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Implementing a wellbeing programme at work is a daunting prospect.
You might be trying to change entrenched unhealthy work cultures with staff in multiple locations and with many different needs. Budgets can be tight and you might meet considerable resistance at first.
The pay-offs however can be vast, as the stories below from the perspective of managers and employees demonstrate.
Defying the sceptics among 5,000 workers produced some striking results from a water company’s wellbeing programme
At United Utilities, a water company in north-west England that serves 3m homes and 200,000 businesses, safety has always been paramount. But four years ago, the company decided to raise its game and try to improve the wellbeing of its 5,300-strong workforce, writes Andy Bounds. Rebecca Eaton was hired as lead health and wellbeing business partner to manage the improvement.
The company’s board had backed the move, but there was some scepticism at first among the predominantly male workforce. Some thought of wellbeing as “pink and fluffy”, Eaton admits.
Today, “health and safety” at the company — which provides water as well as managing building projects and maintaining sewers and reservoirs — has become “health, wellbeing and safety”.
It helps that Eaton can point to two striking statistics. In 2015, when United Utilities started participating in Britain’s Healthiest Workplace, the national study and ranking conducted by Rand Europe on behalf of Vitality, 14 per cent of its workers smoked; now it is 5.8 per cent. As for physical activity, the percentage not taking the recommended minimum of 150 minutes of exercise a week has dropped from 39 per cent to 27 per cent.
of male employees in the UK smoke
Smoking required the most drastic intervention. United Utilities offered employees a place on courses run by Allen Carr’s Easyway, a company founded by the eponymous author of many books on quitting smoking. They paid £50 towards it, and “if they did not smoke for six months they got the £50 back”, Eaton says.
She adds that the scheme achieved a 65 per cent success rate — far higher than the UK-wide average for the National Health Service’s stop smoking services, which reported in a 2017 study that of those who had used the services 49 per cent said they had successfully quit at a four-week follow-up.
With such good results, it might be tempting to think they were easy to achieve, but Eaton says she quickly realised the scale of her challenge. As well as a large head office operation, United Utilities has dozens of small sites across the region. These include depots where maintenance workers are based, water treatment works, and individuals working from home. Eaton, therefore, enlisted the help of more than 200 members of staff as champions. However, she insists the culture is set from the top. “Getting the senior buy-in is really important,” she says.
of female employees in the UK smoke
There is an emphasis on exercise. The head office in Warrington, between Liverpool and Manchester, has a subsidised gym, and the company has struck deals on gym membership for staff who work elsewhere. Staff can ask for standing desks and are encouraged to take lunch breaks. Managers are told to model good behaviour. “If you take your lunch at your desk, your staff will do the same,” says Eaton. The default option for one-to-one meetings is now for them to form part of a walk outside.
One particularly effective intervention has been to set up United Utilities sponsorship for employees who participate in events that benefit the company’s chosen charity, Macmillan Cancer Support. In the canteen, meanwhile, chips are now available only on Fridays.
Eaton believes the company’s interventions will pay off in the long run. “The way I have sold it is that obviously we have huge assets. We’d never install a big waste waterworks and not maintain it or look after it. Why wouldn’t we do the same with our people when they are our biggest asset?”
How mental illness prompted an insurance company worker to become a campaigner and resource for colleagues
Luke Hamilton-Smith looks cool-headed and collected, but the 22-year-old, who has become a mental health campaigner at Zurich Insurance, says some days he feels just the opposite, writes Rebecca Speare-Cole. Now an assistant underwriter, he joined the claims team in Birmingham, in the UK’s West Midlands, four years ago fresh out of school and was quickly promoted. After the initial rush of “give me loads of work, let me prove myself”, he says he suddenly began to feel very flat. “I felt I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. I think I had the ability and the skills, but no self-confidence or self-belief.”
Soon after that, Hamilton-Smith was sitting at his desk when he suddenly felt an overwhelming wave of panic sweep over him. He tried to calm down, but could not, and ended up leaving work early and eventually seeing his doctor, who diagnosed depression and mild anxiety.
He did not seek any treatment for the condition, however, and returned to work where he continued to perform well. Nevertheless, he found he was falling into a pattern of frequent heavy drinking after work, accompanied by periods when he would feel very depressed. By October 2017, despite having been promoted and moving to London, Hamilton-Smith had got to the point of thinking: “That’s it. This time, I really can’t go on.”
By chance, his low point coincided with World Mental Health Day (October 10). Hayley Golden, Zurich’s UK head of wellbeing, sent an all-organisation email about a new mental health initiative she was helping to launch. “We offered employees the chance to train as a mental health first aider and I had already begun shoulder-tapping people because I thought no one would sign up,” she says. “But then we had 100 people sign up in two hours. This alerted me to the fact that people were way more open than expected.”
Hamilton-Smith completed the two-day course in January in what he sees as a turning point both personally and professionally. “Training to notice signs of poor mental health in others also taught me a lot about the depths of my own illness.”
Afterwards, Golden says he quickly became a mental health ambassador, helping point colleagues who seek his advice in the direction of the right resources.
One such resource-in-the-making is Hamilton-Smith’s own venture, MHxYP Mental Health in Young Professionals, which launched last September. He hopes the website and associated social media platforms will turn into a one-stop resource of personal stories, contacts and even music playlists to help those who visit feel better and find out more about mental health.
Meanwhile, Zurich has launched a flexible work programme, an initiative that has been shown to help mental wellbeing, and Golden is looking to install so-called SAD lamps round the office to help with seasonal affective disorder, a form of depression that is linked to the shorter daylight during the winter months.
