Employer contributions to pensions and other financial workplace benefits

This research programme aims to explore the opportunities for innovation and voluntary increases in employer contributions to pensions and other financial workplace benefits.

In the UK, pension regulations impose a minimum level of contributions to go into an individual’s pension via payroll if they are an eligible employee. For many people, these are set too low to ensure adequate incomes in retirement. To date, engagement techniques and educational interventions have, for the most part, had limited cut-through in encouraging individuals to contribute more. Policy debate is therefore becoming more focused on increases to statutory minimum contributions.

The role of voluntary additional contributions from the employer is less examined. These contributions can directly boost an individual’s savings, and depending on chosen structures, could incentivise the employee to make additional contributions and support broader financial wellbeing goals. Some employers already contribute more than the legal minimum for all employees, for example by matching contributions for those increasing their own contributions or for certain groups of employees. Encouraging take-up of matches, and supporting more employers to increase their contributions or to optimise their contributions structure in other ways, may both be paths to greater savings adequacy.

However, we also know that employers are facing significant barriers to considering changing their contributions structures. Clearly, the cost of contributions is a significant factor. Employers, as well as individuals, have been impacted by the pandemic and a fast-changing economic climate – for many this has financial implications, but also in terms of mental headspace and capacity for change. Administrative, resource and system constraints can also make change difficult to bring about.

Within this context, how much of a lever for improving retirement outcomes could a change in employer pension contributions structures be? And, is there an opportunity here, or are the contextual and structural barriers to change too great to make this potential a reality?

Our research programme

Available existing data doesn’t give a very rounded or detailed view of the current employer contributions landscape. The scale of additional employer contributions on offer is currently unclear. There is also a lack of evidence and understanding about the attitudes of employers and the dynamics at play in their decision-making.

We’ve commenced a programme of work, supported by abrdn Financial Fairness Trust, to explore opportunities for innovation and voluntary increases in employer contributions to pensions and other financial workplace benefits. Our research aims to address the current gaps in understanding, looking across a broad range of employer types to answer the following kinds of questions:

  • How many of the 10 million workers brought into retirement saving though auto enrolment are offered additional employer contributions in some form; what are the levels of additional contributions; how many workers have taken them up and how many are ‘leaving money on the table’ through matches they are not accessing?
  • How are pension contribution levels decided? What are employers’ motivations for going beyond the minimum? Under what conditions would employers consider increasing contributions?
  • What alternative design options might make more effective use of limited employer budgets, in terms of potential end benefits to employees? What appetite is there to adopt these design options? How feasible would change be?

About our programme partner

The abrdn Financial Fairness Trust is an independent charitable foundation. Their mission is to contribute towards strategic change which improves financial wellbeing in the UK, enabling everyone to have a decent standard of living and more control over their finances.

abrdn Financial Fairness Trust funds research, campaigning and policy work to improve the living standards and personal finances of people struggling to make ends meet. They believe in collaboration, working with their partners to make the UK a more financially fair place for people on low-to-middle incomes. For more information, visit: financialfairness.org.uk

  • Explore the current landscape of employer and employee contribution levels and structures, and identify the prevalence of above minimum required contribution levels both in terms of offered and actual take-up
  • Understand employer decision making and appetite and motivations for going beyond the minimum
  • Explore the needs, appetite and scope for alternative design options that could make more effective use of limited employer budgets
  • Landscape review of existing industry and academic research and evidence
  • Exploratory interviews with industry and academic experts
  • Secondary analysis of Nest employer and member data
  • Qualitative interviews with employer decision makers, employee benefit consultants and other influencers
  • A nationally representative survey with employer decision makers

In February 2022, part-way through the early stages of the project, we identified some hypotheses to explore further, including:

  • Auto enrolment minimums are the dominant model, particularly for small and medium employers (SMEs), but there is a wide diversity in models and structures adopted by employers who do more than the minimum for some or all of their employees.
  • The cost of pension contributions is weighed against the return on investment from other aspects of reward by employers. Pension contributions may be considered less motivating to employees and in recruitment than more immediate benefits such as pay rises or bonuses. Competition for employees in some sectors as a result of Brexit and the pandemic, and the current cost of living crisis are intensifying this shorter-term focus.
  • Few employers consider retirement outcomes or adequacy in setting pension contribution levels. However, when employers move from a defined benefit to a defined contribution scheme this is more likely to be a factor in decision making.
  • Several different structural and contextual factors ‘lock in’ the models that employers have in place today, including the limitations of payroll systems and other administration costs, contractual and other obligations, complexity of legacy and multiple structures, affordability and budgeting approaches, and sector norms and benchmarks.
  • Although the ecosystem around contributions can be a ‘brake’ on change, there are also opportunities for it to be an ‘accelerator’. For example, payroll software used by SMEs could be a route to suggesting different structures and approaches.
  • Employers are increasingly considering the equality of approaches across their workforce. Established contribution models that favour more senior employees or those with longer tenure are starting to be questioned.