Sunrise Senior Living puts recognition at the heart of its benefits strategy

Sunrise Senior Living

Private residential and nursing care home business Sunrise Senior Living centres its benefits strategy around peer-to-peer and top-down recognition, aligned with its business goals and principles of service.

Primarily, this is achieved through the organisation’s Heart and Soul programme, which encourages its 5,000 UK-based employees to recognise colleagues that go over and above in their daily work.

Alison Fisk, head of reward and engagement at Sunrise Senior Living, explains: “As a caring [organisation], our benefits strategy is based upon caring for our team members as they care for others, whether that be in our pay strategy [or] in the type of recognition and benefits we support.”

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Living the values

The Heart and Soul programme, introduced in 2006, enables staff to fill out a paper cheque to recognise other employees for living the organisation’s values. One copy is given to the person being recognised, and the other is collected by a designated individual at each care home.

The specific values concerned include preserving dignity, nurturing the spirit, enabling freedom and choice, encouraging independence, providing excellent service, showing respect to all, celebrating the individual and showing that tiny details are big things. “We wanted to show recognition when [we] looked at what people were doing on a regular basis. Often, values [are seen] on the wall, but [we] could actually see them being demonstrated,” Fisk says.

Two cheques are chosen every month by the general manager of each home, to be awarded a certificate and a gift, paid for from a team appreciation budget. Each year, general managers also select two of these monthly prize winners to attend the Heart and Soul Awards, held in July. This consists of an awards ceremony and lunchtime meal, where employees’ stories and experiences are shared and celebrated.

“These people, they don’t go to work because it’s all about the money,” Fisk explains. “They go because they have the most amazing, caring hearts and so, giving them financial recognition is important, but what is more important is to hear the words of [thanks] and be recognised for how their contribution makes a difference.”

The ceremony is also the centre point of the organisation’s dedicated month of team recognition, held in July. Each home receives a budget to treat staff to ice cream, barbecues or tea parties. “Recognition is definitely at the heart of a lot of what we do,” Fisk says.

An engagement survey, conducted by a benefits consultancy throughout August and September 2018, found that 94% of employees view the Heart and Soul programme as the number one benefit within the organisation.

Becoming an employer of choice

Despite the evident success of Sunrise Senior Living’s recognition approach, the organisation still faces challenges; primarily, a potential labour shortage linked to Brexit. With this in mind, using benefits to attract, engage and retain talent is a key agenda item.

“It’s where [we] can make that point of difference from [our] competitors,” Fisk explains. “Our aims are to be that provider and employer of choice, to [show] why people really want to come and work here and be committed [to our] organisation.”

To this end, the organisation added two new benefits in August 2018. First, partnering with Personal Group, Sunrise Senior Living introduced the It’s Your Choice voluntary benefits scheme, to offer retail and lifestyle discounts and appeal to the diverse workforce. “We have an age profile from 17 to 80 on our payroll, and so we need to have a very diverse range [of benefits],” Fisk adds. The organisation also implemented payroll loans, provided by Neyber.

Financial wellbeing

The introduction of these new benefits reflects the work Sunrise Senior Living is doing to support employees’ financial wellbeing. This is largely achieved through its internal living wage, which was introduced in April 2017 at £8.20 an hour, with no age distinction.

As of April 2019, this rate of pay will increase to £8.80 an hour, which Fisk calculates to be 7% more than the statutory national living wage rate. “It’s really simple. We don’t want anyone on any national, statutory minimum and we aim to be paying every employee in our organisation £10 and over by 2021,” she says.

This approach will be mirrored when it comes to the pension scheme. From April 2019, Sunrise Senior Living will be adopting a matching contributions strategy in order to pay more of employees’ auto-enrolment commitment. Hourly-paid employees and Sunrise Senior Living will both contribute 4% of the individual’s salary into their pension pot, making up the required 8% total. This varies from the statutory format of employees contributing 5% and employers contributing 3%. Salaried employees will contribute 5%, with a matching contribution from the business, while senior managers will contribute and receive 7%.

Employees experiencing significant financial hardship can also receive a grant of up to £2,000 from the organisation’s charity, The Good Samaritan Fund. Set up in 2017, approximately 12 grants are awarded per year in the UK, while in the US, around $1 million (£785,975.00) is given in grants to staff.

