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Which awareness days and weeks should HR departments get involved in?

Peter Crush and Debbie Hearnden , 20 Nov 2009

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If you are reading this on 1 December, you might not be aware today is World Aids Day. The day after tomorrow is International Day of Disabled Persons, the day after that is Carers Rights Day, while rounding off the week is International Volunteer Day.

As weeks go, this is actually a light one for so-called 'awareness' days/weeks (sometimes they even stretch to months). Over the past five years, there has been an explosion in such events, everything from the bizarre - such as National Resurrect Romance Week - to the downright loopy - Lollipop Day, Cheese Cake Day or National Don't Step on a Bee Day. Most of them have nothing to do with HR, but increasingly many do. In fact 2009 saw a bumper crop of HR-specific awareness weeks, including Apprenticeship Week (23-27 April); Adult Learners Week (9-15 May); National Family Week (25-31 May) and National Customer Service Week (5-11 October) to name but a few. Not only this, they are increasingly being sponsored by worthy organisations - such as the Recruitment and Employment Confederation which promotes National Temporary Workers Week as a celebration of the £24 billion contribution temporary staff and interims make to the economy.

Most organisers of these events (see diary dates) point to the engagement potential of rallying staff around a specific cause or activity, or the chance for HR departments to piggyback on an awareness day/week/month to launch their own internal initiatives. But as another year passes, and a fresh calendar of events looms for 2010, which ones are actually worth pursuing, and do they really have any real worth?

An unscientific poll of HR directors by this magazine revealed most were unaware many of these days/weeks even existed. With 40 awareness days in May 2009 alone, it is perhaps unsurprising many go unnoticed. But at the same time HR directors are not given an easy time of it either. Clogging up the calendar is one thing, but many campaigns not only overlap they even tread on each other's toes or contradict each other. Take May 2009 again: simultaneously there was the National Office Week and National Work from Home Day; between 9 and 15 May it was Adult Learners Week, organised by the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education; while at the same time it was Work Wise Week - a smarter-working initiative led by the TUC, CBI and British Chambers of Commerce. Common sense says both are wasting their money, clashing with each other.

Further reading

One campaign seeking greater recognition is the TUC's Work Your Proper Hours Day. Unlike other campaigns, which can pick any day/week, its day - 22 February - is fixed. In fact the day is deliberately symbolic: it is the first day of a new year when the 53 days' of unpaid overtime the average worker does, ends, and employees start earning for themselves. But, according to TUC event planner Robert Holdsworth, the event has had to develop. "The TUC first organised the campaign in response to stories about the cost of people taking sickies. This implied people were skiving, so we decided to turn the issue on its head and celebrate how committed employees are. Companies save £25 billion a year through unpaid hours and this often goes unrecognised."

The best PR machines will actively try to encourage employers to 'join' their campaign in advance, so they become the press spokesperson for it to further promote the campaign to others. HR departments can use this to their advantage: Flybe and WH Smith both made public the fact they had signed up to Learning at Work Day this year. Tricia Hartley, CEO of the Campaign for Learning, says: "Organisations can use Learning at Work Day to promote their own commitment to developing talent within their organisation." Flybe used the day to offer staff new, 45-minute taster sessions on developing their IT and teamwork skills and, according to its director of safety, quality and training, Simon Witts, it was the perfect vehicle: "It provides the perfect focus with which to highlight the many opportunities we can offer staff wanting to upgrade or learn new skills," he said. "We've had a fantastic response to the short workshops we will be offering and we look forward to sharing our success stories."

But who should HR directors get into bed with? One organisation that would quite literally accept an offer would be the Sleep Council, promoter of National Bed Month. On the face of it, the idea is a good one - effectiveness at work can be dramatically improved by better sleep. It is outwardly an event HR could get behind for the benefit of staff. But it is worth remembering it is funded by the National Bed Federation, which is also the trade association for bed/mattress manufacturers. The reason National Bed Month is always held in March is to help bed retailers that experience a lull in sales between January and summer. In essence, not all awareness days/weeks are as altruistic as they appear.

The most prevalent and respected campaigns are often those around medical conditions or health-related issues such as Breast Cancer Awareness Month (in October), which this year celebrated its 25th anniversary. Last year UK law firm Mills & Reeve specifically used the month to spread awareness of breast screening among its staff. It secured a 25% discount on breast screening with screener BreastHealth UK for the duration of the month. Examinations were made available to all 800 of its staff, either for themselves if they were female, or for wives and girlfriends if they were male. Director of HR for Mills & Reeve Sandy Boyle says: "75% of our female staff are under the age of 45 so are not covered by the NHS's National Screening Programme (it starts at 50). Offering screening will help women without symptoms manage their risk and those who find a lump gain access to treatment."

