Edge Hill University is a 132-year-old educational institution currently employing 2,744 staff and teaching 16,750 students on a wide range of undergraduate and postgraduate programmes. Historically a college for women and later a teacher training college, Edge Hill was granted degree-awarding powers in 2006. Edge Hill was voted University of the Year in 2015 in recognition of continued investment in the campus environment, outstanding student experience feedback, and a growing reputation for quality.
The introduction of £9,000 tuition fees in 2012 was a blessing and a curse for universities. They could now charge more for courses but suddenly students and parents alike were demanding more. What students were actually getting for their money became much more heavily scrutinised, and for many it was a university attendance deal breaker.
Heightened competition between universities compelled Edge Hill’s management to re-assess and strengthen the university’s position as an employer; particularly when it came to staff retention, recruitment and the overall experience for both staff and students. The hope was to increase creativity, innovation and staff engagement, and reduce sickness absence and presenteeism through a holistic wellbeing strategy that had ‘prevention as the best cure’ at its heart.
Edge Hill University head of health, wellbeing and diversity, Sharon Buckley explains that the university was pretty ahead of the curve six years ago, when most organisations were only just starting to recognise how powerful H&W initiatives could be.
“Health and wellbeing was something that we felt strongly about, and I could see the benefits of investing time and energy in such a programme,” says Buckley. “It was an evolution of the business rather than a revolution of ‘there’s an issue to deal with here’.
“The discretionary extra effort – where staff are willing to provide over and beyond their normal standards and don’t feel duty-bound – is important us. If someone is happy in their work and feels that the employer values them then that’s repaid.”
Having grassroots involvement was key when the health and wellbeing strategy was first set up six years ago; particularly support from department managers. This involved establishing 36 wellbeing ambassadors across the university departments who act as a bridge between the strategy managers and staff, and helped tackle some initial cynicism. This was overcome through constant feedback between staff and the wellbeing ambassadors over what they desired from the strategy and which programmes were popular. Programmes that didn’t prove as popular as anticipated were refreshed and replaced.
“There’s no point in us dictating what people want,” explains Buckley. “We meet once a term and discuss the programme, and people put forward suggestions with the premise that unless there’s a health and safety issue no idea is a bad idea.”
A key objective is to ensure managers consider the health and wellbeing of their staff a workplace priority and integrate this into their leadership practices. Information was provided on how to identify and address staff stress. Managers are encouraged to be proactive and considerate of factors outside the workplace that affect health and wellbeing, such as families and care duties.
The strategy is built around five pillars that affect wellbeing: family, health, finances, work, and social activities. In 2016/17 more than 80 wellbeing programmes were provided around these five pillars. This holistic approach is key to engaging with and supporting staff, Buckley believes.
“We came to the conclusion that you need lots of different elements to have a wellbeing package,” she says. “You can’t just have social activities or just have health. It needs to be a combination of all those elements.”
Key to the affordability of the strategy has been utilising existing services and facilities at the university – so offering staff access to provisions previously aimed at students, and to academic expertise. Examples of this include staff access to on-site counselling and sports facilities, and to occupational health support and health referrals for conditions such as musculoskeletal pain from qualified staff.
Practical support and information is also provided to expectant mothers and new parents by the university’s midwifery department.
It’s been important to strike a balance between staff taking advantage of the H&W offerings in work and during their own time, says Buckley. This ensures the strategy feels supportive and not simply geared cynically around boosting productivity, she says.
“Most staff at the university have flexi-time, which they use to make use of therapists,” she explains. “Exercise classes are held over the lunch period, early morning or early evening and social events are usually held at 5.30pm. Managers allow time out of work to attend university-wide events such as the staff BBQ, Christmas market and health and wellbeing day.”
The university is always looking for inventive ways to communicate the initiatives on offer, both digitally and through hard copy leaflets and posters. Health and wellbeing is also evaluated on a regular basis through an annual staff survey, managers’ surveys, and customer satisfaction surveys. An action plan is then produced each year.
The results of the strategy are impressive. Edge Hill’s 2016 staff survey showed that 91% of staff feel proud to work for the university and 93% feel it’s a great place to work. Line manager feedback also scored highly, with 86% feeling their managers cared for their health and wellbeing. Finally, employee turnover fell from 8.8% in 2013 to 6.6% in 2016. Such impressive results led to the strategy winning the HR Excellence Awards 2017’s Health & Wellbeing Award.
Most impressively, thanks to utilising existing services and expertise, the entire wellbeing strategy costs just £25,000 annually. Other benefits include convenience and increased opportunities for staff to network and collaborate across different departments.
“Prior to this being put in place people went to the nearest hospital several miles away,” Buckley says. “Having this on-site meant university health specialists could develop effective working relationships with colleagues from other departments. It also helped demystify occupational health and the other services on offer.”
Buckley believes staff engagement, senior buy-in and taking an open-minded, holistic approach to health and wellbeing particularly contributed to the strategy’s success. “It’s important to get the support of senior management who can see the business benefits of investing in a health and wellbeing programme,” she says. “Equally, it’s important to involve the staff, because it doesn’t work without them buying in.
“You need to consider those factors outside work that affect their work,” she adds. “Have a holistic approach to what constitutes staff health and wellbeing and don’t just concentrate on one area.”