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January 4, 2011

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Health and well-being – Now or never

For many health and safety practitioners, employee well-being has been a natural continuation from stress and mental-health management, with the focus expanded to include health-risk management, provision of onsite health services, and general health promotion. But, ask Kim Shutler-Jones and Gary Tideswell, as we move into a culture of ‘doing more with less’, is this enough?

In challenging times, more than ever we need to ensure that people remain healthy and at work, motivated and engaged, and still able to perform to the best of their abilities. If this isn’t taken seriously, the short and long-term impacts will be significant.

At an individual level, employees are already reporting reduced job satisfaction, increased levels of regular excessive pressure, lower levels of trust in senior managers, and a reduction in living standards.1 At an organisational level, this is thought to be leading to increased absenteeism and presenteeism, and decreased productivity.2 The cost of these things cannot be ignored. Even before the economic downturn, presenteeism alone was costing organisations an average of £600 per person, per year,3 and with only 12 per cent of UK employees highly engaged in their jobs,4 disengaged workers were costing the UK £44 billion a year in lost productivity.5

A key challenge to tackling these things is the fact that many senior managers still perceive them as ‘soft and fluffy, nice-to-have activities’, making them an easy target when the budgetary scissors are being wielded. This is partly because, traditionally, many organisations have focused their activity on things that are relatively easy to implement, such as activities linked to staff benefits or health promotion (free massage at your desk, free gym membership, a banana with your lunch, etc.) Such things can play an important role and can help show that employees are valued BUT are these the things that will make the biggest difference?

The challenge is to reconsider current activities and to determine which are best aligned with the organisation’s strategy, most likely to support its staff during challenging times, and most able to show return on investment. Crucially, this isn’t about cutting the budget in these areas but about investing in a way that is better aligned with the organisational need and context, and able to deliver results.

For some health and safety practitioners, this may mean thinking outside the realms of stress management and risk assessment – or traditional perspectives of occupational health – to encompass aspects that are generally seen as the strict domain of HR (employee communications, leadership and management, change management, etc). The most successful organisations are those that have recognised that good health and well-being are affected by all aspects of the employee experience, and then address it in different ways and embed it in the culture of the organisation. For some, this means moving out of traditional silos and developing a proactive partnership approach, involving different stakeholder groups.

An additional benefit of such a holistic approach is that it becomes embedded as part of core day-to-day business, rather than a ‘bolt-on’ activity, or fashionable new initiative. Some organisations decide not to call it well-being at all, as that can sometimes turn people off due to negative stereotypes. For them, this work is just part of being a good employer.6

Have we really made the business case?

For many employers, making the business case for investment in this area has not previously been a priority. In the light of a major recession, though, this is rapidly changing. Health and safety practitioners may be familiar with the headline statistics around financial benefits but are they really using them to their advantage when it comes to convincing senior managers?

To date, relatively few organisations have carried out a robust evaluation of the impact and return on their well-being activities. For those seeking to make a strong case for investing in the well-being of their staff, a relatively quick win is to use the existing research evidence, which highlights both the significant risk to organisations if well-being and engagement are not taken seriously, and the huge business benefits that can be realised. In particular, evidence from within your own sector, especially from organisations that may be seen as competitors, can be very persuasive when convincing senior managers.

However, one of the issues with such data is how robustly it has been measured. Increasingly, senior managers want to understand not only what impact has been determined by others but also how robust their methods have been, and how valid the conclusions are.

To tackle this, a national project, led by the University of Leeds,7 in partnership with 11 other universities, is taking place in the higher-education sector. The aim is to begin to build up a robust and valid evidence base. Working in partnership with occupational psychologist Professor Ivan Robertson8 a range of well-being interventions is being piloted and evaluated. Work is also being carried out to map the results of staff well-being surveys against research and student satisfaction measures to identify correlations, and understand which aspects of well-being have the greatest impact on performance.

To build up this meaningful and robust business case, however, we need more practitioners prepared to gather evidence in their own organisations. This means moving away from evaluation through the standard ‘happy sheet’, or participation rates, which measure immediate reactions of individuals, and how much they may have enjoyed an activity, but fail to show the longer-term impact.

More and more leaders want to see the hard measures. They want to know whether these things are having a real impact on sickness absence and, even more importantly, on individual and organisational performance. Not only does this allow you to make the case for continued or additional investment but, crucially, it allows the organisation to make hard business decisions about where to invest their funds for maximum benefit.


‘People are our greatest asset’ is a well-known mantra – now we need to ensure we back it up. Valuing and supporting our staff is not just an unaffordable luxury for when times are good – it is even more important now that times are not so good. Health and safety practitioners have a significant role in making this happen but it isn’t easy. The ‘sticking plaster’ approach won’t work anymore, and meaningful, sustainable improvement will only happen if we are prepared to move out of our comfort zones, develop new partnerships, and reconsider our traditional approaches. This isn’t something that is ‘nice to have’ – it is urgent and it is essential.

Panel 1:

Applying the HSE’s Management Standards for Workplace Stress9 during times of change

In the current economic situation, the scale and rapidity of the change currently being experienced in many organisations means they may need to revisit their standard procedures to ensure they are still fit for purpose.


