A novel approach to staff wellbeing has helped the Grimsby Institute of Further and Higher Education slash sickness absence, says Debbie Lovewell
Few people will ever encounter an employer that encourages them to drive a car while blindfolded, relying only on a colleague for directions. But for staff at the Grimsby Institute of Further and Higher Education, this was just one of the activities on offer during an end-of-term fun day in June, designed to promote the benefits of activity, and, which, in some cases, also assisted teambuilding.
During the half-day event, staff were also invited to try their hand at archery and Laser Quest. Peter Barnard, registrar at the institute, says: “We wanted to do some things that didn’t call for sporting prowess.”
Promoting health and wellbeing is a high priority at the institute, which offers a wide range of initiatives designed to help prevent sickness absence by ensuring employees remain fit and healthy.
Historically, sickness absence has been a significant problem for the organisation. In 2001, it lost 10,000 working days among its then 1,000-strong workforce. Barnard says it has since put a great deal of effort into reducing sickness absence levels and transforming the culture.
Despite an increase in staff to more than 1,350, the total number of days lost fell to 4,266 for the 2006/7 academic year – equivalent to 3.23 days per employee. “What we’ve managed to achieve since 2001, any organisation would be proud of,” says Barnard.
The institute’s success in this area was recognised at this year’s Employee Benefits Awards, at which it won the award for the ‘Most effective sickness absence management strategy’ and was also named overall ‘Grand Prix’ winner.
But tackling absence is not always a straightforward process, says Barnard. The institute initially identified musculo-skeletal disorders as a significant cause of absence, and then took steps to communicate its physiotherapy benefits to staff to help tackle this. However, while absence levels for 2005/6 fell overall, during the same period, stress-related absences increased.
These were often found to be linked to disciplinary proceedings and resulted in the institute changing its policy to prevent the payment of occupational sick pay in the event of an employee (unless disabled) going absent through sickness while disciplinary action was looming. Other measures to tackle stress-related absence, such as line management training and a telephone-based employee assistance programme (EAP) to supplement existing face-to-face counselling, were also introduced last year.
This hard-nosed approach to employee absence has also been transmitted to the management of other elements of the organisation’s benefits package. Staff with a high level of absence, for example, will not receive funding to further their qualifications. “We decided we would include an employee’s sickness absence record as a criterion for when people apply to do expensive staff training,” says Barnard.
On the flip side, staff who do not take any time off sick over the year will receive a letter from the institute thanking them for their attendance. These employees, who last year numbered 465, also receive a voucher for £10 worth of in-house services, an initiative introduced following employee feedback.
To keep abreast of sickness absence levels, Barnard’s team analyses the statistics each week and decides what action, if any, needs to be taken. Barnard says the institute is keen to identify cases where it can offer assistance to help employees return to work as early as possible. “Then you’ve got a real go at putting a structured plan in place. We aim to keep people at work wherever we can,” he adds.
What comes next depends on individual circumstances, but the institute will do whatever it considers appropriate to help staff return to work. Barnard says this might involve paying for taxis to and from work, giving an employee a month’s free gym membership to help overcome musculo-skeletal problems, or funding a private MRI scan.
But the institute’s health and wellbeing strategy goes much further than simply tackling sickness absence once it occurs. It also includes initiatives and perks that help prevent sickness. Barnard is a great advocate of “looking after your health”, which he believes impacts on employees’ mental as well as physical wellbeing.
All employees are entitled to half-price gym membership, and can choose to take part in activities such as running clubs and organised walks.
Prepared to try almost anything once, Barnard also introduced an on-site ‘well man’ clinic, run by the local primary care trust, during the last academic year. His initial reservations about the popularity of the perk were dispelled when staff took up all but three of the 93 places available during its three-month free trial.
Barnard says the benefits package was originally introduced to help the institute differentiate itself from other local employers, particularly as it cannot always compete on pay. “We have to work quite hard to attract people and put together an offer to make them stay,” he adds.
This has been made more difficult by a trend among the institute’s teaching staff to move towards schools, which typically offer better pay and holidays. Likewise, non-teaching staff may leave to go to a local authority if the rate of pay is greater.
To ensure the institute remains competitive and staff stay in the best of health, Barnard is constantly looking to introduce new initiatives. “We try all sorts of things out. If they don’t work, we ditch them. Have a vision, have passion, implement it, then review it,” he says.
Encouraging staff to eat more healthily is one such initiative that has been introduced in the past year. After a staff survey revealed 20 percent of employees did not eat breakfast, the institute decided to open its on-site canteen 30 minutes earlier each day to sell breakfast items. Since December last year, about 10,000 sales have been made in this time slot.
To encourage staff to eat more fruit, a trolley round was introduced at the organisation’s main site in April. Laden with items of fruit costing just 20p, the trolley is taken round by some of the institute’s special needs students each day, giving them retail experience. Barnard says the scheme will be extended to some of the institute’s other sites next year, and a fixed point of sale will be introduced on the main campus.
