Polly Neate: What employers need to know about the housing emergency

The housing emergency is real. Just ask your colleagues.

Right now in the UK, working families are being evicted from their homes. Working people are living in hostels and working parents are going without food just so they can pay the rent. This is the housing emergency. How much do you know about it?

In Shelter’s new cross-industry report, one in three employees who responded to our survey told us they’d struggled to pay their rent or mortgage. Additionally, 63% stated they had experienced bad housing issues over the past five years, which included problems like lack of heating, severe damp and electrical hazards.

Unsurprisingly, living with these daily stresses has a devastating effect on people’s mental, physical and financial wellbeing. Recent research by Shelter shows the health of a shocking one in five renters (22%) – which is equivalent to 1.9 million households – is being harmed by poor housing.

It’s harder for renters who are struggling to stay focused on tasks and fully invest in what they’re doing at work. It’s harder for them to put themselves forward for new challenges, and it’s harder for them to be present with the colleagues and customers around them.

The impact of poor housing on productivity 

This is a major concern not just for employees, but also for employers.

Workers struggling with poor or insecure housing are significantly less productive at work – in the survey, 15% of workers said that their housing situation was so distressing it was getting in the way of their productivity. The pandemic, with job insecurity and reduced pay from furlough, has only made things worse.

The results prove the importance of having a safe, secure, stable home. After all, our homes provide the foundation for everything we do. A decent home is a fundamental right.

Housing is expensive to rent and tenancies are insecure, with Section 21 ‘no fault evictions’ meaning people can be evicted for no reason. The housing element of universal credit is rarely enough to cover the costs of rents. Decades of underinvestment in social housing also means there are not enough of these homes available for those that need them, with more than a million people languishing on waiting lists. This amounts to a housing emergency which touches every group across the country – even those who are working.

Through Shelter’s frontline services, we see the real-life consequences of this emergency every day. We know that it really can impact anyone ­and is most likely affecting someone you work with, right now. It goes far beyond the people we see sleeping on the streets.

So what can we do?

A supportive worplace

We need to understand that many of the people around us are suffering alone, in silence. As Shelter’s Housing wellbeing report 2021 sponsored by The Adecco Group highlighted, people living with housing issues and homelessness are often ashamed and don’t want to ask for help. We need to change this.

Employers can help colleagues create a culture where they feel more comfortable talking about these issues and encourage them to seek help early on. Shelter can work with companies to achieve this through our Housing Wellbeing Programme. This is one of the services we provide, along with personalised training, based on the needs of your employees.

By creating a more open, informed, supportive environment at work, we can improve the health and happiness of our colleagues and enable them to be more productive at work. It’s a win-win for employees and employers, as the likes of HSBC, Nationwide, Co-op, The Bank of England and The Adecco Group have already found out.

Polly Neate is chief executive of Shelter