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Being Self Reliant

I think it is a truism of us British that we are not at our best when things are going really well but put us in a situation where our collective backs are against the wall – and you tend to see the best of us. Call it the ‘Dunkirk or Blitz Spirit’ but when things get tough we knuckle down and get on with it.

That is no less true than through the last 9 months or so of the pandemic where things have been pretty grim you would have to say, but I have been hugely impressed by one common feature that tends to be overlooked by the media and perhaps society as a whole. That is how impressively so many people have responded to how things have been and the resurgence of a trait that we seem to have forgotten about -that of self-reliance.

During the pandemic over 13,000 new businesses have so far been created and there are now over 5 million people who are self employed (15% of the working population), and I have been impressed by the numbers of people who have used the pandemic to good effect as it has allowed them to reflect on what it is they want to do in life.

I know people who for example were laid off working in the hospitality industry who then decided that they would set up a home cooked delivery service and with the help of friends, family, and social media, they have turned it into a business that supports them. Another person was furloughed from work and during that time he decided he wanted to do something that was a passion for him which was to run a smoked salmon business- the time on furlough had allowed him to really think what he wanted to do in his life.

Other people have discovered during the lockdown that they have skills they didn’t know they had and have used them to set up new businesses – they have ranged from running a chocolate factory in their own kitchen, running a floristry service, making and selling hand jewellery, sewing and selling the all-important face masks, to more sophisticated things such as running a ‘virtual gig’ service for people. The list appears endless!

A number of people have found that they can be self sufficient without having any obvious academic qualifications, employment record or life skills- I know of people who have during this period become ‘ebayers’ – they started out by selling on the website eBay things they did not need such as DVDs, books or clothes and then realised that they can make a business of it by buying say DVDs for as little as 25p at charity shops and selling them for 10 or 20 times that online. Others have changed careers by being couriers for the likes of Amazon  or DHL- I even know someone not that far away who makes money delivering copies of the free magazines and leaflets put through our letterboxes- all they need for that is a bit of mobility (and shoe leather).

In a way these are examples of the old saying that “necessity is the mother of invention”- without the pandemic a number of the above people may, I suspect, have just continued doing what they did before, working for someone perhaps in a job they may not have really liked. If there is a positive side to COVID-19 it may be that it has encouraged some people to rethink their lives and what they want out of it. I am aware of a number of mothers for example, who are now running such enterprises from home without the need to find childcare for their family.

When I have spoken to those who have started these businesses they have talked about the new confidence they have in taking more control over their lives, of the attraction of working for themselves and the hours that they want- and how their quality of life has improved as a result.

Now not everyone of course may have the inclination or drive to change course in their lives, but I think life presents opportunities to us in these difficult times and sometimes through real adversity comes opportunities to ‘reset’ our lives, to think what is it that we want to achieve and what are our real passions and gifts are for.

Workplace Wellbeing & Stress - How to deal with resistance

With just a couple of days to go to the Workplace Wellbeing & Stress Summit 2012, one of the critical elements of moving people from Stress to Employee Wellbeing is how to deal with the various challenges and obstacles that you will invariably come up against in delivering a wellbeing project. In this blog, I am outlining what these are liable to be and how best to address them.

Having understood the financial and business costs of sick absence in your organisation, and after the skilful use of HR information, data and statistics to hopefully secure buy-in from your senior management and stakeholders, it is time to deliver- implementation can be the most demanding and trickiest aspect of your whole project.

But why? Often it is resistance from staff, managers and trade unions who are worried and reluctant for the changes that will be needed to change peoples’ behaviours in order to have a healthy workplace. These challenges and attitudes need to be empathised with, understood and addressed if your project is to be a success. The particular issues you may face in delivering the project will largely depend on your strategy for improvement- is it focussing on improving the lifestyles of individuals?, is it to provide more occupational health support?, will it involve more hands on management of absent staff etc? However the major  challenges and obstacles that you are likely to come up against tend to fall into 3 specific areas:

Staff concerns

Staff themselves may be apprehensive that a wellbeing plan may just be management ‘code’ to herald in a tougher approach to absence management and that the aim of the project is to take firm management action if people are off sick and this perception can put the workforce on the defensive about the project. It is important for you to explain to employees from the very beginning that the aim is to have a healthy workforce and the steps to bring about that. It means understanding peoples ‘concerns- if for example, one of the initiatives is to have mandated return to work interviews then the form of the meetings will need to be laid out. If more occupational health support is to be provided, again you need to communicate what service will be available, how to access it and the improved outcomes that are expected from that.