•    If your organisation is down-sizing, can additional support be provided for staff who may be forced to take on additional workload? They may need help to manage their time more effectively, or to do things differently.
•    Can you work with managers to ensure a balance between increasing discretionary effort while avoiding ongoing unrealistic workloads and excessive levels of pressure?


•    Even small adjustments can lead to significant levels of stress and concern. Can you work with managers to anticipate such worries, create opportunities for them to be raised, and develop a list of frequently-asked questions?


•    Can you make the case for protecting support services (staff counselling, on-site physiotherapy, etc.) by showing the financial benefits of keeping staff in work, and avoiding long-term sickness absence?
•    If your organisation already has a number of support services (employee assistance programmes, mediation, coaching and career planning, etc.) do these things need to be re-promoted?
•    Can you work with line managers to ensure they can signpost staff to such support?
•    Do managers need additional support to cope with the new challenges – for example, coaching or mentoring?
•    Can support be offered to individuals being made redundant – for example, giving them time off work to look for a new job, advising on CV writing, helping to arrange training, or signposting to Jobcentre Plus and Train to Gain?10


•    During times of increased pressure, there is a high possibility of strained working relationships, or even bullying. Have you considered using a mediation service?
•    Peer support and active social networks help individuals build personal resilience. Can you run workshops on ‘looking out for each other’, and work with managers to ensure that lunch breaks and social events are not forgotten?
•    Have redundancies led to skills gaps within teams? Can a programme be developed in partnership with HR and staff developers to enable staff to learn new skills?
•    Are your managers equipped to deal with the challenges they are facing? Do elements need to be added to leadership development programmes?
•    If individuals have been forced to change role as part of a restructure, can they be supported with a new personal development plan?


•    Can you work with managers to develop and promote a structured communications plan, with clear timescales and responsibilities?
•    Can you work with managers to ensure that time is built in for meaningful consultation, with clearly communicated outcomes?
•    Can you work with managers to ensure that the reasons for change have been clearly communicated?11


Panel 2:

A tale of two unis

During a period of significant change, the University of Leeds is taking a multi-stranded approach to ensure that its people are supported as much as possible. An example of this has been the development of a ‘Road Map for Change’, which provides guidance for managers on best practice for effective change management, as well as signposting to support services available for staff. These include everything from staff counselling, mediation and a dedicated Citizens Advice Bureau phone line, to careers advice for those leaving the institution.

Additional support has also been directed into areas going through major restructures – for example, executive coaching for senior managers. Workshops are also planned to support these areas to help rebuild teams and increase resilience.

Another important element of change management at Leeds has been the active involvement of the campus trade unions. Working in partnership, an Organisational Change policy has been developed, which includes strategies to avoid compulsory redundancy and ensure staff consultation, as well as a framework to allow staff to be redeployed into other areas of the university.

In line with the principle of assessing the organisation’s activities against the HSE standards, Leeds Metropolitan University has developed a simple stress risk-assessment tool to empower managers to manage stress at a local level.

As well as looking at the business-as-usual pressures of everyday work, the risk assessments help managers assess and manage the impact of inorganic changes, such as workplace relocations and massive organisational change. This helps highlight to managers the importance of recognising the impact of the change on those affected.

It also emphasises the essential nature of effective two-way communications, and recognises that the safety and health of the physical environment should be a major consideration in designing a new workplace to ensure it is fit for purpose for its intended use.

This approach sits alongside a wider approach to staff and student well-being that maximises use of the university’s own resources. Examples of this include the fast access referral from occupational health directly into student-led clinics, and the in-house development of an award-winning well-being website.

Leeds Met’s well-being and excellence programme won this year’s SHP IOSH Award for Best Health and Safety Achievement in a Local Authority and Education.


1    CIPD (2010): Building productive public sector workplaces – Developing Positive Employee Relations, Part 3, Chartered Insitute of Personnel and Development,
2    NICE (2009): ‘Implementing NICE guidance: Business Case – Promoting mental well-being at work’, public health guidance, National Insitute for Health and Clinical Excellence – Guidance/CG/Published
3    Sainsbury Centre (2007): Mental Health at Work: Developing the business case –
4    Towers Perrin (2005): ‘Reconnecting with employees: quantifying the value of engaging your workforce’, cited in Engaging for Success: enhancing performance through employee engagement, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, July 2009 – employee-engagement
5    IPA (2008): ‘Maintaining workforce engagement in an economic downturn,’ IPA Bulletin, October cited in Engaging for Success: enhancing performance through employee engagement, ibid

Kim Shutler-Jones is a qualified NLP practitioner, and Gary Tideswell was the higher-education sector’s first director of well-being.

What makes us susceptible to burnout?

In this episode  of the Safety & Health Podcast, ‘Burnout, stress and being human’, Heather Beach is joined by Stacy Thomson to discuss burnout, perfectionism and how to deal with burnout as an individual, as management and as an organisation.

We provide an insight on how to tackle burnout and why mental health is such a taboo subject, particularly in the workplace.


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