Wellbeing on the agenda

For 2019, Sunrise Senior Living plans to focus on mental health, and in particular on training for both managers and team members.

This, in part, aims to tackle a change in the organisation’s occupational health statistics; previously, musculoskeletal conditions accounted for the highest percentage of occupational health cases, but as at December 2018, stress, balance and mental health challenges have become more dominant.

Sunrise Senior Living currently conducts annual health checks to help employees maintain their wellbeing. Typically held in the autumn, these include, among other things, lung testing and cholesterol screening.

Moving forward, the organisation aims for both wellbeing and recognition to be delivered on a more rolling basis, as opposed to within specific months or seasons. Within this work, the organisation also plans to look at work-life balance, especially in relation to utilising contract labour.


Getting feedback from staff has always been vital at Sunrise Senior Living; its first annual staff survey in 2012 helped design the initial iteration of the business’ engagement strategy.

Despite relying on a manual process, the organisation continually polls employees to ensure that their opinions are at the base of any decision-making. A recent example is the introduction of staff uniforms in 2018; this was implemented after asking employees what they would prefer.

“When we want to know about things, we generally do go out and we walk round buildings, we’ll go and see, because it’s just so key,” Fisk says.

The organisation communicates to employees using a range of methods, such as a staff intranet, a bi-monthly magazine, town hall meetings, videos and conference calls. The business also cascades information through general managers and HR personnel.

Fisk hopes to use the new voluntary benefits app to communicate even more, adding payslips to the platform to encourage staff to log on.

Benefits success

Sunrise Senior Living reports that its engagement scores have increased by 22% over the last six years, and turnover has reduced by 6% between November 2016 and November 2018, reaching 28%.

In 2019, Fisk is planning on optimising benefits management further by conducting a pay, HR and labour systems overhaul to make processes less manual and time consuming.

“Valuing and caring about our dedicated team members is at the heart of everything that we do,” Fisk concludes. “If [we] can understand why people come to work and what they really want, what makes them happy to be there and commit to the organisation, the rest of it will fall into place.”

At a glance

Sunrise Senior Living operates privately-paid residential and nursing care homes for senior citizens in the UK; as at December 2018, the organisation employs 5,000 staff across 46 care homes, under both the Sunrise Senior Living brand and a newer brand, Gracewell Healthcare.

Sunrise Senior Living’s parent organisation is based in the US, with the overarching business operating across Canada, the UK and the US. Globally, it has 30,000 employees and more than 300 nursing homes.

Within the UK, approximately 60% of job roles revolve around healthcare provision, such as care assistants, medication technicians, senior care assistants and dementia care leads. Sunrise Senior Living employs a general manager for each home, as well as chefs, housekeepers, sales specialists, concierge and activity leaders.

The majority (87%) of the organisation’s UK workforce is female and the average age is 42. The average length of service is 3.3 years.

Business objectives

  • To continue to grow the business by building up to eight new nursing and residential care homes a year across both the Sunrise Senior Living and Gracewell Healthcare brands.
  • To become an employer and care provider of choice within the self-pay residential and nursing care home market.
  • To build upon and develop the organisation’s core value set and purpose.
  • To be mindful of business costs in the context of potential Brexit-related labour shortages.

Career history

Alison Fisk, head of reward and engagement, joined Sunrise Senior Living in January 2006 as the organisation’s payroll manager.

Around 10 years ago, Fisk adopted a more blended HR role, taking on responsibility for benefits management and bonus plans as the business began to grow in terms of size and success. After a further seven years, Sunrise Senior Living was ready to implement a distinct reward function, primarily to introduce a pay band infrastructure and develop a specific reward and engagement strategy; Fisk was promoted to the helm.

Prior to her time at Sunrise Senior Living, Fisk spent six years at the Royal Air Force as a finance and administration assistant. Her roles following this were predominantly finance-based, for example as an assistant management accountant or working in export credit control, before she made the transitional step into payroll, and then benefits and reward.

Fisk values what she calls building work; for example, implementing the new pay infrastructure at Sunrise Senior Living, and cites her proudest career achievement as when she worked as a manager for the first time, initially at retailer British Home Stores (BHS) when in college, and then again during her first payroll manager role at tools manufacturing organisation CompAir UK. “[I was] looking after a team, taking on responsibilities for an organisation; it’s definitely a career change and [I stepped] up to it. [I embraced] it and [took] whatever challenges came along,” she says.