Support pays off

Staff at City & Guilds have benefited from an employee-assistance programme which has increased satisfaction levels and led to a fall in staff turnover. Alex Blyth reports

The business
City & Guilds is a vocational training awarding body. Established in 1878, it now awards more than 500 qualifications in subjects as diverse as agriculture, hairdressing and vehicle management. A registered charity, it gains most of its revenue from the government via the Learning and Skills Council, and the remainder from candidates. It has 850 employees, with around 600 based in London. The remainder are split between offices across the UK and an international network. The HR team is 10 strong.

The challenge
An employee attitude survey at the beginning of 2002 revealed that just 24% of staff felt that the company was supportive. Simon Morgan, head of HR, recalls his reaction: “We were surprised and concerned, because staff who feel unsupported tend to have low morale, and eventually performance suffers. We recognised that we needed to act to reverse this perception.”

The solution
Morgan introduced a number of measures, including an occupational health service and a management training programme entitled ‘Dignity at Work’. However, the most significant element of the strategy was the establishment of an employee assistance programme.

He outsourced the provision of this programme to employee assistance specialist PPC Worldwide, having been impressed by its reputation, ability to offer services to overseas staff, and the fact that all its counsellors are trained to postgraduate diploma or masters level. PPC charges Morgan an annual fee of 25 per employee for the service, amounting to around 20,000 a year.

For this, all employees have free access to a 24-hour telephone counselling service, and up to six face-to-face sessions with a counsellor. They might use the service to discuss work-related problems, or for support during difficult times – such as a bereavement or separation. In addition, employees can access information on legal and financial matters.

The HR department made staff aware of the new benefit through the intranet, posters and a roadshow which toured every office. In addition, the HR team wrote to every employee telling them about the programme and enclosing a card with the helpline number on it.

The outcome
City & Guilds staff have taken full advantage of the service, with 18% accessing it each year. This compares to an average of 9% of employees among PPC’s clients. The most popular service is legal advice, but 6% of City & Guilds staff use the services of the telephone or face-to-face counsellors, compared to PPC’s average of 3%. Morgan attributes this high take-up to the extensive internal publicity campaign.

He believes the initiative has produced three benefits for the business.

First, according to the most recent employee survey, twice as many employees feel supported by the organisation as they did in 2002. Furthermore, 75% of staff say they are satisfied working for City & Guilds, up 11% in four years.

Second, staff turnover has fallen from 26% four years ago to 16% today. Absence remains at 3%, but Morgan says there have been several cases where long-term absentees have been helped back to work through the scheme. As well as the business benefits, there have been significant benefits to individual employees.

Third, while the content of all discussions between employees and counsellors is confidential, Morgan does receive general feedback on recurrent issues, and this helps him to formulate the organisation’s HR policy and practice.

City & Guilds recently extended the programme to offer employees access to a health and well-being website where they can get information on issues such as sleep, diet, smoking, and work-life balance. Morgan also plans to extend elements of the programme to the organisation’s 270 pensioners.

“We want to do more to promote the management referral service, where managers telephone PPC direct and arrange help for an employee. The scheme has already helped so many staff that we want to do all we can to help everyone else benefit from it.”

Learning points for HR
Morgan offers this advice to anyone who is considering setting up an employee assistance programme: “Look at the whole marketplace. There are many providers out there. Be clear about what you’re getting for your money. Some will say they only charge 3 per employee per year, but for that you’ll only get a telephone counselling service. Make sure all of the counsellors are professionally qualified. Finally, get feedback from your staff.”

Employee perspective

In May 2003, Mike Reed, recruitment co-ordinator for City & Guilds, was moving from a leasehold to a freehold property. He wanted to claim a proportion of his leasehold fees back, something the leasehold company was unwilling to do.
“I was talking to my sister about it,” he recalls, “and she mentioned that her company runs an employee assistance programme that offers free legal advice. I knew we had a programme, but was surprised to learn that it offered legal advice. The service was excellent. Having spoken to a lawyer, I went back to the leaseholder and they backed down, and paid up.”
Reed is generally positive about the service, saying: “Perhaps more could be done to publicise the legal aspect of the service, but I do feel as though the company supports me.”

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