This year’s Personnel Today awards will be held in London on 25 November. Whoever gets called up to the podium as the winner of the Capita Health Solutions Award for Managing Health at Work will have beaten off a strong field, according to judge Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at the Lancaster University Management School.
One clear trend that has emerged from this year’s entries, Cooper says, is a desire to look behind the symptoms and headline health issues to underlying causes. “We know about sickness absence and workplace stress, but how often do we reflect this on to say, obesity, smoking and mental ill-health?” he asks.
You can make a strong case for arguing that tackling stress, for instance, is as much about tackling bad management as it is about dealing with the medical effects of stress and anxiety.
This year’s entries have made it clear that you cannot manage workplace health without looking at the soft and hard issues. “They are looking at well-being in the workplace. Judges awards like to see novel interventions, people doing things to change their environment and atmosphere,” Cooper says.
Just as OH practitioners are being told to get more strategic and business-focused, so being able to show what you are doing is making a difference to the bottom line is applauded. “Just doing an intervention without an evaluation is useful but it is not sufficient,” he says.
Beyond the four short-listed organisations, Cooper wanted to draw attention to Barclays Africa for its work on raising awareness of and helping to tackle HIV and AIDS among employees.
Sheffield City Council
Tackling stress head-on
With 19,800 staff and 500,000 people to serve, Sheffield City Council is not a small organisation. For its seven-strong corporate occupational health team, stress has been the key area to tackle.
Two initiatives – Tackling Stress Together and Improving Services, Balancing Lives – were launched as part of a more strategic approach to stress management.
Managers were encouraged to use appraisals and team meetings to identify and deal with potential stress issues. Employee surveys were identified as providing a good indication for the key areas of concern.
Tackling Stress Together was launched in September 2002, and Improving Services, Balancing Lives, which looks at the causes of work-related and work-impacting stress, came on-stream in October 2003. Since the latter initiative was launched, 142 managers have attended workshops.
A work-life balance intranet has been launched and the corporate finance team has completed a pilot scheme looking at ways to reduce stress.
Overall, managers are more confident and competent in preventing stress, and employees feel more comfortable raising stress issues with their managers, says the council.
The main achievement, says Steve Clark, corporate HR manager, occupational health and safety, has been in bringing elements together that might otherwise have been dealt with separately. “Often people are doing something on stress or work-life balance, but it will be fairly-tightly defined projects,” he says.
Clark and his team wanted to get more joined-up thinking and more linkage across the organisation. “The sum of all the parts are more than the individual elements,” he says.
“You will often find that stress and work-life balance are awkward things for managers to think and talk about. But if you start to talk about it in the right way, they will benefit,” he says.
While the nomination has inevitably been just a snapshot of the work the council is doing, now the commitment to reducing stress had been firmly stated, the goal is going to continue, Clark says. “This is a long-term part of making people well.”
Severn Trent Water
Keeping it simple to get more from your workforce
Where many organisations pay lip service to the term human capital, over the past three years water company Severn Trent Water has been intent on increasing the value of its human capital – getting more from its workforce, giving more back and becoming a better place to work.
Severn Trent Water has a 13-strong health and safety team for 5,598 employees. A key element of its work this year has been on reducing sickness absence levels and improving productivity. This has meant the introduction of a health and well-being programme for all staff on the Vielife programme, which focuses on areas such as healthy living and nutrition.
The management of lifting and handling injuries has been overhauled using better task assessment and design methods, improved training and giving staff access to fast-track physiotherapy referral and monitoring. A management and assessment programme for employees at risk from hand-arm vibration syndrome was introduced. And a computer-based training package for display-screen equipment, which uses storylines and graphics, has also been developed.
A cancer-awareness campaign was drawn up and there is a greater focus on work-life balance and flexible working issues. As a result, the sickness absence rate has dropped from 4.3 per cent in 1999-2000 to 3.3 per cent, saving about £1.4m (about 660,000 a year).
There has been a productivity increase equivalent to 28,750 working days, or an extra £4.3m. Assuming a linear reduction in turnover, good participation in the health programme and a baseline turnover rate of 4.5 per cent, annualised turnover is expected to drop to 4.1 per cent in a year’s time, says Severn.
One of the challenges was communicating healthy living and working messages, says health and safety adviser Jane Carter. “We have people that are relatively easy to communicate with in offices, but a lot of our population is out in vans for a lot of the day, and they often need the message more than someone sitting behind a desk,” she says.
