E.on UK case study: Re-energising occupational health

Energy supplier E.on UK is a subsidiary of global power and gas company E.on AG, based in Germany. The UK firm employs about 18,000 staff in a wide range of functions at sites across the country. They are in engaged in everything from engineering to call centre work.

This year, its occupational health (OH) team scooped theRoyal Society for the Prevention of Accidents’ (RoSPA) Occupational Health Award (The Astor Trophy) for the best-managed OH programme. So what is the secret of E.on’s success?

The starting point for the organisation was a strategic look at the OH function, asking some tough questions about how the function was viewed, and assessing the extent to which staff were making full use of the service.

OH manager Louise Boston is the leader of the 23-strong team. “Back in January 2008, we set out to transform the service” she says. “The service delivered a well-established traditional OH service, but was seen as a separate function, and not integral to the business.

“OH advice was good, but was not always heeded by the business,” she adds. “We needed to become strategic about our impact and our delivery. We realised that we needed to develop the service that we offered to employees, and focus the service within the business.”

The aim of the new OH strategy was to improve employee health, reduce absenteeism, and improve performance. Three key areas were reviewed: case management, health promotion, and health assessment. Equally important, Boston and her colleagues wanted to highlight the role of OH, and demonstrate its relevance to the overall business of E.on.

Hot ticket to success

“We realised that little information was available within the profession relating to new engagement techniques, so we looked wider for inspiration and did two things. We developed the concept of Health on Tour (Hot) from the BBC’s Street Doctor approach, and we integrated a communication specialist into the OH team to help us drive engagement.”

The Hot OH awareness campaign promoted the role of OH by visiting all of E.on’s business sites and offices across the country, offering health assessments and advice on health issues that mattered to individual employees. OH staff walked the floor, talking to employees about their health worries and how to address them.

“We wanted to reach out to employees with a campaign that demonstrated OH is relevant to staff in every function, whether based in a power station or an office,” says Boston.

This process was carried out over a period of six months.

The team set out to make OH as accessible and user-friendly as possible, using innovative approaches and new technologies. Examples included supplying a Nintendo Wii; encouraging staff to ‘get up and get active’ in power stations and call centres; wellbeing assessments which were carried out in work areas; and talking to staff about lifestyle changes they could make.

“Before the campaign, some people did not even know we existed” says Boston. “Some thought that they only needed to see us if they were referred by their GP or manager. Others didn’t realise we were nurses.”

10 ways to boost the role of OH in your organisation

  • Listen to what customers want

  • Be clear about the priorities for your organisation

  • Speak the language of business

  • Talk to staff, rather than waiting for them to come to you

  • Present information clearly and simply

  • Be strategic about where your put your efforts

  • Don’t try to do too much at once

  • Employ a good communicator to get the message across

  • Tackle the backlog of long-term sick leave

  • Improve your case management system.

  • We wanted to reach out to employees with a campaign that demonstrated OH is relevant to staff in every function, whether based in a power station or an office’

Raising awareness of occupational health

One innovative aspect of the scheme is that a communications specialist, Darea Flanagan, was brought in to help raise awareness.

“I hadn’t worked in OH before – my background was in project management and health and safety at E.on,” says Flanagan. “We wanted to take a best practice approach, and win the respect of colleagues within the business, but also of the OH community outside E.on. I had experience of getting messages across to colleagues, and communicating about what a project was achieving, but it was a challenge. We needed to promote the OH brand in a way that hadn’t been done before.”

One way of increasing the visibility of the OH service was the Hot campaign, in which OH staff walked the shop floor, talking to colleagues about what OH could do, and asking them about their health and any worries they might have.

The Hot brand really stuck,” says Flanagan. “It created a real buzz, and made a strong impression. We included 10 buzzwords about what OH can offer. It was a way of showing people how easy it was to access information about OH, and drawing their attention to our online toolkit.”

This was a challenge for E.on’s OH nurses, says Flanagan. “They had never done anything like this before, it was a completely different way of working. Not everyone wants to go out and introduce themselves to people like this, but it really did make a difference.”

And Flanagan says that ‘thinking outside the box’ can help to make radical changes in the way OH is delivered. “It’s part of a wider debate about the direction in which OH should go. If you do the same things, the same way, then you will get the same results. If you want things to change, then you need to do it differently.”

Another reason for the success of Hot was the fact that it was focused, with a clear and simple goal. “Hot was about making OH more visible. That was our remit. We were not trying to do 20 things at once,” she says.

Equally important, Flanagan and her colleagues then communicated about OH in language and terminology that meant something to the rest of the organisation. “We used the net promotor score (NPS), which explains it a bit more to measure our success. This goes from 0 – 10, and is used in marketing studies at a very high organisational level. We scored very highly and now, people in management meetings are talking about OH.

“E.on is facing major challenges as an energy company, and if you are going to put OH on the agenda when there are issues like climate change and the financial downturn to consider, then you have to make sure senior managers know that OH is relevant and adds value to the business.”

Campaign outcomes

It was soon clear that the campaign was a resounding success. “Objectively, we saw an immediate effect. Referral rates to the department rose by 25%, and absence rates started to decrease. By making the service more visible and accessible, managers were more likely to refer staff to the OH team, and this means we can now be involved at an early stage – which makes a huge difference.”

