Health and wellbeing at work: the University of Bradford’s strategic approach


The University of Bradford had to invest in the health and wellbeing of its staff in order to achieve strategic objectives. Clare Rafferty looks at how this was done.

Health and wellbeing at work is critical to business success, and therefore the use of OH services is well established in most larger organisations. The phrase “health and wellbeing” however, receives varied levels of attention in the workplace and can sometimes be regarded as a “softer part” of the business agenda, or an optional extra.

Recognising the importance of OH, the University of Bradford worked with the consultancy Wellbeing Associates to develop a business-led strategic approach.

Linking the staff members’ health and wellbeing to an organisation’s strategic priorities means its voice will be heard by the board. When senior managers understand that enhancing the wellbeing of staff will help the organisation to deliver its strategic priorities, they begin to listen, engage and eventually support a staff wellbeing programme.

Different organisations have a myriad of reasons as to why and when they begin to consider the wellbeing of their staff, and the University of Bradford was no different. With a new senior management team and commitment to staff wellbeing from HR director Joanne Marshall, managers recognised that to achieve their stated strategic aspirations they needed to start by investing in the care and wellbeing of their own staff.

These aspirations were:

  • to be “a university of choice for students and staff”;
  • “to contribute to the society and economy of the Bradford district”; and
  • to “harness and celebrate the University of Bradford’s impact on health” (University of Bradford, 2014a).

The World Health Organisation’s (WHO) healthy workplace model (Burton, 2010) is a good starting point. There are a number of variations on this model’s theme, but essentially they include broadly similar component parts. The challenge for organisations is how they bring this to life.

Many organisations jump straight in and start “doing” and, while they can be given top marks for enthusiasm and a “can do” attitude, the downside is that the lack of planning often means there is little or no evaluation of its impact. The intervention(s) may be well intentioned, but it can be questionable as to whether or not it was something that employees actually wanted.

Further, if no baselines are ascertained then there is nothing against which success (or failure) can be measured. Lack of evidence as to the impact or success of any initiative to the individual or the organisation can often lead to a lack of sustained investment going forward.

Therefore, planning and preparation are crucial for a health and wellbeing programme to succeed, and to ensure engagement. They are also needed so that the programme can become embedded into the daily business.

The added bonus is that the process involved in laying these foundations serves a purpose in its own right, and can achieve high levels of engagement and participation from employees.

Working with Wellbeing Associates, the University of Bradford adopted the first step highlighted by the WHO’s healthy workplace model, which is “gaining leadership engagement”.

Engaging senior management in health and wellbeing at work

Evidence abounds that employees with a good sense of wellbeing look after their own health better, are absent less, are more productive when they are at work, and are more likely to remain with the organisation longer. Equally, they are happier and this results in the people around them being happier too.

At the University of Bradford, this meant demonstrating to senior management that a staff health and wellbeing team would assist the university in attracting and retaining top talent, which subsequently would sustain high performance, help them to be a university of choice and achieve their aspiration to be recognised in the Times Top 50 list of companies.

The programme would reflect the university’s values and behaviours of being “inclusive, ethical, supportive and sustainable”(University of Bradford, 2014b).

Finding the routes and methods to navigate a way to the boardroom is different for every organisation, but messages need to be communicated in a way that engages those in power. Speaking to senior management separately, if required, may be time consuming, but if that is what it takes to make things happen and effect real change, then the time taken will prove to be a good investment in the long term.

Gaining employee perspective

At the centre of building the foundations for a health and wellbeing programme, and equally important as engaging the senior management, is listening to the views of staff, to which the WHO model refers as “worker involvement”.

The university communicated through a regular electronic channel to ensure maximum staff reach, providing a link to a survey compiled, collated and managed by Wellbeing Associates. Using an independent resource in this way assures anonymity for individual staff who may otherwise feel unsure about sharing their views openly and honestly with their employer.

The survey sought views on the university’s current approach and offering, and 40% of staff responded. Following the survey, a number of focus groups took place, with 95 staff offering their time. These allowed qualitative information to be gathered, and the themes and narrative that informed the survey responses to be explored and understood in more detail.

A brief, heartfelt comment from an employee can provide useful insight into the culture of a workplace, such as this one: “The little stuff matters… when a manager says ‘thank you’… it matters.”

The next stages of the WHO model are to “assemble”, “assess” and “plan”. This can only take place once there is an understanding of what data is available and what insight it might provide.

Data analysis of health and wellbeing at work

Data analysis is a critical aspect to building an employee wellbeing programme. The data provides a window into the organisation and offers a baseline against which future success and direction can be measured. It can help an organisation to decide where to invest in resource and enables it to understand if its investment has had an impact at an individual or organisational level.

The data collated here included staff demographics, health risk factor information and staff views gathered via the survey and the focus groups. This enabled the university to decide where to place its focus for the programme. Levels of absence, staff turnover and the number of employee grievances all helped to build a broader picture of the workplace and its staff.

Data that sits within different departments, such as HR, occupational health or health and safety, can be pooled to show that seemingly competing priorities can be recognised as shared and similar objectives.