Where for example a tougher approach to attendance management is being called for then the reasons for that need to be made clear so that people are aware of the scale of the issue and the proportionate response to that so that people can feel engaged in the process;

Often, your strategy will involve encourage people to take more control of their own physical and mental health.  People may be cynical about this so it will be important to explain what people can do to improve their health – eating healthier (get their ‘5 a day’), taking more exercise, taking breaks from concentrated periods of work etc. Often the key here is to illustrate to people the advantages of becoming healthier in terms of the benefits to them, as that tends to be more effective in allowing people to change.

Management concerns

Managers can be concerned that the strategy will either lead to a more ‘relaxed’ approach to absence management (‘pink and fluffy’) or that they will need to take firmer action (‘getting tough’). The approach that is to be adopted needs to be laid out and again spell out the advantages of the new system so they can see why they need to change and what is required of them at all levels.

The changed needed may take various forms. It may be the managers will need to be more pro-active in managing absence from their teams. For example, return to work interviews may be mandated, managers may need to enquire more about reasons for someone’s absence without intruding into private matters and that skill may be something that needs to be developed in people, so learning and development might need to be addressed in the organisation.

Managers may also be concerned about the extra time or resources that might be needed to implement the strategy- this needs to be explained and how it can be managed so that engagement is strong.

Trade Union Concerns

If there are active trade unions in your organisation, you will need to engage with them so that you can address concerns they may have. Like the staff they represent, they are likely to focus on what it means to how absences are managed in future. They may be hostile to such an approach fearing a more ruthless management approach, but hopefully you will have consulted with them at an early stage in the wellbeing strategy process so that what is going to happen should not be a surprise to them. Expect though to deal with concerns about whether their members are likely to be more firmly managed through absences and you are likely to have to highlight the advantages to them and their members of having more progressive wellbeing initiatives in place and to have a healthier workplace.

In my next blog, I will finish this series by talking about how to evaluate the wellbeing process and increasing employee engagement.

Workplace Wellbeing & Stress - understanding the cost

Continuing my theme ahead of the Workplace Wellbeing & Stress Summit, in my previous blog I outlined the importance of understanding the financial and business costs of sick absence within your organisation and the various ways that they can be measured. Now that information together with other relevant data and statistics are  powerful tools to allow you to get that all important buy-in to  your  project to improve employee wellbeing.

But where do you start? ‘buy-in’ comes in various forms because you need to get your senior management, line managers, employees, trades unions and other stakeholders engaged so that they are fully supportive of the project and its aims. You will probably find that you will need to vary your approach depending on your audience e.g. a management board are likely to be interested in how much money can be saved by reducing absence whilst Trades Union representatives are liable to be more concerned about line managers taking firmer action against their members who have been off sick for long periods

The most critical step tends to be to get support (and funding!) from senior management in your organisation- that may take the form of a Board of Directors in the private sector , a Management Board more or likely in the public, or in smaller structures it may be the owners themselves.

Hopefully as a HR professional, you will have a place or at least be represented on that Board but it may be that you will need to seek an invitation to address them to highlight the impact of sick absence and poor wellbeing on the organisation.

Having hopefully secured that invitation you may not be given long to raise the issue, to get their attention and their commitment to the project. So it is critical that you harness the information that you have to support your case. For the senior players in the organisation you need to outline the impact absence is having on the business. This should include the following key areas:

Level of absence

This needs to layout the amount of days lost through absence, broken down into distinct areas of the business- this may simply be by the various departments in the structure (e.g. Production Team, Finance, Sales & Marketing, HR etc). A further breakdown by geographical location, grade/appointment and nature of absences may be necessary if there are differences dependent on where people work, what their job role is and the nature of illnesses that people are absent for;

Cost of absence

This is often the ‘bottom line’ data that senior management seek – what are these absences costing the company or authority/agency? You will need to highlight this both in terms of direct cost (i.e. the cost of sick pay and any additional (overtime or agency staff) costs) and the impact on profitability or the level of services provided. How much has production of goods or services been affected, how have profits been reduced, what business has been lost, what has been the impact on clients and customers etc?;

The Strategy

Having outlined the scale and impact of the current poor wellbeing and absences, so management can understand how the organisation is being affected (the ‘problem’ if you like), you then need to outline what can be done to improve matters- this needs to include the creation of a wellbeing strategy i.e. a policy programme to understand the reasons for the sick absence and to address them to improve employee wellbeing, to bring people back to work,  and to create an environment where sick absence is reduced. This is usually the most difficult aspect of securing ‘buy-in’, because you need to a) flesh out what the solution to the absence management challenge is, b) its cost and c) what you want the Board to do to make it happen;

