John Lewis Partnership has a reputation for quality, and this does not fall
short when it comes to looking after the health of the staff. The old approach
of tea and sympathy has been replaced by a proactive, modern service run by a
happy and enthusiastic occupational health team, by Nic Paton
It’s not often you’ll find a retailer, or any other employer for that
matter, that will hire out a West End theatre for its amateur dramatic society
to rehearse and perform in, or which runs an orchestra for its staff. But then
the John Lewis Partnership is no ordinary commercial organisation.
Founded in 1864 by John Lewis, who opened a draper’s shop on London’s Oxford
Street, the Partnership has stayed true to its founding principles – that its
"ultimate purpose is the happiness of its members, through their
worthwhile and satisfying employment in a successful business".
The business is run by a central council, board and the chairman but owned
by its 55,000 staff – or partners – who receive a share of the profits as a
percentage of their salaries. This is normally somewhere between eight and 25
The company operates 20 department stores, 137 supermarkets, distribution
centres, manufacturing units and a central office in London. It offers its
partners subsidised holiday accommodation, a generous pension, subsidies on
arts, leisure and education activities, access to two country clubs, sports
clubs and paid sabbaticals after 25 years of service. It will even help out a
partner with a loan or grant if they find themselves in particular need.
Commitment to OH
When it comes to occupational health, too, the Partnership makes sure it is
looking after its staff. Amid the drive to cut overheads, many big retailers
have viewed OH as an easy target from which to make cutbacks. But not having to
answer to shareholders or the City, this has been less of an issue for the
"Few other retailers have as extensive an OH service as we have,"
says chief medical adviser Dr Martyn Davidson.
Its team consists of 55 occupational health nurses (OHNs), two full-time
medical officers and one part-time and 20 visiting GPs. There is also a
full-time physiotherapist who leads a team of 20 part-time physiotherapists and
a full-time chiropodist with others dotted around the store network.
The department stores
Within the department stores, the OHNs work in regional teams, each team led
by a senior OHN, with "pretty much" a full-time team located in every
department store, says Davidson. "It is pretty unusual for an organisation
to have such a large team, but it reflects the value that management places on
it," he adds.
There is no set operational structure for these in-store teams, with each
unit varying how it works to cope with specific demands.
A key element of the work is, inevitably, risk assessment and follow-up, but
the teams will also work with partners on more general health concerns. Other
tasks include management referrals, first aid training, crisis counselling,
compiling data and reports to management.
Partners within the business have to cope with a variety of situations that
can lead to health or stress-related conditions arising. On the shop floor,
dealing with customers can be particularly stressful, particularly if they
become rude or aggressive.
Phone clerks can be faced with verbal abuse and staff also have to spend a
lot of time putting items on shelves or retrieving them, which means manual
handling injuries can become an issue.
Checkout staff can suffer repetitive strain injuries, staff in haberdashery
departments can be pricked by needles and customer delivery staff can find
themselves under pressure from customers to, for instance, plumb in a washing
machine. Partners also tend to be on their feet all day. "It is arduous,
it is hard work. They are up and down ladders all day long," says
The OH unit is somewhere, at the very least, where partners can go and
express concerns about their health without worrying about the consequences.
In addition to the core functions, the OH service provides a subsidised
chiropody service and a free physiotherapy service. Regular themed health
promotion days take place, such as National Back Pain Week or No Smoking Day.
Individual department stores run tailored health promotion activities, for
example migraine awareness or healthy eating. There are also subsidised staff
dining rooms that actively promote healthy eating options.
But it was not always like this. Until a few years ago – like so many OH
services – it was considered more of a medical operation than a preventative
occupational health service, somewhere for nurses to dole out sticking
"It has changed tremendously. It used to be tea and sympathy, now it’s
risk assessments," says Monica Myles, a senior OH nurse who has been with
the Partnership for 18 years.
"Then there used to be a queue outside the door, now you just come and
make an appointment. We have been working very hard to improve the image that
people have of us.
"Managers, in the majority of cases, are very helpful and supportive,
they really do back you up," she adds.
But talking to OH team members, there is a clear suspicion that the further
down the management chain you go, the less important, or thought about, health
and safety can become. At store manager level and above awareness of health and
safety issues is generally considered to be very good.
But further down, at say department manager level, the intense pressures of
the job and demand for results means health and safety awareness can sometimes
This means the fact the OH service is highly active and visible within the
organisation is all the more important.
The OHNs are expected to communicate regularly with each other, sharing information,
ideas and problems. "Most of us have the ability to pick up the phone and
find somebody to talk to. Everybody really gels and really talks," says
In addition, each team holds regular meetings, training sessions and
workshops. There is a regular conference attended by all the OHNs and doctors,
with input from the physiotherapists and chiropodists.
