Workplace Wellbeing Charter: a standard for health

Workplace Wellbeing Charter

The Workplace Wellbeing Charter was launched as a national systematic method for improving health. Nic Paton looks at how two employers are using it to improve employee health and gain business benefits.

“As a business, we advertise the fact we have the charter. We use it and mention it as part of our recruitment; it is something that is really important to us and which we are really proud of.” So explains Suzanne Shelbourne, HR manager at Edgetech, a manufacturing company based in Coventry that makes and supplies parts for the window industry. The organisation employs around 70 people, 80% of whom are male.

The company is important, and indeed something of a pioneer from a workplace health and wellbeing perspective, because it is one of about 1,000 employers across England that have made a public pledge about their commitment to health and wellbeing in the workplace by becoming accredited with the Government’s new national Workplace Wellbeing Charter.

The charter was originally a disparate, locally based initiative launched back in 2009. It was, at that point, a network of local, and often different, programmes overseen by the Department of Health, but run at ground level by local authorities. However, last summer it was relaunched by Public Health England (PHE) as a standardised national accreditation programme.

The charter is a way of giving employers a checklist, or toolkit, for improving and embedding good workplace health practice. It has been backed by the Government’s former national director for health and work, Dame Carol Black, who has described it as being an “opportunity for employers to demonstrate their commitment to the health and wellbeing of their workforce”.

Business benefits

But, as Shelbourne’s comments above illustrate, being able to demonstrate charter accreditation can also bring concrete benefits to the business. These include: a stronger “employer brand” when it comes to recruiting and attracting candidates; reduced sickness absence; lower staff turnover; and increased levels of employee engagement and productivity.

Indeed, in Edgetech’s case, the company has so far this year reported absence rates of less than 1%, which is substantially down from the 3% it recorded in 2013, and it has seen a 70% drop in cases of absence because of stress. Staff turnover rates have also significantly reduced.

The company originally achieved charter status through Coventry City Council back in March 2013, and it was reaccredited with national charter status in February of this year.

However, its charter “journey” goes as far back as 2011, when it first launched an internal wellbeing programme. What the charter has done, first in its local iteration, and now in its latest incarnation, is give the company a valuable framework to work to, as well as having been a tangible goal to reach for, argues Shelbourne.

“A key thing for us has always been the evidence. Most people know about the importance of employee engagement, but there is often a gap in terms of how you can confirm the impact of health and wellbeing programmes and how organisations can improve employee engagement.

“If you have engaged employees, then really you’re probably already preaching to the converted when it comes to selling the business benefit of doing things like this,” she explains.

“The charter has proved really helpful in terms of helping us to design the programme as we have gone along. Even if what you are doing is only small steps, it gives you guidelines, a framework, to follow and which you can then build upon. The fact we’ve been reaccredited, too, is important, as it shows we have been able to maintain our momentum and were not just doing it as a one-off,” she adds.

What is the Workplace Wellbeing Charter?

The Workplace Wellbeing Charter was relaunched as a national initiative in June 2014 by Public Health England (PHE), as a means of offering employers in England a more systematic methodology for improving workplace health.

As Tony Vickers-Byrne, chair of PHE’s Health and Work Programme Board, explained at the time, historically, there had been “a patchwork of different programmes across the country, each with their own standards and reporting requirements.

Some large organisations were unhappy that they were receiving different advice across their different sites with a lack of national coordination.”

PHE therefore commissioned Liverpool charity Health@Work, in association with Liverpool City Council, to establish a set of national standards, the result of which was the charter.

It is based around three levels: commitment; achievement; and excellence, each of which contains different standards that need to be attained.

“For newer organisations, the ‘commitment’ level can act as a useful checklist to ensure legal obligations are being met,” said Vickers Byrne.

“More established organisations can use the ‘achievement’ and ‘excellence’ standards to drive forward their improvements in staff wellbeing.

Each of the three levels will consider, in different ways, issues such as: leadership; mental health; physical activity; smoking; alcohol and substance misuse; healthy eating; absence management; and health and safety,” he added.

Signing up to, and achieving, the charter, has also allowed employers to benchmark their performance against their peers within their region as well as more widely across the country.

“Businesses will get a better feel for how well they are doing on improving staff health and wellbeing, and be able to seek inspiration and advice from other similar organisations,” said Vickers-Byrne.

A PHE spokesman told Occupational Health that the hope is that the charter will become “a kitemark for healthy business in England, and an award that all organisations aspire to”.

He added: “Organisations are seeing the impact on the health and wellbeing of their staff and the knock-on effects in productivity, recruitment and retention and sickness absence. We hope that, in time, commissioners will see the charter accreditation as an indication of a provider being a healthy employer.”

To that end, PHE is also working with a steering group of local authorities and businesses to consider what more can be done in this area.

“We’re also looking at how we can help business continue to argue that investing in staff health and wellbeing makes good business sense. PHE is working to promote the uptake of the charter in as many local authorities as possible to support all over the country. PHE will also raise the profile of the charter among businesses, in order to encourage more to become accredited,” he added.

Wellbeing support

In terms of specific initiatives, there are many to choose from. The company does a lot of what might be called standard intervention or support, including wellbeing policies, healthchecks, return-to-work programmes, employee assistance programmes and so on.

