Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Changing culture of occupational health and wellness

How does leadership and culture influence employee health and wellness and should OHS professionals be focusing more on culture change or implementing interventions?

A 2013 Wellness in the Workplace survey report, commissioned by The Southern Cross Health Society, Gallagher Bassett and BusinessNZ investigated the link between wellness and absence and the associated cost to business.

It identified that 'While prior research has examined some of the issues discussed, there has been no previous attempt to combine the quantitative aspects of absence with those relating to its costs and drivers and the wellness and wellbeing of employees'.

Key messages were that:
  • Employee absenteeism does indeed cost the New Zealand economy considerably
  • Despite New Zealand’s favourable showing compared with a similar UK survey, areas remain where New Zealand businesses can improve
  • Any gains to the national economy require changes from both the public and private sector, but that there are more clear areas where the public sector could do better
Why will this be increasingly important into the future?
  • Firstly the report identifies that with an improving economy, New Zealand’s long-term problem of hiring suitable staff with the right skill sets will become more acute.
  • Secondly, the report reminds us about the looming reality of an aging workforce, highlighting that only 12.5% of business have policies or arrangements in place to attract and support older workers e.g. (reduced hours of work, working time flexibility, lighter duties or a degree of focus on transition to retirement).
So, what is the problem with absence for organisations?  In short absence impacts on business in many ways and ultimately affects both revenues and profits.  The report identified that the direct costs of absence alone amounted to NZ$1.26b across the New Zealand economy in 2012.  In day to day figures, the average absence level per employee is 4.5 days per year.  As a result the average (median) absent employee in 2012 typically cost an organisation in New Zealand NZ$837 a year which is a considerable amount for a singe person.  In comparison and on a positive note this is about half the cost that is currently being attributed to absence in the UK.

So what are the primary causes of absense in New Zealand?  There were differences for manual vs non-manual employees which I won't discuss in this blog, but interestingly the most widespread drivers identified by far were not directly work related:
  • non-work related illness and injury, followed by 
  • Caring for a family member/dependent due to illness/injury
But even if they're not directly work related, they may still be indirectly work related.  This was indeed the overwhelming consensus of the survey respondents (as shown in the reproduced 'Figure 11' below).
The report identified that people overwhelmingly believed that the most effective options for managing absence levels was to improve employee engagement - a culture and leadership orientated solution.  In addition, then next most effective solution identified were a policy and procedure based interventions of flexible working arrangements and line managers taking primary responsibility for managing absence.  These are very 'work' related and workplace culture orientated suggestions for non-work related problems. 

Its important to then acknowledge that direct occupational health and wellness initiatives do also figure prominently,  including return to work plans, training and support for managers on managing absence and health & wellbeing programs.

But it does beg the question what should HR and OHS leaders focus on to improve absenteeism within our organisations?  In my opinion it depends upon a number of factors relating to our situation including our role and position within the organisation, the current culture within the organisation and indeed the size and type of the organisation.  In addition our own skill, experience and aims are important too.

The reasons for this are whilst culture change and group engagement might be the the most effective solution, they may also be the the hardest to achieve and while various health and wellbeing initiatives may be less effective they may be the things that we have use to have the most influence in our current situation.

Culture change requires a commitment to change that must come from the leaders within an organisation.  So lets consider, for example that maybe you are not currently a leader, but that you have strong aspirations that you carry out in a powerful way to indeed make a considerable difference in how engaged people around the work they do and how the organisation operates.  Even if you are totally committed and use your skills and abilities wisely to become a successful influencer it takes time!  In a small organisation you typically have to influence a business owner who has final say.

In a large organisation, there are many layers of power and politics to work through to influence the culture and work on improving engagement on a large scale, unless you are employed in a leadership position and can have direct influence.

When we consider policy and procedural changes to general working arrangements like 'flexible work hours' and line managers taking responsibility for managing absence.  These are general HR interventions that require firstly engagement with the HR leaders and secondly a strong line manager engagement to ensure that any newly implemented policies do indeed become widely followed procedures.

There are many organisations where policies are not 'living' and are disconnected from the real day-to-day procedures people follow.  If an organisation is going through major change, downsizing, upsizing or merging it will influence whether it is timely attempt to implement or update policies. 

Finally, when we consider direct wellness interventions its important that the intervention is appropriate for the individuals or the group that it is being provided to.  This might sound quite straight forward, but I have been in many a conversation with program coordinators implementing occupational health and wellness initiatives because they like the sound of them, without actively and rigorously identifying he needs of the group.

The Wellness in the Workplace survey report identified the biggest reasons for absence were
  • non-work related illness and injury, followed by 
  • Caring for a family member/dependent due to illness/injury.
But the details around these factors will vary from industry to industry and from workplace to workplace.  As we have also seen, the root causes might not be what we think once we scratch the surface.  So we need to carefully identify what team members would want addressed within a wellness program.  From there we also need to address how best to address it and what types of interventions would best suit peoples practical situation.  As a very simple example would seminars be useful for people who are out driving all the time or would webinars be more useful or should a team of pipelayers be sent an email or given a handout card at a toolbox talk?  Different resources will have different impact.       

Interestingly the most effective wellness programs have strong elements of 'engagement' and 'culture change' built in, for example:
  • Team members are engaged to identify needs
  • Team members are recruited to create a network of champions/influencers
  • Programs are linked to business strategy and core values
  • Senior leaders are recruited to promote the program
In summary, there are a number of elements to consider when aiming to address absence and associated wellness related factors in the workplace.  Its important to realise that issues that appear one way on the surface, may actually have deeper root causes.  As such the best actions can sometimes involve service related interventions or at other times policy and procedural changes.  In addition its important to find solutions not only that address the specific needs of the people they are intended for but also that you are able to carry out most effectively considering the political, cultural and financial situation of your organisation.

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