Taking the sting out of workplace stress

After it conducted a quality of working life survey and followed it with reforms resulting from the findings, Somerset County Council has saved almost £2m per year in reduced absences.

In 2001 the Government set a target of 9.1 days per employee for ‘casual’ sickness absences and required local authorities to achieve this within five years. Somerset cut its average rates from 10.75 days in 2001-2 to 8.29 in 2003-4, nearly a day inside the target in two years.

Although the survey behind the reforms was commissioned because of the cost of sickness absence, there was more to it than simply meeting government targets.

Productivity boost
Somerset says it had a genuine desire to put in place a holistic programme of measures that would ensure the wellbeing of its workforce and, by doing so, boost productivity.

“We wanted to implement a stress policy that included proactive and reactive procedures for dealing with stress cases,” says Peter Rowe, head of HR at Somerset County Council.

“But we also needed a better understanding of what the issues were across the organisation. It is easy to think you know what the problems are in a big organisation like this – but had we ever asked the staff on a comprehensive basis?”

The survey was conducted by Robertson Cooper, a spin-off company started up by the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology (UMIST) and headed by its founders, professors Ivan Robertson and Cary Cooper.

Indentify the causes of stress
The questionnaire is designed to identify the nature of stresses staff experienced so that the cause could to be tackled, rather than merely the symptoms.

“We dealt with several people – for example from social services and the fire service – and the research enabled us to explain, in layman’s terms, the nature of the issues they were facing,” explains Joe Jordan, managing consultant at Robertson Cooper. “Once they knew this, they could produce action plans to integrate the solutions into their working practices.”

Survey data was was benchmarked against data for both public and private sector organisations held by Robertson Cooper, which was a key reason for using the consultancy, says Rowe. “If you carry out a survey in isolation and don’t benchmark, there’s a danger of getting the data and just saying ‘so what?’.”

Act on the results
As a result of the findings the council compiled guidelines about managing pressure and stress, and set up a substantial training programme for all senior managers (now an integral part of the management development programme), as well as specific training for managers about sickness absence management.

“We try to help managers to recognise stress in themselves,” explains Rowe, “It is not until you can recognise it in yourself that you can recognise it in others.”

Other measures involved restructuring the skill mix for the management of social workers and providing continuing support and training for those most at risk of being threatened by aggressive clients.

Somerset also restructured its corporate self-referral counselling service and revised and changed the emphasis of its occupational health contract to be more nurse-led.

“We wanted a nurse who resides on the premises and who understands the issues that all the directorates are facing,” said Rowe.

IT was also cited as an unnecessary pressure, but focus groups were keen to point out that this was not because employees were Luddites – it had more to do with the timing of training.

“Because of the nature of some large corporate systems implementations, the training sometimes came after the introduction of the software,” says Rowe. “We had a big loud message about this and have now sharpened up our planning of on-the-job and off-the-job training.”

Training implications
On learning and development overall, the survey showed that the council had some excellent training, reports Rowe, “but it showed us that it was not everywhere within the organisation”.
Information like this enabled Somerset to effect changes that were not expensive but enabled them to redirect budgets to specific areas and in specific ways. Many of the solutions were set up using existing resources.

About £390,000 was spent on the survey and the measures to deal with its findings. A cost-benefit analysis showed that this gave Somerset a net saving of £1.5m.

While Rowe believes a greater awareness of stress is now embedded into the organisation, he accepts that it will take longer for it to be ingrained in the culture.

His advice to others on a similar mission is to understand your organisation from the employee’s perspective.

“If you do a survey, remember that you raise expectations and you must be seen to be acting on findings and show that things are happening,” he said.

“The worst thing you can do is carry out a survey and then do nothing with the results.”

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