It is the prospect of saving money combined with using the awareness period to generate buzz around a valuable staff benefit that gives employers like Mills & Reeve a reason to support the cause. This same aim is what Back Care Awareness Week, organised by charity Back Care, wants to encourage. With back pain the second biggest cause of absenteeism in the UK, this is one awareness week that has been growing in popularity with HR directors. Unlike other awareness organisers, Back Care specifically sends information packs to HRDs to market the campaign, and this year it reports a three-fold increase in requests for more packs, to 600 from 200 in 2008. Back Care's CEO, Sash Newman, says: "Our research tells us each company that runs a Back Care Awareness event will have a minimum of 20 staff attend. This adds up to a lot of people who have begun the process of caring for their backs."

But does this mean there is no room for any frivolity? In a blatant publicity stunt recruitment website TipTopJob promotes Hug Your Boss Day and freely admits it was to push the brand's website. However, marketing manager Corinne Hutchinson says there should be room for a bit of fun, to get employees engaged in a new way. "Next year's campaign will be led more 'in association with TipTobJob'. We plan to create a relevant story behind it to get more businesses involved and visiting our website," she says. Hutchinson says the day has stressed the importance of strong working relationships but in a fun way too. "Its frivolity got the nation talking last time around. We got coverage in the papers and a phone-in to regional radio station KissFM with people gossiping about their experiences."

The ability to use awareness days to increase company image cannot be underestimated. Like Mills & Reeve, the National Policing and Improvement Agency (NPIA) backs campaigns that fit with the organisation's values or corporate social responsibility. It was recently presented with a Learning at Work Day Award, which gave it recognition from organiser Campaign for Learning and Investors in People. Campaign for Learning is one of the few awareness organisers that has a dedicated section on its website with information for HRDs on how to get their company involved, complete with how to get PR support. Its supervisor, Julie Wright, says the collateral helps maintain support: "More than 90% of participating workplaces indicate they will take part again," she says. "Firms report on the impact that running the Day has had on them, including increased awareness of learning opportunities among employees, enhanced sign-up for courses and increase motivation for learning development." NPIA's head of human resources, Christine Cecil, says: "We choose particular campaigns depending on whether we can link them to meet our business objectives, but we are always looking for alternative ways for people to learn. By getting involved with awareness campaigns we can help educate our employees and demonstrate the difference they are making."

The most useful awareness weeks to be associated with are those that deliver training programmes, seminars or promotional offers. During National Temporary Workers' Week, recruitment firm Yellow Cat Recruitment showed ingenuity by offering temps on a buy-one-get-one-free basis or on a five-days-for-the-price-of-four rate in the hope bosses would offer permanent roles. The chain of interaction between the campaign, recruiters and HR departments impressed Virgin Media. Its spokesperson, Gareth Mead, said: "Offering five days for the price of four was a resourceful idea by this recruitment agency. We have around 20,000 people working directly or indirectly for us so any campaign that makes an agency's candidate stand out is great for us. One temp we got as a result of the initiative turned out so well she is now permanently working with us."

With careful planning, analysis and implementation, awareness campaigns can offer a cause staff will really want to get behind. The multiplying number of activities should allow employers to plan which to choose and create a wider programme of events to fit in with their culture.

University of West of England (UWE) is active in the wellbeing of its employees and runs its own month-long campaign, Feel Good Feb. From this, though, sprouted the need to follow National Stress Awareness Day (4 November). The University's HR manager, Rachel Mylrea, explains since she was already involved in tackling stress and promoting health, the natural next stage was joining the campaign. "We want UWE to be a good place to work by offering services that show how much we value their work," says Mylrea. "We introduced National Stress Awareness Day to our programme to build on our strategy of becoming a health university that cares for it staff."

Apart from amusing aberrations from Hug Your Boss Day, Read in the Bathtub Day and the like, it seems most awareness campaigns do have a purpose. Whether or not they actually raise awareness, evoke emotional reactions or cement relationships is another question. Head of communications and marketing for Breast Cancer Care (Breast Cancer Awareness Month) Christina McGill said: "HRDs looking to use awareness days as a tool to engage staff are most successful when they decide on a set of objectives. They should ensure the campaign delivers a tangible message, which leaves employees feeling rewarded and fulfilled. They will demonstrate they care for their workforce by targeting an appropriate campaign to suit their needs."

Health and education seem to be an appropriate choice of awareness campaign for employers to make a difference for staff. But even the incessantly plugged, more amusing campaigns are useful for something; after all, it is not every day staff get to hug their bosses.

DIARY DATE: Stress Awareness Day

When was it in 2009? 4 November

What was it? Under the banner, 'Stress the Positives', members of the International Stress Management Association gave free time for the benefit of employees. About 60 venues across the UK hosted workshops for people to receive stress counselling, advice or relaxation lessons

Why was it run? To highlight the 13.7 million days lost to work-related stress and encourage those who would not normally visit a doctor to have a mental health check-up

Which employers supported it? Boots, University of the West of England, Deloitte

- For more info visit www.isma.org.uk/national-stress-awareness-day/

Will it happen in 2010? Yes, on 7 November

DIARY DATE: Hug Your Boss Day

When was it in 2009? 21 August

What was it? A campaign encouraging employees to hug their boss, take pictures and send them into a dedicated website (see example right and below)

