Occupational Health magazine finds out how UKFast, an award-winning internet hosting company, benefits by helping its workers to stay healthy, both physically and mentally.
A recent survey commissioned by mental health charity Mind showed that one in five workers had taken a day off sick because of stress. It also revealed that one in 10 workers had resigned from a job because of workplace pressure, with one in four having seriously considered resigning for the same reason. Failure to look after staff wellbeing clearly has a direct impact on the bottom line, both in terms of revenue lost from days taken off sick and from a staff retention point of view.
In order to support employees and reduce stress levels, businesses must implement an effective employee engagement strategy, working motivation and support into the company culture. This year UKFast, an internet hosting firm with around 180 employees, won Objective HR Employee Engagement Strategy of the Year at the Institute of Customer Service Awards and reached number 25 on the “Sunday Times Best Companies” list. The firm’s turnover was more than £20 million this year.
Lawrence Jones, the company’s CEO, believes alignment and engagement in the workplace are important, a concept he learnt from the work of management consultant Walt Zeglinski: “People get feelings of satisfaction and self-esteem from achievements. When we take on a new employee at UKFast, they are given ownership over a part of the business, a specific role within a small team of people working towards the same goal. Employees are empowered by this, knowing that they are an integral part of the company.”
As a result of this approach, employees in the research and development team of UKFast developed the company’s internal control system that now runs the phone and management system, and produces daily reports. Bought “off the shelf”, this system would cost around £250,000.
Zeglinski’s paper on positive accountability highlights the importance of goal alignment in the workplace: “Effectively channelling employees’ talents boosts their productivity and job satisfaction. And satisfied employees become high-performing, passionately engaged employees.”
The managing director of UKFast, Jonathan Bowers, gives a presentation to the entire company every Monday morning. High-achieving employees are congratulated and personal achievements are celebrated, including sporting wins, charity fundraisers and even successful wedding proposals. Goals are laid out for the week ahead.
“We recruit people on a list of core values, which includes being supportive,” Jones says. “Every manager has a maximum of six staff to look after so that each member of the team receives strong support.”
When we take on a new employee at UKFast, they are given ownership over a part of the business, a specific role within a small team of people working towards the same goal.”
Lawrence Jones, UKFast
Employee benefits at UKFast include all-expenses-paid skiing trips, free beer, dress-down Fridays, a day off for birthdays and an extra week of holiday in the year if an employee is due to get married. Jones also funds events designed to get directors, employees and their families together. These range from barbeques to UKFest, the company’s annual festival with food, fairground rides and live music, held at UKFast’s outward-bound centre in Snowdonia National Park. The centre hosts groups of new recruits for team-bonding and motivation, including climbing Mount Snowdon, cooking and swimming in a nearby lake.
Jones says that engaging employees has an effect on their stress levels and wellbeing: “Too many business owners think employee engagement ends at paying staff wages and don’t understand that they have a responsibility for their employees and their dependants. If employers don’t go the extra mile when it comes to taking care of their staff, then they will have a despondent and unhappy workforce.”
This viewpoint is shared by experts including Dr Patrick Gilbert, Mercer’s head of employee research, whose research “What’s working” found that more than half of the UK’s employees are unhappy at work.
“Pay is important to get right, but engagement is generally a reflection of an organisation’s broader culture and the way it values and invests in its employees,” the report states (Mercer, 2011).
“You don’t have to spend a fortune on engagement,” says Jones. “Just give them your time and your thanks; arrange meetings with them to seek their opinions and to make sure that they aren’t struggling with anything. If you’re a small business, take part in a charity fundraiser with your staff or simply take them out for lunch. Accountants might frown at spending money on engagement but, as the saying goes: ‘Not everything that counts can be counted.'”
Earlier this year, Bowers took part in a webinar as part of Mind’s Taking Care of Business campaign, designed to encourage wellbeing at work. He explains that stress in the workplace environment is caused adrenaline, which triggers a fight-or-flight response within a person’s body. Without an output for this negative energy, employees suffer. This viewpoint is echoed by Loehr and Schwartz (2001) in their paper “The making of a corporate athlete”, where they explain how negative emotions “can be literally toxic, elevating heart rate and blood pressure, increasing muscle tension, constricting vision and ultimately crippling performance”.
Effectively channelling employees’ talents boosts their productivity and job satisfaction.”
At UKFast, exercise is prioritised as a way to deal with this problem and help employees to diffuse stress and sustain good mental health. In the company’s new HQ, an on-site gym is being developed and employees have set up an area in which to complete the “bleep test” – a way to burn off excess tension.
Jones and his partner Gail encourage and sponsor participation in charity sports events such as the Bupa 10k, the Manchester Marathon and the Tough Mudder event. UKFast has several sports teams, including netball, running, football and weightlifting. This is very much in line with Loehr and Schwartz’s paper, in which they portray peak performance in business as a pyramid with physical wellbeing as its foundation. Above this is emotional health, mental capacity and, at the top, spiritual capacity, which provides a source of motivation and determination. Each of these levels must be engaged in order to generate the best mental state at work.
Loehr and Schwartz say stress can be productive for growth as long as periods of intermittent recovery break it up. Using the example of weightlifting, the research states: “Given an adequate period of recovery, the muscle will not only heal, it will grow stronger. But persist in stressing the muscle without rest and the result will be acute and chronic damage.” Of businessmen and women, they observe: “Typically, they push themselves too hard mentally and emotionally but too little physically.”
Knowing that exercise produces endorphins and therefore a sense of emotional wellness, Jones leads his holistic approach to wellness by example, getting up at 6am every morning to play a game of squash. He insists that his employees take an hour lunch break away from their computer so that they do not work without a rest period. In addition to this, complimentary fruit is provided for staff every day. The company has also hired a masseuse and has built relaxation spaces into its new building.
Emma McClelland is a features writer at UKFast
Zeglinski W (2011). “From casual to committed: How alignment and engagement can create positive accountability”.
Loehr J, Schwartz T (2001). “The making of a corporate athlete”. Harvard Business Review. Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation; Boston.