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How the housing sector is tackling staff well-being

Written by: Inside Housing
Published on: 1 Dec 2023


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It is probably fair to say that housing associations have never before been under as much pressure as they are today. Over recent years, the sector has been coming under ever greater scrutiny over fire safety, poor property management and tenant engagement issues. Meanwhile, a raft of legislative changes are placing more and more demands on landlords’ time and budgets during a period when resources are limited.

But with associations having to make difficult choices around what to prioritise and where to focus those resources, what do we know about the impact all of this is having on their workforce?

Inside Housing, in partnership with management and employment software company WeThrive, surveyed housing providers to find out how the myriad changes that have swept the sector have affected the people who work in it.

The vast majority (88%) of our 113 respondents were from housing associations, with others working for charities, local authorities or accommodation providers. Respondents had a wide range of job functions, with the most represented being HR/organisational development (17%) and housing management/tenant services (12%). Almost all respondents held senior positions, with managers and heads of department accounting for a combined 58% and directors, executive directors and chief executives making up a further 29%.

Retention of staff

Responses to the survey revealed a sector where the retention of staff is increasingly difficult and in which mental health, well-being and burnout have become major problems. When asked to name their top three concerns from a people perspective, our survey respondents put mental health and well-being at the very top of the pile, with 58% listing it. Employee retention was the next most popular choice, with more than half naming it (52%), while recruitment was the overall number three concern (46%).

An examination of staff turnover shows how much of an issue retention has become. More than one-third of respondents (36%) said they were currently experiencing more than 20% annual staff turnover, with 16% experiencing more than 30% turnover. Only 23% of those surveyed said their business had experienced staff turnover of below 10%.

These figures run counter to what landlords would like to be achieving. Only two respondents said they would like to achieve staff turnover rates of more than 20%, with 70% targeting 0-10% turnover and 28% saying they would be happy with turnover of 11-20%.

While pay and reward were cited by the majority of respondents (59%) when asked to name the most common reasons for employees leaving, burnout (40%) and mental health and well-being (35%) also figured highly. Dissatisfaction with the sector was named by 36% and career change was cited by a further 38%.

Employee well-being

Andrew Heath, co-founder of WeThrive, believes that the uncertainty and disruption around the sector is having an impact on the well-being of the people who work in it. “Change is not something we like as human beings,” he says. “Consistency, regularity and safety are what we are biologically wired to seek out; getting our social, psychological and emotional needs met is what makes us feel safe. When we look at the social housing sector through that lens, then it is all change on every level, which is deeply unsettling for people. I believe this reaction is at the core of the high turnover rates.”

Just over half of our survey respondents (51%) said their organisation has a mental health and well-being policy that is working well. However, 23% say their policy is not working well and 26% do not yet have one.

Besides the ethical concerns around keeping employees feeling mentally safe, there are business reasons for doing so, too. The majority of employees expressed concern over the high staff turnover rate. Nearly half (49%) described themselves as “slightly concerned”, while 29% said they were “very concerned” and 4% were “completely concerned”. Only 18% described themselves as “not concerned at all”.

Survey respondents echoed these worries. One commented: “Managers seem to be overwhelmed with new pressures and are struggling to keep their teams engaged and feeling valued.”

Respondents experiencing more than 20% staff turnover

Staff who were “very concerned” about the high turnover rate

Proportion of those who said mental health and well-being were in their top three concerns from a people perspective

Those who said their organisation has a mental health and well-being strategy that is working well

Another respondent said: “It is hard to find really good frontline staff who are driven, customer-focused and have a high output. We expect a lot from day one, [but] there is no spare capacity. If resources weren’t so tight, we could bring in developmental roles, more apprenticeships and more homegrown staff, and give more opportunities for advancement and challenges to give better appraisal outcomes, rather than just be about getting the job done and not dropping too many balls.”

So, if well-trained, happy, experienced staff are critical for housing associations to navigate through the changes affecting the sector, what are the best ways to keep employees engaged with an organisation’s purpose?

As an open-ended question, we asked how providers can keep employees delivering on their purpose. Autonomy, involvement and engagement emerged as key themes, alongside concern over a lack of resources.

“I feel we have a driven workforce wanting to deliver increased customer focus and meet compliance,” said one respondent. “It’s more that as new pressures arise [and] new stock comes on board, capacity of staff in the housing/tenancy/estate/ASB [anti-social behaviour] functions is one of the areas least invested in.”

Another said that associations should stop pursuing mergers or expansion. “Concentrate on bringing current stock up to standard first,” they added. “Invest in technology to support service provision, and let this properly embed before repurposing people resources.”

Given that remuneration in the social landlord sector is rarely likely to challenge parts of the private sector, Mr Heath says that “the employee experience” is central to keeping people from experiencing burnout. He adds that our finding that more than two-thirds of associations (67%) survey their workforce only once a year or less is worrying: “With the rate of change and the size of the challenges faced, this is far too infrequent.”

Bruce Moore, chief executive of Housing 21, agrees that concentrating on a sense of social good can keep employees focused. “It’s about putting focus back onto our principles of helping people in housing need to live better lives, not getting so lost in other business processes that we forget what really matters.”

Mr Heath echoes many respondents by stressing the importance of empowerment when it comes to creating a happier working environment.