Why was it run? Organised as a bit of fun. But also to recognise that good working relationships create higher moral and better productivity. The photos on the website highlight relationships that work well

Which employers supported it? Kiss100 radio station, Subway, Solar Turbines

- For more info visit www.nationalhugyourbossday.co.uk

Will it happen in 2010? Yes, it's on 20 August

DIARY DATE: Work from Home Day

When was it in 2009? 15 May

What was it? An initiative encouraging employees to try working from home on this day

Why was it run? As part of Work Wise Week to address smarter working practices such as flexible working

Which employers supported it? First Direct Bank, BT

- For more info visit www.workwiseuk.org

Will it happen in 2010? Yes, in May, but the exact date is still to be confirmed

DIARY DATE: National Customer Service Week

When was it in 2009? 5-11 October

What was it? Organisations hosted events of any kind, any scale and with any theme, to be a part of NCSW.

Why was it run? To celebrate and reward the achievements of customer service staff and raise awareness of the role in which customer service plays in organisations

Which employers supported it? Camden Council, Arriva Scotland West, Chess Telecom

- For more info visit nationalcustomerserviceweek.co.uk

Will it happen in 2010? Yes, between 4 and 10 October - and it's their 10th anniversary next year

DIARY DATE: Take our Sons and Daughters to Work Day

When was it in 2009? 23 April

What was it? Encouraging employees to bring in children, nieces, nephews, neighbours and godchildren between the age of eight and 18 to shadow them for a day at work

Why was it run? As an opportunity for children to spend a day in their parent's or mentor's workplace and learn the value of education towards finding the right job.

Which employers supported it? North East Lincolnshire Council, Aggregate Industries, Cambridge Technology Partners

- For more info visit www.daughtersandsonstowork.org/wmspage.cfm?parm1=485

Will it happen in 2010? Yes, on 22 April

CASE STUDY

Asda - Tickled Pink (Breast Cancer Awareness Month)

Some awareness months develop a life of their own. 'Tickled Pink' was born in 1996 after an Asda shop-floor worker decided Breast Cancer Awareness Month needed more support. Comedians began to be booked (most recently Keith Lemon, pictured), hence the name, and off to the stores they went to raise awareness for this well-known cause.

Thirteen years later and the initiative is still going, with almost all 368 stores across the UK celebrating the month. Shop-floor workers, office staff and managers join together to come up with fundraising ideas to increase awareness surrounding breast cancer. Asda spokesperson Leah Watson says: "There's no pressure for employees to get involved but they are so passionate about it and that's why it's been running for so long." Staff can back the campaign with or without the help of an events manager. "They decide what they want to do and drive the campaign," says Watson.

On the supermarket's website, Asda workers can post suggestions, comments or upload videos of their efforts to raise awareness. "The 'Green Room' is a community area that staff find useful and lets them share their success with others," says Watson. With more than 170,000 employees, and the majority of them women, Asda pushes breast cancer as an issue throughout the year. Watson adds: "I know some of our employees have suffered from the illness so it is something the team can really get behind."

- Do they promote themselves well enough?

Jenny Edwards, coordinator, National Stress Awareness Day, says: "We keep our day the same every year - the first Wednesday of November - to build recognition. It runs close to other, similar campaigns, but we find this actually works in our favour, as we all help each other and they keep the awareness going."

Carol Scott, head of member representations, National Temp Week, says: "We mainly target Recruitment and Employment Federation members direct rather than spread the message more widely. We encourage them to get their companies to hold 'Tea for Temps' - a coffee morning-type event that rewards their efforts."

Jan Turner, spokeswoman for the Sleep Council (which runs Bed Month) says: "We haven't actually contacted HR departments directly. We use public relations agencies to promote the month and hope that gets pick-up."

Caroline Hutchinson, marketing manager, Hug Your Boss Day, says: "We tend to use word of mouth and rely on our public relations teams. Next year, though, we plan to use some celebrities to create more of an event."

JANUARY 2010
01-31 Health Month
25-29 Cancer Week

FEBRUARY 2010
1 National Sickie Day
1-5 National Salt awareness Week
1-28 National Heart Month
22-28 Student Volunteering Week

MARCH 2010
1-31 National Bed Month
8 International Women's Day
10 No Smoking Day

APRIL 2010
1-31 Mental Health Action Week
7 World Health Day
19-25 Depression Awareness Week

MAY 2010
15-21 Adult Learners' Week
17-23 Xtraordinary People Week
20 National Learning at Work Day
31 No Tobacco Day

JUNE 2010
5 World Environment Day
12-20 National Bike Week
14-20 Carers Week
14-20 National Men's Health Week

JULY 2010
11 Disability Awareness Day

AUGUST 2010
12 International Left Handers' Day
20 National Hug Your Boss Day

SEPTEMBER 2010
13-19 National Blood Pressure Testing Awareness Week
22 World Car Free Day

OCTOBER 2010
1-30 National Breast Cancer Awareness Month
10 World Mental Health Day

NOVEMBER 2010
7 National Stress Awareness Day

DECEMBER 2010
3 Carers Rights Day

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