Information on health risk factors is increasingly available within workplaces, and can be accessed in a cost-effective way through on-site health checks or online surveys. If absolutely no resources are available, then geographical data held in the public domain, for example the Public Health Outcomes Framework (Public Health England, 2014), can be accessed.

Creating a wellbeing steering group

A senior-level wellbeing champion is usually necessary to maintain a strategic focus on staff wellbeing, but experience shows that when the sole driver of success for the programme leaves the organisation then the drive, attention and resource allocated to the programme will often depart with them. It is one of the reasons why it is good practice to establish a health and wellbeing steering group.

The university had a ready-made response to this aspect of bringing the programme to life in the form of a stress group, which already met on a regular basis. The university renamed it the “Health and Wellbeing Group”, a statement of intent that the future was to be about a broad-based approach to all aspects of employee health and employee wellbeing, of which stress is only one part.

Some members of the group were concerned that the change of name indicated that the university was not taking workplace stress seriously, when in fact it was trying to deal with all aspects and sources of psychological health of staff, and was not focusing on one area. Challenge can bring benefits, and this led to a workshop to consider the objectives of the steering group in detail and how it was going to achieve its aims.

Several interactive sessions produced some creative and thought-provoking ideas as to what the future programme could become. The workshops used the survey responses, information gathered from the focus groups and the data analysis to inform discussions on what was to become the university’s new vision of “creating a healthy workplace inspiring our staff to flourish”. It also came up with a new name for the programme, “Sustain”.

An annual programme was also devised, which did not just focus on individual employee activity, but also incorporated organisational challenges and leadership behaviours that affect workplace wellbeing, but are often overlooked and placed in the “too difficult to deal with” box.

Ideas were generated to help staff achieve healthy lifestyles, as well as recognise how the university can intervene when an employee needs assistance. Organisations often have services that step in at a time of crisis, and the University of Bradford was no different. Feedback from staff suggested that the university could do more to keep staff well before they get sick, rather than only responding once things have gone wrong.

Communication and engagement

Using tools and mechanisms already in situ is more cost effective, and although a large organisation such as a university with 2,000 staff is likely to have a dedicated web presence and a marketing department, for smaller organisations the principles remain the same, although it may be about using the staff notice board or the weekly blog. Whatever currently works and is already in place should be utilised to best effect.

Health promotion does not need to cost the earth. Free materials and resources abound, and tapping into a national and international calendar of health awareness events is a cost effective way to build a library of tools.

Bringing the programme to life

The most effective way to bring a programme to life is to encourage a broad base of participation, or an army of volunteers, such as the “gamesmakers” of the London 2012 Olympics. These people are not the fitness fanatics or the die-hard dieters, but the everyday people, the 63% of the population who carry excess weight (Public Health England, 2014), or the one in four who experience mental health problems (The Stationery Office, 2001). The programme is available for all members of staff and needs to be promoted and owned by all those involved with it for it to be successful.

The focus groups held at the university were used to offer continued involvement in the programme to members of staff who were interested in taking part. Fifty members of staff volunteered to be a University of Bradford Wellbeing Champion. These employees want to remain involved in the programme, and take the opportunity to shape and influence the future direction and delivery of it.

Wellbeing Associates is now working with the university to devise a champion’s workshop. The aim is to communicate the high-level plan, allocate a quarterly area of focus to each team and allow them to generate ideas about how to achieve the highest levels of participation and engagement by as many staff as possible.

Previous experience has shown that cross-departmental teams energise the activities, and that peer influence is critical to ensure the success of the programme, which is created, owned and delivered by the staff and is not something that is being done “at them” by the organisation.

Evaluation of health and wellbeing at work programmes

A detailed project plan, collating activity for the year ahead, was delivered to the university as part of a final recommendation report. The plan incorporates all aspects of the engagement, and identifies and prioritises what needs to be done on a month-by-month basis for the year ahead.

The report includes a dashboard that is to be presented to the board on a quarterly basis, and involves not only an analysis of any investment in the programme, but also the levels of participation and, most importantly, the areas of impact in terms of the organisation’s key indicators. For the University of Bradford, these are staff health risk indicators, sickness absence measures and levels of staff engagement.

The temptation for those organisations that jump straight into the implementation of activities is that they often miss the opportunity to evaluate the effectiveness of the activity in any way.

A little planning can be the difference between success and failure when a wellbeing programme is being embedded within an organisation. The only way to ensure long-term impact is through sustained and continued investment in the future success of the business and the people who work there.


Burton, J. (2010).” WHO Healthy workplace framework and model: Background and supporting literature and practices”. New York: World Health Organization.

Public Health England (2014). Public Health Outcomes Framework

Singleton N, Bumpstead R, O’Brien M, Lee A, Meltzer H (2001). “Psychiatric morbidity among adults living in private households, 2000”. The Stationery Office.

University of Bradford (2014a). University of Bradford mission and values statement

University of Bradford (2014b). Equality impact assessment – corporate values video

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