This year, Golden will focus on Zurich’s incoming graduates with programmes that she hopes will help them make the adjustment to corporate life. “Every policy we sell, every good story that encourages another person to come and work for Zurich, all start and end here,” she says. “Our people are our only competitive advantage — I don’t care what anyone else has to say on that, because everything else can be replicated.”
The health and safety manager
Promoting wellbeing at a charity focused on health is not always easy when staff are under pressure to set a positive example.
Sophie Millett, health, safety and wellbeing manager of Cancer Research UK, enjoys a luxury that is unusual in workplaces: staff are already highly engaged with their employer’s health and wellbeing agenda. But this places other pressures on her role, which is to promote this agenda, writes Hannah Murphy. The 4,000-strong non-profit group has an important public image to uphold: it cannot be seen to be squandering funds on staff.
“Obviously it’s a charity,” says Millett. “We have to be very careful how we spend money, because we have to make sure we give as much money as possible to the cause.” There is extra pressure on the organisation’s staff to set a positive example to the public — smoking, for example, while wearing anything with a Cancer Research UK logo. “That would be a brand problem,” says Millett.
The charity’s stated aim is that by 2034 three in four people in the UK will survive cancer for 10 years or more. Today, that number is closer to one in two.
In its 2017-18 financial year, the charity posted £634m in revenue, largely through legacies and donations, and sales at its 600 or so shops, which are managed by paid staff and volunteers. The bulk of its income is then typically spent on research at laboratories and partnerships across the UK, as well as on running its shops.
Based in London, Millett has spent the past year pulling together a formal wellbeing strategy to present to the charity’s board and trustees. In the meantime, she has started some initiatives in the hope of achieving “quick wins”, although she has had to manage this with little to no extra funding.
“It’s been a lot about being efficient and creative with what we have,” she says. This has included making use of free resources provided by the government or charities such as the Samaritans. But it has also meant promoting initiatives such as Cancer Research UK’s staff choirs and the small garden at its headquarters where employees can tend to allotments — both perks that can be run cheaply but help to bring a sense of community.
In future, Millett hopes her team can continue to tap the wealth of in-house expertise in the charity around healthy eating, exercise and smoking: Cancer Research UK has several nurses and other health advocates who have been trained to spread cancer awareness messages to the public. “We could maximise on that resource,” she says.
Top of Millett’s priorities has been establishing what support the charity already offers and ensuring that staff are aware that it exists. “There’s a surprising amount of things that are available, but it’s all piecemeal,” she says.
This has involved building a “one-stop shop” website on the charity’s intranet to promote events or resources related to physical, mental and financial health. The portal also flags existing benefits and incentive schemes, such as gym membership discounts and the cycle to work scheme (a government initiative in which staff are loaned cycles by employers as a tax-free benefit).
But the scale of the charity — with eight regional offices, laboratories, warehouses, 600 shops and a big London headquarters — has thrown up challenges.
“The biggest friction is trying to include everyone,” says Millett. “It’s easier to do initiatives in the London office, where there are 1,000-plus staff. But trying to include shop-based staff, staff based at home, staff based where there are small teams is [hard].”
The inspirational employee
Training for a 100km run reversed years of inactivity and poor diet and encouraged others to improve their fitness
Paul Scullion freely admits he used to live a sedentary life with little exercise, lots of alcohol and plenty of late-night takeaway food, writes Sarah Provan. The head of business intelligence at Dixons Carphone, an electronics and phone retailer, had tried to turn things round in the past, especially after his mother was diagnosed with bowel cancer in 2008.
But after a couple of half marathons, which he describes as “a huge distance for me at the time”, he says he soon became discouraged. By 2015 his lifestyle had exacted a toll on his health, he says. He was not only overweight, he was unfit.
Then his employer decided to sponsor a 100km race called Race to the Stones that would finish at the ancient stone circle at Avebury in southern England. The company announced it was seeking volunteers from its staff who would receive coaching and encouragement to finish the race.
“I had no plan, but I thought maybe a bit of training would get me out of the doldrums,” says Scullion, and he put his name forward. He was selected to join a core group of 12 employees who would train together for the ultra-marathon and become ambassadors for the company’s wellbeing programme.
“We were a mix of age, gender and size,” says Scullion, now 41, adding that the only thing they had in common was the drive “to do something amazing”.
of male UK employees are physically inactive
The company had hired Rory Coleman, a Guinness world record holder in endurance running who has completed more than 1,000 marathons, to coach and mentor them. “I was doing about 35,000 steps a day,” says Scullion, pointing out that the total he was clocking up in running and walking was more than triple the widely accepted figure of 10,000 steps per day to improve fitness.
“I chose to do it nonstop,” said Scullion, who had never run a marathon before, let alone an ultra-marathon. “And that set me down a particular training path.”
He went on a weight-loss, protein-rich diet, attempting to ensure it also included no carbohydrates, sugar or alcohol. “The less heavy you are, the less weight you have to carry round,” he points out.
Scullion also made simple changes to his routine, eschewing public transport to walk the hour each way to and from work. The work gym became a daily lunchtime ritual, while evenings were dedicated to outdoor runs. “A lot of what I learnt in those 12 weeks has changed who I am,” Scullion says.
of female UK employees are physically inactive
The Average-to-Awesome group, as the 12 became known at the company, were issued with Fitbit fitness trackers and would gather for themed sessions, devised by Coleman, that included advice on lifestyle and diet.
On the day of the race, Scullion says he felt energised: “Getting to the start line felt like a massive journey in itself. We had really achieved something.” But having completed the race in just under 14 hours, he says he felt “elated” to cross the finish line.
Scullion has become a mentor for other employees who want to improve their fitness and wellbeing.
“My social network has changed: from drinkers to runners,” he says, adding that he is training for the London marathon next year. “It has been a complete lifestyle change. I see it as who I am.”
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