Entries for this year’s Occupational Health & Wellbeing Awards close on Friday (22 October) – so don’t delay! In the last of our profiles of 2020’s winners, we look at how Loughborough University has transformed its OH delivery, in the process winning it ‘Occupational health team of the year (private sector)’.
It is probably fair to say a lot of higher education has not had a great pandemic. From the travails of Manchester University last year being forced to remove “prison style” fencing around student halls through to the UCU union warning of overworked staff struggling with poor mental health, the sector has faced intense challenges.
But it also needs to be recognised that a lot of good goes on within higher education, and a lot of effort and investment these days is put into health and wellbeing, both pastoral support for students and occupational health support for staff and employees.
One university making a stand-out contribution in this area is Loughborough University, where the transformation of the OH service delivery for its 3,500-4,000 staff won its OH team the accolade of “Occupational health team of the year (private sector)” in the 2020 Occupational Health & Wellbeing Awards.
And it was an award that was received with huge gratitude for the recognition and kudos it has brought. “Our Loughborough team is absolutely tiny, as tiny as it gets. So you have no idea how thrilled we were; it was just amazing!” occupational health and wellbeing manager Sarah van Zoelen tells OHW+.
Sarah’s appointment some two years ago was a key part of the OH team’s transformation journey, as she explains. “The department had got to one of those imploding scenarios where things were not working properly, the service was under-used, it lacked perceived value among employees, it had low credibility, and it was untrusted by its users, so it needed a total rethink.
“I was brought on board as the manager to be the linchpin between using an external provider support and trying to raise the profile, but also trying to get to a stage that we knew what we needed, so we could invest.”
Dr Steve Boorman, chair of the Council for Health and Work, consultant at Empactis and, incidentally, a judge for the awards (though he, naturally, excused himself from judging this category) was also brought in to advise on the transformation process.
“We created new links with the onsite physio service; we re-evaluated our EAP, which was found not to be what we wanted it to be, and so we went out to tender and changed that. We’ve now got different elements of counselling provision as well as looking at the more proactive side of things, such as gym memberships and things like that that we could offer people on a different basis,” says Sarah.
Toolbox of wellbeing options
Our Loughborough team is absolutely tiny, as tiny as it gets. So you have no idea how thrilled we were [to win]; it was just amazing!” – Occupational health and wellbeing manager Sarah van Zoelen
“I also wanted to make sure we could actually do more than just a management referral; I wanted to know that we could proactively guide people along their wellbeing journey and give people real support. And that helped us build our reputation really, across the campuses, which has been really good,” says Sarah.
“Alongside that, the wellbeing agenda has been huge. One thing I found in my induction was that Loughborough had an awful lot on offer – if you knew about it. So it was about pulling it all together and actually marketing it, making sure that people could find out what was available to all employees. It was about creating that toolbox of wellbeing options that we could offer to employees who were struggling,” Sarah adds.
Management referrals are now mostly split three ways between either mental health, musculoskeletal health or ‘other’ and, as it has with so many things, the pandemic has had a considerable impact on referral patterns. “We’ve found mental health has kind of had its peaks and troughs but, interestingly, coming back at the end of the first lockdown, we found that musculoskeletal problems have been our biggest challenge. People working from home, doing what they can and getting on with it – but as it has gone on and on and on people have been finding that perhaps they are experiencing persistent discomfort,” says Sarah.
“Perhaps their homeworking set-ups aren’t as ideal as they could be and it has become a real challenge. I also think people have deconditioned; especially if you have a lot of manual staff who have had a period away from the workplace, I think coming back to the workplace makes them a little bit more vulnerable to the sprains and things like that that they wouldn’t normally have experienced,” she adds.
Nevertheless, for all its challenges, the pandemic has also brought with it significant opportunities for occupational health, and the OH team at Loughborough, Sarah contends. “Before Covid, we were based within the onsite medical centre, in three rooms tucked out of sight But, because we were sharing this with the GP surgery, it was felt no longer to be safe when Covid happened and so, fortunately, we were relocated to a building smack bang in the middle of the campus.
