Case Study: Herts Council's 'Transformation' programme slashes sickness absence

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Hertfordshire County Council provides local services to more than a million people in the area and employs around 34,000 staff, of whom about 24,000 work in schools.

Last year, it introduced a ‘Transformation’ programme - a new and radically different wellbeing strategy, aimed at reducing sickness absence and improving organisational performance.  And, while it is still early days, the scheme is already showing its worth. Before it was introduced, overall annual absence figures averaged 9.3 days per employee - and were rising at an alarming rate. By October this year, however, levels had dropped to just 7.8 days per head.  The improvement in terms of long-term absence was even more dramatic, with the number of people off work for more than 100 days falling by two thirds.  We asked Louise Tibbert, head of HR and organisational development, how the Council did it and what tips she could offer to ensure success: 

  1. Senior buy-in: Support at the most senior level gives a strategy sufficient importance in the eyes of other managers and provides them with an incentive to implement it effectively. That senior level endorsement then makes it easier to take an holistic approach to wellbeing by incorporating it into existing policies and procedures.
  2. Educate managers: Develop managers’ skills so that they understand how critical staff wellbeing is to the effectiveness of the business. Such education helps them to take a proactive approach towards employee wellbeing and to deal with difficult absence cases more effectively.
  3. Engage with stakeholders: When developing a strategy, engage with employee groups, unions and occupational health professionals. We also work in partnership with external service providers, organisations and agencies such as the NHS to deliver change and obtain help with delivering the wellbeing programme’s aims and priorities.
  4. Target at-risk groups: Ensure you have efficient and effective absence management monitoring processes to identify and address absence issues from an early stage. Monitoring showed us that the biggest reason for long-term absence was musculoskeletal problems. So we targeted groups of employees at particular risk such as warehouse staff, drivers and attendants. Here, we identified absent individuals with potentially long-term problems and fast-tracked them through the occupational health system.
  5. Effective communication: Communication is critical to engaging staff with the wellbeing agenda. We started a campaign that identified three main areas of focus - staying active, healthy eating and mental wellbeing – and we simplified the message to ‘just change one thing’.
  6. Strike the right note: Tone is important - don't patronise people or take a paternal tone. Instead, try to make the communication a two-way thing wherever possible and engage in conversation rather than ‘telling’ someone what to do.
  7. Collaborate with others: We have reinforced our messages by publicising our wellbeing strategy in conjunction with national health campaigns such as the ‘Know your Numbers’ initiative from the British Heart Foundation and the ‘Give up Smoking’ campaign run by the NHS. Sometimes, you just needed to raise awareness of support that’s already available.

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