The secret, she argues, is to keep your messages simple, accessible and realistic, but at the same time not talking down to your target audience. “You have to be talking their language. It might be very simple things like, rather than saying you need to join a gym, what about walking upstairs instead of taking the lift,” she says.
A good example of this was when the team ran a series of health road shows. They were, Carter says, keen to make them as fun as possible so people would attend. “It’s about knowing your audience and doing whatever communication fits them,” she says.
Cooper liked the fact any interventions were thoroughly evaluated for their impact on staff and the bottom line. “It was a comprehensive programme for managing health and well-being. It has assessed the impact of its interventions on the bottom line, and we need more like that. It is okay to be innovative, but you need to think about the impact too,” he says.
South Wales Police
Team approach pays dividends in the force
By merging OH, sickness absence and safety and welfare functions into a single health, care and safety team, South Wales Police has instilled a team ethos into managing the health of its 5,290 employees.
With a team of 17 in an HR function of 52, the heath, care and safety team has introduced a raft of early intervention programmes to address long-term sickness absence in the force. “Where particular issues have arisen, for instance over musculoskeletal disorders, we have tried to instigate a team approach,” Jan Wainwright, team leader for the health, care and safety team, says.
Practical initiatives include working in partnership with an MRI scanning facility to improve access to scans. A 50,000 investment into early diagnosis has provided MRI scans within 48 hours of referral.
A manual handling risk assessment programme has been developed, along with a unified programme for the control of substances hazardous to health. Within this programme, there is an infection control/leaflet, hepatitis B immunisation programme, and a video entitled Blood, Sweat and Tears. Employees also have fast-track access to a physiotherapy service.
“We have had a real impact on sickness absence in the force. We have also seen a reduction in our ill-health retirement figures,” Wainwright says. “We have been referring people to have a scan, then they have their operation and we get them back to work. We have also managed to raise awareness of the team within the organisation,” she adds.
Similarly, there is now more of a team ethos, with everyone committed to pulling in the same direction and with good communication channels. “We did a best practice review and went through the function with a fine-tooth comb. Everyone knows what their specific aims are, where they are trying to get to and what they are trying to achieve,” Wainwright says.
Other achievements include a renovation programme, which has resulted in better facilities for staff and visitors, an improved diary management system, electronic booking of appointments and a streamlining of record storage.
Another key element has been that, where people management issues are perceived to be at the root of a particular instance of sickness absence, a programme of early intervention is set in place through mediation and focus groups.
There is also an outsourced counselling operation designed to ensure speedy access for staff to counsellors. The commitment to fast-track intervention was something to be applauded, Cooper says. “They are looking at things too, such as control of hazardous substances and infection control, that do not often get looked at,” he says.
Preston Primary Care Trust
Pledging employee scheme works wonders
Improving working lives has been the key theme of work being carried out by the OH and HR team at Preston Primary Care Trust.
The 18-strong team, which serves 1,210 staff, has embraced the Government’s Improving Working Lives standard, which all NHS employers needed to be accredited with by April last year.
The Trust allocated 25,000 to the project, initially setting up informal focus groups to find out what employees liked and did not like about working conditions.
From this, an Improving Working Lives (IWL) action plan was drawn up with its own board, composed of a cross-section of trust staff.
Practical initiatives have included the introduction of a flexible working policy and the development in January this year of a staff health pledge.
Staff sign a pledge to work to make their lifestyles healthier, such as stopping smoking, eating more fruit and vegetables or having a flu jab. Those who achieve their pledge and take no time off sick in the previous month are entered into a monthly draw to win £100.
More than 25 per cent of the workforce has participated in the scheme, and between January to March this year, sickness absence levels have averaged 3.86 per cent, compared with 4.13 per cent between April and December 2003.
Other initiatives have included lifestyle assessments for all staff and the launch of a range of healthy living options for employees. This last initiative has included the development of skills workshops and reduced-fee gym membership.
Getting the message across to staff is such a critical element of these types of innovations, so all healthy working initiatives have been communicated through newsletters and staff presentations.
At a wider level, the trust has set up a zero-tolerance group to address the issue of violence and abuse against staff and there has been a greater focus on bringing in child-friendly and childcare initiatives.
Beyond achieving the IWL standard, the main gains from all this activity have been a reduction in staff turnover from 2.5 per cent to 1.04 per cent and a cut in sickness absence levels.
Sickness absence rates are well below the recommended rate as set by the IWL board, says the trust.
Cooper says the trust had achieved a lot within the constraints of a relatively small budget. “The pledge scheme for staff was an interesting one.”