Many ideas for perks have stemmed from staff suggestions, so each term, employees are asked to comment on their benefits. A chiropody service and ‘well woman’-style programme have been introduced at employees’ request, for example. “I value the contribution people make in ideas. It’s all about employee engagement,” says Barnard.
Despite the wide range of initiatives on offer, the Grimsby Institute is bound by tight budgetary constraints, which mean many of the projects must be self-funding. The £8,000 cost of a physiotherapist, for example, was more than covered by the £10,000 that was saved as a direct result of reduced absenteeism from musculo-skeletal problems over just one year.
Barnard says the institute also seeks funding for certain initiatives from external sources, such as the Learning and Skills Council, and primary care trusts, if appropriate. “Unashamedly, we ask [for funding]. It is interesting [what] you can get money for,” he says.
More unusually, the institute also secures funding from benefits providers. Jardine Lloyd Thompson, for example, is sponsoring production of its annual staff diary this year.
To maximise the effectiveness of its health and wellbeing strategy and make full use of its in-house resources and expertise, the institute brings together representatives from a number of its departments, including HR, catering and gym personnel.
With even more initiatives due to be introduced in the coming months, Barnard is willing to remain open-minded when it comes to learning from actions taken by other employers. He also believes strongly in the value of letting other organisations know about the lessons learned at Grimsby EB
Peter Barnard, registrar at Grimsby Institute of Further and Higher Education, entered the HR field fresh out of university, when he joined British Coal. During his time there, Barnard held a number of HR management and line management roles, working across a variety of locations.
In 1992, he left British Coal to move into the education sector, joining Huddersfield Polytechnic, which subsequently became Huddersfield University. “It was a great introduction to the world of education,” he says.
Two years later, Barnard was on the move again when he became HR manager at Hull University, where he helped to set up a healthcare scheme.
Barnard joined the Grimsby Institute of Further and Higher Education in 1999, initially as HR director and a member of the organisation’s senior management team.
He is now responsible for a wide range of functions, including HR, equality and diversity. He is in the process of relinquishing his company secretarial role and taking on responsibility for student services, along with overseeing the on-site sports facilities and bar. “It’s an interesting set of responsibilities, which do come together,” he says.
Barnard cites his work involving health and wellbeing over the past nine years as being among his career highlights, particularly as this year’s Employee Benefits Awards saw the institute carry off both the overall ‘Grand Prix’ title and the award for ‘Most effective sickness absence management strategy’.
Grimsby Institute of Further and Higher Education… at a glance
The Grimsby Institute of Further and Higher Education came into existence about 65 years ago under another name. The provider of education for over-16s operates mainly at 17 sites in north-east Lincolnshire, as well as in other locations in the UK and abroad. Its 1,400-strong workforce is split equally between teaching and support staff, and two-thirds of its employees are male.
Historically, the organisation has had a significant problem with sickness absence, which it has tackled successfully by adopting a hard-nosed approach. Its efforts were recognised at this year’s Employee Benefits Awards, where it picked up the award for ‘Most effective sickness absence strategy’, as well as the ‘Grand Prix’ title for the overall winner. In the academic year 2006/7, the organisation’s turnover was about £43-44 million, with a surplus of £1.5m. Over the next three years, the institute is planning a £120 million redevelopment project that will see its main site rebuilt.
Peter Barnard, registrar, says: “We are trying to equip [the institute] with a set of buildings and infrastructure for learning that will set us up for the next 50 years.”
What are the benefits?
There are several final salary pension arrangements on offer, including the teachers’ pension and local government pension scheme.
- A range of local and national discounts on products and services, including local sporting facilities and attractions.
- Childcare vouchers.
Available after every five years of service. Awards range from a certificate after five years’ service to a dinner and European weekend break for employees and their partners after 20 years.
Past awards, which are given at Christmas, have included retail vouchers, a week’s salary and hampers.
- Subsidised private medical insurance scheme with a 60 percent employer contribution.
- Dental care, optical care and healthcare cash plan available through voluntary benefits scheme.
- Wide range of wellbeing services, including half-price gym membership at the on-site facility.
Employee case study
Joanna Parrott, a learning tutor in science and health, has worked for the Grimsby Institute for 24 years. As well as teaching and learning in higher education care, she is also programme leader for the foundation degree in rehabilitation.
Parrott places particular value on the range of wellbeing services the institute provides, particularly those that enable staff to combine the pursuit of a healthy lifestyle with relaxation during the working day. These include on-site catering facilities that offer staff home-made, student-produced meals such as soups and juices, a salad bar, and a coffee bar. “[These offer staff the chance to pursue] a healthy lifestyle while at work, combined with time-out relaxation from the office and pleasant spaces to meet friends and colleagues from your own and other departments. Work is also often discussed in these areas in a relaxed and useful manner,” she says.