Online toolkit

Talking to staff and finding out more about their perception of OH also enabled Boston and her colleagues to develop a new online toolkit. It provides managers and employees with the tools to manage their health and the health of their team, providing information, guidance and links to a wide range of support both inside and outside the organisation. In building the toolkit, the OH team also developed skills in web-building, communication and engagement. Since the launch, the toolkit regularly features in the top 10 sites accessed by employees across the organisation.

Three years ago, the team launched an ‘Active Energy’ scheme in partnership with Nuffield Health. The aim of this scheme is to promote the healthy living message and encourage staff to take up healthier lifestyle habits, improve their diet, and take more exercise. The programme includes state-of-the-art health assessments and follow-up support, as well as seminars, workshops and one-off initiatives.

Since the beginning of the programme, 34% of employees have attended a 45-minute health and wellbeing assessment, and a significant number of employees have attended wellbeing seminars focusing on issues such as personal resilience. Eighteen per cent of those assessed were classed as ‘hard-line’ referrals, where follow-up by their GP was recommended. Following an intervention programme that included advice, coaching and treatment where required, 69.5% of this group were downgraded to either no referral or ‘soft-line’ referral.

Changing minds

An online survey of those who had been assessed showed that 46% had positively changed their view of E.on as an employer, while 97% said they were given lifestyle advice following their test results that could influence their future health, and 74% stated that the assessment had increased their knowledge of how to make lifestyle changes.

“Our employees are a captive audience in a sense,” says Boston. “This enables us to deliver health messages in a way that engages and encourages behaviour change among the working population, and gives us the luxury of integrating health into work patterns.”

E.on’s health strategy also includes its ‘Active Steps Challenge’, for which all staff are issued with a pedometer. Employees are awarded points for the number of steps walked and health and safety activities carried out. Staff can monitor their progress and positive impact on their health by utilising health kiosks on site, which measure blood pressure, body mass index and weight. They are also encouraged to work in teams, and this has developed competition within the business.

During the first challenge, employees walked a distance equivalent to halfway to the moon.

In addition, the OH team faced the challenge of delivering effective health promotion on a limited budget due to the recession.

“The whole global E.on group decided in March 2009 to focus on cancer awareness,” says Boston. “The OH team in the UK managed to deliver a nationwide campaign on a shoestring budget – proof that determination, innovation and a bit of cheek are more important than a big budget.”

As well as actively promoting healthy living, the OH team is also tackling the issue of attendance management.

Again, the starting point was talking to staff, and looking at how the existing system was working. Boston said the key issue was the role of managers, many of whom needed more confidence in addressing the issue of non-attendance, and more understanding of what OH could offer in terms of advice and support. The OH team now has regular meetings with line managers and HR staff to build awareness of OH and establish a structured case conference system.

A specialist case manager was appointed to focus on long-term absence. Following this appointment, a variety of programmes were instigated to support rehabilitation back into the workplace, including fast-track physiotherapy, functional restoration, and psychological assessment and treatment programmes.

The OH service also recognises the important role GPs play in attendance management. Over the past three months, the OH team has written to more than 1,600 practices across the UK, telling them about E.on’s OH service, and inviting them to work with OH to rehabilitate their patients back into the working role.

“Although the response has been minimal at this stage, where we have had feedback from GPs, it has been excellent and full of encouragement for the work we are doing,” says Boston.

“We intend to follow this up later this summer by inviting GPs into the workplaces to meet with the OH team, understand the services we offer, and see the working environment of their patients.”

Future developments

Mental health is a key factor in long-term sickness absence. This is another intractable issue for employers, many of whom don’t know how to address this with staff, and are nervous about raising the issue. The OH team is focusing on developing a company-wide mental health promotion campaign entitled ‘Headway’, as well as developing an e-learning tool which demystifies mental illness.

“The mental health campaign aims to provide support and advice for managers and employees” says Boston. She points out that while most employers are aware of the issue of ‘stress’, it is important to consider the wider issue of mental wellbeing.

“Stress is often not the reason that employees take long-term sickness absence. Mental ill health is so much more complex than that, though stress can exacerbate the problem. We need to look at how to help and support both our management and employee populations in addressing this issue, while supporting the proactive measures that can be taken in reducing the risk of absences.”

So where does the team go from here? Boston wants to expand the OH role further still. “This is a challenging and exciting time. We have a huge opportunity to influence the health of the population and in order to do this, it’s important that we not only strive to meet best practice, but continue to develop it.”

Meanwhile, corporate safety manager Neil Budworth is certain that other organisations might learn from the approach taken at E.on.

“We have not waited for people to come to us – we have taken OH to the people out there,” he says. “Case management is the real focus. When you have long-term absence, it causes the most days lost to any business. You have to control it. And it’s not serving individuals, either. We have to support staff who go on sick leave as quickly as we can.”

Communication is another essential strand of the programme, he believes. “The role of the dedicated communications specialist is vital. We are doing something different, and this engages people and speaks to them at the right level.”

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