But that is just the beginning. In terms of additional support, intervention, health promotion and education, it initially ran health-related “themes” every month, such as: cancer screening (including how to self-examine); physical activity; and mental health.

This has evolved into a range of activities that are focused around three core areas: healthy eating; physical health; and mental health. For example, to encourage healthy eating, the company runs a regular employee lunch where healthy options are provided. It has also had its local “Cook and Eat Well” healthy eating community organisation run training sessions and organised cookery competitions.

Around physical exercise, activities have included doing a “virtual” Land’s End to John O’Groats walk with pedometers, and a range of inter-company challenges (against staff based in the US), encouraging employees to take up a new sport and reduce their blood pressure at the same time.

On mental health, the company has run expert talks from clinical psychologists, advice sessions on stress and pressure, and relaxation and yoga sessions.

“It is about getting people involved and used to it. Now people are really engaged about it but at the beginning, in the first year, there was a sense of ‘oh, what is she doing?’. One thing that was also important was that we made it an obligation at first that people attended, though it’s not now,” Shelbourne explains.

Crucially, the company needed to ensure that the programme was very visibly backed, and bought into, by the senior management team. She says: “It does need senior management buy-in. If they are not interested or not going to back it 100% and champion it, then it is not going to work.

“Whether or not people enjoy it, if the leaders of your organisation understand the business benefit and the financial gain they will get from doing something like this, then they are likely to be much more inclined to do it.

“A lot of people, initially, were reluctant to get involved when we held talks. It was hard for them; they did not want to be saying things out loud in front of their colleagues. So it has taken time. But now when people come into the business and we explain to them what we do, they will often say ‘wow, where we’ve come from they don’t do anything like that’.”

Indeed, the company’s most recent staff survey found that 81% of staff felt that they had benefited directly from the programme, with more than 80% feeling that the company successfully supported their wellbeing. Half felt that they had seen improvements to their health, and more than 70% felt that their awareness of mental health (both their own and that of others) had improved as a result.

Improvements at Jaguar

Another organisation that has benefited from charter accreditation is car manufacturer Jaguar Land Rover. The company operates six sites across the UK, and its Solihull manufacturing site has already achieved charter status. Initiatives at the site have included the implementation of a “restrictive workers” procedure to support rehabilitation and early return to work.

The onsite OH team runs a proactive health and wellness programme, including a monthly calendar of activities and a wellbeing portal for employees, containing information and advice on a range of different topics. Employees have access to a health-based directory where they can select personal development opportunities, up to a value of £250, which are designed to improve their health. One employee even used this money to learn how to kite-surf.

How the charter works

Any employer, HR or OH professional interested in signing up to, or finding out more about the charter should visit its website at www.wellbeingcharter.org.uk. The site includes an array of tools and downloads, as well as sections explaining the background to the charter, how it works and the process that an employer would have to go through.

But, to reiterate, you should bear in mind that your charter provider will not be PHE. The charter is “owned” at a local level by a range of local authorities and social enterprises (there is a list on the website), which will also oversee the accreditation.

Employers can test the water by using an online assessment tool to find out if what they are doing is right, or if they need to go away and improve on any specific areas first.

The tool will also help gauge what elements are going to be most relevant, as not all of them will be important to all businesses, and they may vary depending on the size and complexity of each organisation.

However, broadly, the charter focuses on three key areas: leadership; culture; and communication.

Each of the three levels will consider issues such as: sickness and absence management; awareness of alcohol and drug abuse; smoking; mental health and stress; healthy eating; and physical activity. According to PHE, more than 1,000 organisations have achieved charter status across England so far, these vary from small to large employers, and include a mix of private, third-sector and public-sector establishments.

The site has introduced “wellbeing point” kiosks where staff can pick up in house health and wellbeing leaflets, as well as health-related postcards. There are four wellbeing days run each year onsite, along with regular roadshows on health related issues and workplace absence. An employee health needs assessment was also recently carried out.

Standardisation

Even though the charter’s standards and reporting requirements have been standardised, it remains an initiative that is very much locally led. So, while you register your interest through a central hub, your details are then passed on to the local provider in your area, normally your local council, which still “owns” and runs the charter process at a local or regional level. Some local authorities deliver the charter process in-house, while others commission it out to a voluntary sector provider.

The Workplace Wellbeing Charter website includes a list of all the councils that are acting as providers. What this means for employers, argues Sharon Lindop, business development officer at Coventry City Council, is that, if you feel the charter is the right path for you, it is important that you are liaising with your local authority or provider as a first port of call. Most local authorities working as charter providers will normally be quite proactive about this fact anyway.

“We’ve done a lot of talking about it at different events, for example with organisations such as the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health. A lot of people still haven’t really heard about the charter,” Lindop explains.

“Where I think it is really valuable is the fact that it is very difficult to get the evidence with something like this. If you start a health and wellbeing programme and haven’t done one before, chances are you’re not going to see instant results,” she adds.

“Where something like the charter can help is in giving people the choices and the information they need […] to give them a healthier lifestyle.

“So, it might be anything from establishing a stop-smoking service, through to just helping employees access better information within the workplace. Ensuring staff feel better informed about health and wellbeing and better able to access support is, clearly, a really good thing,” she notes.

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