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Pulse check: How SSE is powering up health and wellbeing

Health data has been central in shaping SSE's wellbeing policies

Energy company SSE is using free health checkups to spark change in employee wellbeing through a partnership with the British Heart Foundation. Millicent Machell reports.

The organisation

SSE provides gas and electricity for businesses across the UK, currently supplying around 500,000 metering points. SSE prioritises renewable energy, with a mission to accelerate the journey to net zero.

It develops, owns and operates low-carbon infrastructure including on- and off-shore wind, hydro power, electricity transmission and distribution grids.


The problem

As head of occupational health and wellbeing at SSE, Nadya Kuhl wanted to involve all staff in wellbeing initiatives, not just office workers.

She says: “With frontline staff – which includes employees who work on windfarms and power stations, lay electricity supply cables and cut trees – we felt we were in an ivory tower, away from people. In our staff survey, one of the pieces of feedback was that frontline staff felt there weren’t many benefits for them. On the flip side, the people at higher risk for high blood pressure and high cholesterol are often on the front line.

“Engagement with this group can be difficult because our staff who are out on the front line won’t necessarily be looking at a laptop or phone for wellbeing apps and stuff, but we wanted to include our frontline staff and make them feel valued.”

Christopher Bowness, senior health and wellbeing advisor at SSE added that the company’s staff are 69% male, and there can be a stigma around health checkups.

According to a survey by private health provider Bupa, eight in 10 men would choose to endure an illness rather than seek help, and 39% have let symptoms get to the point where the pain is “unbearable” before visiting a GP.

Bowness says: “We all know that men don’t tend to go and get their health checked, and there’s lots of different reasons why; whether that’s being scared of what the doctors will say or that they’d just rather be spending time outside of work playing five-a-side. We knew that offering 20-minute checkups that happen at work would be really useful.”


The method

SSE partnered with the British Heart Foundation (BHF) to provide on-site, free health checkups for staff. The appointments are available to everyone, including agency staff, contractors, frontline and office staff. Initial appointments took place in Glasgow, Reading and Perth, but any staff member who who lives close by is able to attend.

The appointments are held at depots and usually last around 20 minutes. BHF staff measure the attendees’ blood pressure, heart rate, blood glucose, cholesterol and BMI.

After their health check, the staff member is emailed a report that lays out their results and the person’s biggest lifestyle concern.

The wellbeing team and managers are given an anonymised report about the health of each group of employees by site, meaning that wellbeing policies can be shaped around the biggest health concerns in that group.

John Norton, the BHF’s head of workplace wellbeing, explains: “Quite a lot of individuals find themselves suspicious about their health data going back to their managers. Other organisations we have dealt with have unionised members who were initially very reticent. So we have to make sure it’s understood that managers will only see aggregated data, nothing individual.”

The team faced initial scepticism from frontline staff, who Kuhl says are unlikely to read internal communications. Some SSE staff members also have to undergo mandatory fitness-to-work checkups, and there was confusion around whether the BHF checkups were the same.

In order to tackle this, sessions are advertised via posters and email, as well as through SSE’s 433 on-site ‘wellbeing champions’.

Bowness says: “We visited a site in Orkney and talked about these wellbeing assessments and the other free wellbeing benefits we provide, like online physiotherapy, things that you would think would be at the top of people’s list. They had no idea any of it existed!

“So we decided to have one person, who is the ‘wellbeing champion’ in each depot, who just knows about all of the wellbeing stuff. They don’t have to do anything in particular, they just become the ‘expert’ in that for the depot. That way, it filters through word of mouth. We’ve found it to be really helpful in getting the message out.”

Kuhl adds that it was important to engage senior leaders in the project. She says: “We had David McColgan, head of BHF Scotland, as well as our HR director and chief executive, do a piece to camera and explain that this is a free initiative, and this is something we are doing to support you.”


The result

The SSE team’s efforts at encouraging uptake have been well rewarded.

In 2023, 470 of the 520 appointments offered were used, a 90% uptake. In 2024, the team is set to offer 1,522 appointments at frontline sites, of which 1,146 have already been booked. This number is expected to rise as the year goes on; some appointments are in the summer months.

In SSE’s employee feedback survey, 99.7% indicated that they would recommend the checkups, and 98.9% would participate again. Bowness says that the checkups have also proven effective in helping staff access earlier help for health concerns. He commented that 31% of appointments led to GP referrals: 297 for blood pressure, 73 for cholesterol and 27 for diabetes. Of those referrals, 15 were classed as urgent.

“Essentially, that’s 15 lives saved. There’s no better way to measure it really,” says Bowness.

He adds that the health data has been paramount in shaping wellbeing policies.

“If we look at this data, 88% of people at SSE don’t do enough physical activity, that’s our top health concern. So now, we’ve built future initiatives around getting active and put our efforts towards that.

“On the other end, 95% of people in the company don’t smoke, so there’s not as much point doing a campaign around giving up smoking.”

Kuhl says the checkups have also broken down the stigma around talking about health issues.

“Initially, we were really worried about the privacy aspect, and we made sure there was a separate room, as we thought our people wouldn’t want each other to know what was said in their checkup.

“But by the end of the checkups, people were coming out and talking about what their blood pressure was, comparing the advice they got, and just having a joke with it. It’s really great that we’re getting people talking and having a laugh about things they wouldn’t usually be open about.”

Fact file

Number of employees: 13,507

Number in HR: 445

Number of locations worldwide: 186

This article was published in the March/April 2024 edition of HR magazine. Subscribe today to get our latest articles delivered to your desk.