The Commitment

Here you need to produce an analysis of the wellbeing programme you are seeking agreement of. Having worked out what you need to do to improve the level of sick absence and improve wellbeing, you need to lay out those plans in some detail and have them fully costed. In particular you need to be able to answer a couple of questions that senior management are bound to want addressing: a) what are the specific initiatives that you are going to introduce? b) what benefits will it bring? and c) what will it cost? These are things that you need to have resolved either yourself or within your HR grouping and team. Here it is vital that what you propose must have a track record (or at least a very strong likelihood of success) of working  in other similar organisations or industry so an assessment of its success can be  made, that you can demonstrate how you would run the project and be clear about the scale of the financial and resource investment needed and the benefit (i.e. the savings in terms of a reduced level in staff  absence, to the staff budget and an increase in productivity/lower running costs etc)

In my next blog leading up to the Workplace Wellbeing and Stress Summit 2012, I will look at how you can address the challenges and obstacles you can face during implementation of your project

Workplace Wellbeing & Stress - the need to assess

I am due to give  a talk at the 8th Annual Workplace Wellbeing & Stress Summit 2012 to be held on 15th November at Canary Wharf, London and it’s a pretty obvious point but any serious discussion on addressing sick absence to improve employee wellbeing often focus on the topic of ‘measurement’- how as an employer will you know if you have a sick absence ‘problem’ or challenge? How will you be able to work out if management of absence has worked or not?, what will ‘success’ and ‘failure’ look like? In short, how can you measure the amount of absence in your organisation and what impact is it and will it have on your business?

These are all critical issues to look at if you are to address absence management. I think you have to go back to first principles and ask yourself why is there a need to measure in the first place? There is the old management mantra which goes along the lines of “you can’t manage what you can’t measure”. That is to say, that if you don’t know how well or badly something is doing, then you can’t influence it. This is still sound stuff today and an important element of being a wellbeing  or absence management practioner is how you are going to measure the historical and current level of absence to establish the degree of the problem and how you will manage any project to manage or improve it.

To begin with though you do need to understand what the financial and business costs are to your organisation of sick absence- what kind of impact is it having on resources? How is it impacting on the ‘bottom line’ if you are a ‘For Profit’ organisation or if you are in the public sector how does it affect the services you are providing?

There are various forms of ‘costs’ but usually the two most significant are a) the financial cost and b) the Impact on business and the two are not necessarily the same. So, let’s look at these costs:

What’s the financial cost?

This is often seen as the most important cost. The cost to the employer of an employee being sick depends very much on what kind of sick pay arrangements apply. In the Civil Service for example,  people are on full pay for the first six months of sick absence, whilst with a range of private employers entitlement to sick pay is often restricted to those who have been with the company for a minimum amount of time and can be limited to a total of 3 months or less in a year. Some organisations do not offer any company sick pay with employees being paid Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) only.

But it is important to establish what the direct cost of someone’s absence is . Through one HR management IT tool or another you need to work out the total absence taken by people and its cost. Typically a good quality system will work out total absence over a reporting year for example and divide that by the number of employees to give an ‘average’ level of absence per employee. If say, you employee 100 people and total absence in the last 12 months was 500 days, then that would work out at each employee on average taking 5 days absence a year. Let’s say that the average pay cost for each person is £20,000, then 5 days absence would cost around £420 per person or £42,000 for all of employees. That would amount to around 2% of your pay bill but If you have a turnover of say £500,000 then the sick pay cost is around 8% -not insubstantial. But there are other costs too . Whilst you may be paying for someone who is sick, what about the work that needs to be done in their absence? You might be paying overtime for someone to carry out their work or even engage a temporary member of staff through an Agency. These other costs can soon ramp up and be a serious burden on the organisation.

The Business Impact?

There are other costs to an organisation – some of whom are often hidden. Financial costs can be established –even crudely – from a decent spread sheet or IT model, but the impact of employee absence on profits or/and the services you provide can often be harder to determine.

If people are off sick, whether long term or through regular absences, then who does their job when they are not there? If you take the view that you cannot afford to replace them temporarily or be able to re-assign other individuals to carry out their task, it will mean that certain things may not be done. Sales may not happen, invoices may not be raised, front line services may not be provided which can lead to customer dissatisfaction, the bottom line of a company can be adversely impacted and for a public sector organisation there can be political and reputational damage.

There is also the ‘opportunity cost’ i.e. if someone is off sick and their absence is causing a problem then as an employer you need to address that issue. That may involve a line manager having to seek advice from HR on how to deal with the absences or for having to engage a HR services company to deal with protracted and longer term and damaging absences. This all takes time and whist that manager is trying to manage the person and their absence, they are probably not delivering the profits or services an employer seeks- these are the kind of hidden costs that you need to be aware of and look at how to capture them.

In my next blog leading up to the Workplace Wellbeing and Stress Summit 2012, I will look at how you can use HR information, statistics and data to ensure ‘buy in’ from management.