“It has also given us space to grow; we can manage our Covid flows through the department and we’ve got space to develop. It has also put us on the map not only in terms of physical location but in how we have been incorporated into the management of Covid across campus. We have been able to produce a variety of opportunities for mental health support, and guidance for homeworking. I think it has really helped people to know we are here.
“For me, 2021 is about the launch of our wellbeing framework, which we have recently had approval to begin rolling out across campus. I am really passionate about lifestyle medicine. I am very interested as to how we might be able to incorporate into occupational health as a specialism,” says Sarah.
How to make OH ‘stick’
What, then, does Sarah feel makes for a good intervention or service; how can you make OH ‘stick’ in the workplace?
“To me, it is just about having a massive and genuine interest in people. I am very much a holistic practitioner and firmly believe that we are not just made up of just mental health or just musculoskeletal concerns. I think often when people are referred the reason for referral is not always reflective of their main challenge. Very often, there is a different issue within and the reason for the referral is a symptoms of that. I think the more we can do to even just nudge people into better health and wellbeing, whether that is improved sleep patterns, diet or exercise the better it is really,” Sarah argues.
“I think leadership and active listening are also key parts of occupational health; one of the most important things we can do for our employees is to listen to them, genuinely listen. The busier it gets sometimes it is easy to be guilty of not doing that, but I think it is really important to have that as one of your priorities,” she adds.
Finally, what has winning meant for her and her team, and the profile of the team within the university?
It is lovely to be recognised by your peers. It was a real pat on the back that we are doing the right thing and that has been recognised.”
“First, I think entering awards is good because it allows you to reflect on what you’ve done. The world is so fast paced that it is very easy to just keep driving forward and not having that opportunity to think, ‘wow, think how much we’ve achieved in such a short space of time’ or ‘that was a really effective outcome’. So I think that is really important.
“But, second, from a personal perspective, it is lovely to be recognised by your peers. It was a real pat on the back that we are doing the right thing and that has been recognised. From my employer’s perspective, too, it has been fantastic to be able to change the message. Instead of it being, ‘oh you’re being referred to occupational health’ it is not only that this is good, it has been recognised as being good. That has been phenomenal,” she adds.
The Loughborough University team in a nutshell
Alongside Sarah van Zoelen as occupational health and wellbeing manager, there is one full-time administrator, one in-house OH adviser, plus adhoc support from an OH adviser from the provider RPS.
“My administrator, also called Sarah, is beyond brilliant,” says Sarah. “She just keeps everything ticking along, as some of our processes and IT are still a bit clunky. She is the rock of it all really.”
“My role has been very much about creating the ground zero, setting up all the policies and procedures, setting up the standards, facilitating the clinic, as well as being very clinical. It was about getting to that period of stability in terms of what OH provided, but also then developing it and driving it forward,” she adds.
While the service is a nurse-led service there is access to an OH physician one day a month. “We’re using the physician really for asbestos medicals and ill health retirement, and complex management referrals, but we have been able to manage the needs of the service successfully’ says Sarah.
Beyond this, Sarah can feed upwards to Neil Budworth, the university’s health, safety and wellbeing director, should she need to. “One of the other important things has been having a manager above me who is not only really enthusiastic but also confident enough to be able to let us run with it, which has been fantastic,” enthuses Sarah. “Just to have that support and the flexibility to try something a bit different is just fantastic.”
How Loughborough University became an OH&W winner
Loughborough University won our Occupational health team of the year (private sector) category in the 2020 awards for the way it had gone about transforming its team and OH provision from something under-used and lacking in credibility to a “world class” OH function.
Under the mentorship of Dr Steve Boorman – who, as one of the judges did not take part in the judging of this category – improvements included the appointment of Sarah van Zoelen to lead and stabilise the service, better monitoring of referrals and the rollout of a range of improved services. These have included an onsite physiotherapy service for musculoskeletal disorders and an expansion of the counselling service to include employees and PhD students.
Other changes included the launch of a health and wellbeing steering group and website, a full health and wellbeing needs assessment and smoking cessation support. A bespoke mental health and wellbeing programme was also launched when the coronavirus lockdown was imposed.
Our judges said the result “showed evidence of a total overhaul of the occupational health service, including an increase in referrals of 300% and success in bringing employees who had been absent from the business for more than two years back to work.”