Tackling sickness absence at National Grid

Man stretching at desk
27 Nov 2017
Sarah Clarke

Tackling sickness absence at National Grid

This post, written by C3’s Ina Andersson, is based on a piece of work carried out by C3 for The Health Foundation in 2016, creating case studies showcasing workplace health initiatives across a range of companies and organisations. We’ll be sharing these case studies through our blog.


 

Introduction

National Grid launched its initial wellbeing strategy in 2008, focusing on occupational health risk management, education, engagement in wellbeing programmes particularly focused on physical wellbeing and weight management. These initial programmes provided a range of staff health information that was then used to inform future programmes and target and manage health and wellbeing more effectively. In 2012 a fresh strategy was agreed with the company Board. This focused on three broad public health challenges: cardiovascular disease, cancer and type 2 diabetes. It also involved a focus upon the two main reasons for absence and underperformance in the company: mental wellbeing and musculoskeletal disorders.

 

Why?

In 2008, National Grid identified that the main causes of sickness absence among its employees were musculoskeletal and mental-health issues. Staff sickness absence was costing the company £30.9 million a year globally – a strong motivation to improve staff overall health and wellbeing. National Grid was also interested in improving employee engagement and motivation and, in return, to see a reduction in the business costs associated with staff ill-health.

 

What?

National Grid implemented a wellbeing strategy from 2008, focusing on increasing employee engagement in health and wellbeing programmes. The strategy had three aims: to engage employees through education and encouraging personal ownership of health and wellbeing; address business issues through specialist support programmes; and to use processes and outputs from the programmes to enable the business to target and manage health and wellbeing. In 2012, a new strategy was established focusing on educating and supporting employees on three broad areas of public health: cardiovascular disease, cancer and type 2 diabetes.

 

Where?

All National Grid business locations across the UK.

 

Who?

All UK staff, both office-based and remote, field-based workforce – a total of 9,900 employees.

 

When?

One strategy from 2008 to 2011, and then another strategy from 2012 to 2017.

 

How?

In 2008, National Grid held several workshops to establish what different groups of employees would like and expect to see in a workplace health and wellbeing strategy – ensuring employee engagement and ownership of the strategy from the start. The involvement of senior management was recognised as essential and was achieved by the CEO replacing the health and safety policy with a safety and wellbeing policy, wellbeing workshops being held for managers, as well as senior management being responsible for funding and supporting specific business units’ wellbeing initiatives. Levels of engagement and outcomes are recorded and reported back to managers.

National Grid appointed Wellbeing Champions across the company, supported by an annual conference at which health interventions at specific business units could be highlighted. A network of 35 Wellbeing Champions developed bespoke national health programmes for local use, agreed with line managers. The company also provided onsite health-checking facilities in the form of health kiosks across all its sites, and used mobile vehicles to deliver health screenings to field-based employees. The health-kiosk data provided National Grid with an outline of its employees’ overall health and the health challenges they faced.  Information on lifestyle challenges and healthy living was posted to employees and made available online.

In the second phase of the 2008-2012 strategy, National Grid launched the national ‘Working Well at National Grid programme’. This included an occupational health service to respond to needs of the workforce, such as further health screenings, absence case management, specialist referrals and physiotherapy. Cardiovascular risk assessments were also provided, which identified ‘at risk’ individuals who were subsequently educated on positive lifestyle changes. National Grid further organised company lifestyle challenges with a focus on the health issues identified via health-kiosk screenings.

In 2012, a new strategy was launched focusing on three broad areas of public health: cardiovascular disease, cancer and type 2 diabetes. On all three issues, work was focused around educating employees about the diseases and how to minimise the risk of contracting them, particularly encouraging staff to eat better, move more, sleep better and give up smoking. There was also specific support given to line managers on how to manage people at risk of the diseases. On cancer, National Grid collaborated with Macmillan Cancer Support. National Grid employees raised over half a million pounds to help support people with cancer who struggled with paying their energy bills and in return National Grid were able to use Macmillan resources to educate staff on how to minimise the risk of cancer.

As for diabetes, in spring 2016 an education and engagement piece around what type 2 diabetes is, what causes it, what you can do to prevent it and how to evaluate if you are at risk was launched, and is ongoing until October 2016. National Grid set up health kiosks that could calculate a person’s absolute risk of getting diabetes and if employees had trouble accessing the kiosks, they were signposted to Diabetes UK’s online risk tool.

In 2012/13, National Grid also decided to focus specifically on sickness absence levels in the gas distribution team. The team has a workforce of about 3,500 people in the UK and their average annual sickness absence was 11–14 days, above the company average and team aim of 6 days. Managers together with the HR and Health and Wellbeing team developed a Workplace Sickness Absence and Wellness Charter, which focuses on physiotherapy and psychological help, support for employees in managing absence and a focus on early referrals for illness.

 

Impact

National Grid’s health and wellbeing strategy has resulted in tangible business benefits, including £8.9 million saved in 2008–2011 due to reduced sickness absence and an increase of 8% in the same time period of employees taking part in the annual employee survey.

Further, 61% of staff have had health screenings, 57% tracked their health metrics using health kiosks and 92% of field-based employees accessed health screening via mobile vehicles. In 2012, over 1,000 employees had been through stress-management workshops and 727 office staff had been identified as ‘at risk’ in terms of their overall health, and followed up issues with their doctor. National Grid also recorded an 8% increase in employee engagement between 2008 and 2010.

The health kiosks used to assess employees’ risk of type 2 diabetes also delivered results. In total, 600 employees evaluated their risk and out of these 75 employees were discovered to be in the high risk category. 40 of these knew they had diabetes, but 35 were newly informed, meaning that they were unaware they were at risk and really needed the help.

 

Challenges

A principal challenge for National Grid has been trying to gain access to and engage with its remote and field-based workforce. This has been overcome through using mobile vehicles for health screenings, which help to intervene early on and to provide the specialist support that is needed. National Grid also implemented health and wellbeing ‘stand-down days’ for field-based staff, where employees step away from their regular jobs for a day to take part in business-centred issues and activities related to health and wellbeing.

Another challenge has been addressing mental-health issues in a predominantly male workforce. This was tackled by addressing physical health first and then introducing mental-health issues afterwards, which resulted in better engagement.

 

The future

National Grid seeks to adopt a more holistic approach to health and wellbeing. As an employer it aims to join physical and mental wellbeing together rather than looking at the two in isolation. In the future it also intends to address skills building in managers so that they are able to have the right sort of conversations with employees about their health. National Grid also wants to make it clear at recruitment stage that it is an employer that takes staff health and wellbeing seriously and to make sure that its health and wellbeing programme is a strong attraction of working for the company.

 


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