albeit with a longer time horizon.”
 
According to Mercer’s survey, job security tops the list of employees’ concerns – 50 percent of organisations said employees expressed significant concern about their jobs.

This high level of anxiety is fairly consistent worldwide. Organisations in Europe, Asia and the United States ranked the concern of job security slightly higher (54 percent) while in Canada and Australia/New Zealand they it ranked slightly lower (42 percent and 46 percent, respectively).
 
Forty percent of organisations said employees expressed significant concern about  how the economy is impacting the overall organisation. Australia/New Zealand does not share this level of concern (24 percent), while more organisations in the United States and Asia do (43 percent).
 
Just 12 percent of companies said employees expressed major concern about the current economy’s impact on the cost of health care and 37 percent said employees were worried about how the economy is affecting their retirement plan investments. Most organisations said employees showed a moderate level of concern about 2009 promotions and merit increases. 

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