Unipart has invested £1m in staff welfare, with new healthcare facilities
and services. As a result, stress levels have dropped, loyalty has risen and
less people are off sick. By Kate Rouy
There can’t be many organisations where the average employee finds
themselves pedalling away on an exercise bike next to the chief executive at
lunchtime. Or where alternative therapies share the same status as traditional
ones in the company’s health provision.
This is the case at Unipart Group of Companies, where there is a holistic
approach to employee welfare. The company has invested around £1m in a range of
health and welfare facilities and services for its 1,500 employees.
Such an approach is paying dividends, according to Unipart health and
wellbeing manager Helen Sellings. Sickness absence levels, for example, are
"well below the national average", she says, with staff turnover
Sickness absence rates are measured by division throughout the group, which
has a total of 12 divisions, and depend upon the division and whether or not
the work is manual or non-manual. Obviously figures around the group vary, and
the rates claimed are difficult to measure directly as a result of the gym
facilities, but the OH team is convinced it is a contributory factor.
Employees at Unipart, one of Europe’s leading independent logistics,
automotive parts and accessories companies, which occupies a vast site in
Cowley, Oxford, are indeed fortunate. The firm’s focus is on the maintenance of
health and fitness as opposed to treating sickness, and is regarded as a
business strategy and not a peripheral project.
This approach manifests itself in an impressive array of facilities for
employees, including a fully equipped gym – The Lean Machine – and The Orchard,
the company’s wellbeing centre which offers a range of therapies from
reflexology to Chinese medicine. Employees are charged a nominal fee, and are
able to use the facilities at any time. Membership also extends to the
The company’s occupational health service, which is housed in a newly built
centre, was opened last year by chairman of the Health and Safety Commission,
Frank Davies, and runs parallel to these facilities. A pressure management
programme completes the four elements of health service offered by Unipart.
Helen Sellings and the Dean of core faculty, Sue Topham, welcome the
position occupied by occupational health in the company.
"We are a designated area and we have a voice," says Sellings.
"Back in 1991 we recognised that people needed to be physically and
mentally equipped for the pace of change," Topham says.
In the knowledge it was facing global competition from more demanding
customers with more choice, Unipart was forced to think about its future
strategy, and the need for people who were fit and healthy. "There was a
strong business case for investing in the health of the people in the
company," Topham adds.
Thus the gym and wellbeing centre were originally set up in order to help
Unipart employees stay both mentally and physically fit in order to cope with
the pressures placed upon them by a fast changing business environment, says
Unipart. The company also believes that the facilities available to employees
and their families gives it some very real business benefits, including
improved enthusiasm, motivation, and valuable networking opportunities, as well
as pride in their place of work. It also claims that there is clear evidence of
employee motivation and involvement within Unipart through its quality circle
programme, "Our Contribution Counts" and an employee recognition
programme which rewards those who go above and beyond the call of duty for
customers. These things are all tied up with a healthy mind, healthy body
approach, it says.
The new on-site facilities include a counselling venue, a larger health
screening area incorporating lung function testing and ergonomic risk
assessments, a conference room and an improved first aid facility. The
administration facilities have also been improved and enlarged upon with all
computers networked, so accessibility to OHAs is now easier.
According to Topham the four elements fit well together.
"The whole programme on offer here continues to evolve," she says.
"Helen’s remit when she joined was to transform occupational health from a
reactive treatment service into a proactive department and she has done that. Our
emphasis, as far as occupational health is concerned, is to look at the wider
elements. For example, with the use of technology. Technology is changing the
way we work, and we are beginning to understand that and to encourage it."
Technological developments at Unipart include the establishment of a health
and wellbeing intranet site, the development of "de-stress" software
– by which employees can measure their responsiveness to stress through an
interactive computer test, and an investment in a computerised OH database.
"We are getting very efficient sickness absence data, which we are
continually developing," says Sellings. "The results go to the board,
and we have been able to identify trends and develop intervention methods to
These include a phased return-to-work programme, rehabilitation programmes
and the continued development of a liaison service with GPs and other outside
agencies. The OH department also works closely with the human resources department.
"I think it is fair to say that we are continuing to raise the profile of
OH practice," says Sellings.
Other profile-boosting activities include a monthly health promotion and an
annual summer fair. "We try to be proactive, we want to get out there and
stop problems before they begin," says Topham. "We believe our
approach is very flexible, and the facilities in place encourage loyalty and
commitment. As a result we have a very motivated workforce, and the company has
been able to attract and retain high calibre staff. This is one very tangible
benefit of this kind of investment."
In terms of occupational health, those in the department are encouraged to
come up with new ideas to push the service forward. "OH here is allowed to
flourish and expand," says Selling.
One area in which OH has prospered is in its treatment of stress at the
company. A stress management programme was devised in 1996, as it became
highlighted as a dominant workplace issue.
"The model was proactive and preventative," says Topham,
"with the emphasis on the primary level – the management of the
organisation which causes unnecessary stress."
The programme’s secondary level involves educating those under pressure.
"And if these two levels are working well, there is a limited need for the
tertiary level, counselling," adds Topham.
A number of educational workshops are also run by the department, tailored
to specific needs. It has also introduced a pressure management mentoring
scheme, in which certain employees undergo training to enable them to spot
signs of stress among their colleagues.
"We have seen the trend for counselling going down and the for
workshops going up, which is exactly what we wanted," says Sellings.
Despite feedback suggesting that the majority of stress cases originate from
domestic issues, if a problem is arising as a result of work pressures the team
"take it to senior management and expect them to do something about
But does this emphasis on fitness alienate sections of the workforce at the
Cowley site, which covers manufacturing, warehousing and logistics as well as
the office based services such as marketing, finance, legal, office services
The company believes not, with the Lean Machine boasting a 56 per cent take
up by employees, encompassing all age ranges and all areas of the company. It
claims strong anecdotal evidence that the facilities provided on site help to
attract and hold on to good people, although recognises that the information is
qualitative rather than quantitative and cannot be isolated from other factors.
While hard data is being collected about absence levels and its causes, it is
hard to provide supporting data that such a large capital investment has paid
In terms of the overall health and wellbeing programme operated by Unipart,
however, Topham is emphatic.
"This is not just a "nice to have" programme, this is part of
the spirit of the organisation," she says. "It is about people.
People will give you the competitive advantage and the sooner people wake up to
that it really will make all the difference."
Unipart Group health service team factfile
The Unipart team includes:
Sue Topham dean of core faculty
Helen Sellings health & wellbeing manager
Fiona Cheyney pressure management co-ordinator
Kirsty Summerby health &
Anne Todd occupational health adviser
Roma Horwood occupational health
Dr Paul Galloway company medical
Number of employees responsible for 1,500
Achievements By taking a holistic approach to staff welfare, the team
has aided recruitment and retention and has reduced stress and sickness absence
Four major steps have been taken to achieve this:
– Opening a new occupational health facility
– Providing a gym – The Lean Machine
– Providing a wellbeing centre – The Orchard
– Establishing a pressure management programme
Alongside these, the OH team has developed the department’s IT systems,
setting up an intranet site and an absenteeism database.
Goals To continue to move away from a "reactive" department
and towards one that is "proactive".