Some OHNs will attend national events, such as the Royal College of
Nursing’s Occupational Health Conference. Training and development needs are
determined locally at branch level with the nurse’s managing director.
All OH staff have access to in-house training schemes and can attend
external seminars, with agreement from their manager, should they so wish.
The OH set-up for Waitrose, the food retail arm of the Partnership, is
different to that of the department stores, with OHNs each covering about 14 to
16 branches or 1,800 to 3,500 employees.
The Waitrose stores are spread between Newark in the Midlands to Plymouth
The full-time team consists of one medical adviser, one senior OHN, nine
OHNs – who cover the branches – and one group support OHN.
There are also two part-time OHNs based at Waitrose’s Bracknell headquarters
complemented by a full-time physio- therapist, medical secretary and
While the OHNs are responsible for many of the same core issues as their
colleagues in the department stores, a large part of their work is also devoted
to looking at food hygiene issues and operations.
Regular monthly audits monitoring hygiene are carried out at each branch,
looking at areas such as cleaning procedures and carrying out rapid hygiene or
"The team has grown with the business, it has expanded with it,"
says Lucia Carabine, a Waitrose OHN based in central London who has been with
the Partnership for 17 years.
"We work very closely with the labs, which provide statistics on how
the branches are doing. We have minimum levels of hygiene that we have to
attain," she adds. All the Waitrose OHNs have diplomas in food hygiene.
The OHNs will also work closely with staff and food advisers on issues such
as basic principles of food hygiene and handling and dealing with skin
problems. "We have a very peripatetic role, with some of us covering vast
distances," says Carabine.
Monthly meetings are held with branch managers to discuss absentee levels
and look at any action plans that might be in place.
The teams get together once a month to discuss how things are going and any
issues that may be arising and also go out on team days once a year.
"Because we are essentially lone workers, you need to be quite an
outgoing person, you have got to be very organised and self-motivated,"
Even though the service is by and large successful – with sickness absence
rates running at about 3 per cent, on a par with the rest of the retail sector
-the Partnership carried out a fundamental review last year of how the service
Information from around the country was brought together, looking at how the
units ran, what could be improved, costs and whether they were providing value
"We are now at the point where we are discussing options on the way
forward," says Davidson.
While reluctant to be drawn too deeply on a process that is still under way,
Davidson says the consistency of delivery was a key area that was highlighted
for improvement. The OH service, much as the chain itself, had grown as new
stores were opened and so had developed in an ad hoc manner. Delivery was in
some areas a bit "piecemeal", he suggests.
The Partnership will now be looking to bring in protocols and better
auditing procedures to tighten up on the quality and delivery of the service.
"Although the teams do have regular meetings, communication was also an
issue. We are now getting a computer network put into place where we can
communicate with each other more easily," he adds.
The team wanted to address the sense of professional isolation that can
occur when you are working in a team that is spread out across the country.
A key development will be in ensuring all staff have access to e-mail so
they can share data, best practice and advice or simply ask for support more
Overall, though, the impression that comes through is of a happy and
enthused team, highly committed to its work and to the business. Last year
around eight team members left and this year, so far, four are retiring and one
is leaving to have a baby.
"It is the ideal environment for people who are relatively new to OH to
come and work in because it is always so supportive. We all get on extremely
well considering the size of the team," says Andrew Goff, a senior OH
nurse at the Partnership’s central London head office.
This is evidenced by the fact that many members of the team have 10 years or
more service under their belts.
"We are fortunate that we have an ethos where we are trying to make our
workforce happy. We do not have to put shareholders first, which indicates a
slightly different attitude to people and makes us more attractive,"
John Lewis Partnership OH team
Dr Martyn Davidson, chief medical adviser
Dr Iain McCoubrey, deputy chief medical adviser (Waitrose)
Dr Sarah Helps, Partnership doctor
Andrew Goff (Central London)
Roisin Fitzgerald (Oxford Street)
Margot Marment (Brent Cross)
Anne Tait (Edinburgh)
Monica Myles (Park Royal Warehouse)
Maureen McCafferty (Waitrose)
Clare Foote, Partnership physiotherapist
Lorraine Jones, Partnership chiropodist
To promote the health and well-being of the Partnership’s employees and
reduce any ill-effects caused by their work. To be of value to the business, to
improve the understanding and management of the effects of work on people’s
lives while responding to the demands from ever-changing legislation.
To improve the consistency of delivery, the quality of the service offered
to Partners, audit and accountability.
To improve communication, ease of communication and tackle isolation between
team members spread around the country.