A pioneering new training scheme has been launched to help businesses cut sickness absence and improve wellbeing among staff, thanks to a £6.2m funding boost to support the North Wales economy.
Employers are being invited to attend a groundbreaking series of free workshops being run by social enterprise Rhyl City Strategy (RCS Wales), in Conwy, Denbighshire, Gwynedd and Anglesey, under their flagship In Work Support (IWS) scheme.
The workshops are the first to be launched following a major £6.2m injection of combined Welsh Government and EU funding to extend the In Work Support Service until 2022.
It comes in the wake of shock figures last year revealed Wales has the highest sickness rates in the UK, costing the region’s economy hundreds of thousands of pounds each year.
The programme is aimed at helping business leaders boost staff wellbeing and cut sickness absence in the workplace, which can seriously hinder growth and put the squeeze on profitability. It has kicked off with two workshops, Managing Sickness Absence and Wellbeing Interventions in the Workplace.
Employers have already got squarely behind the training sessions with 20 local firms taking part in the first workshops held this month in Llanrwst and Caernarfon, with more to be held in March in Llangefni, Denbigh, and Colwyn Bay.
RCS Operational Director Alison Thomas said:
“RCS wants to help business owners and managers create happier, healthier workplaces where their employees can thrive.
“It doesn’t have to be about large-scale changes, often just small improvements in the way things are done can make a big difference to how people feel at work. By taking an upfront approach to workplace wellbeing, employers can reduce absence and boost productivity – it’ll pay dividends in the long run.
Latest data from the Office of National Statistics shows the lowest rate of UK sickness recorded was in London at 1.1 per cent, but workers in Wales recorded the highest rate at 2.7 per cent.
The free RCS workshops, led by experts in the field, are specifically targeted to help employers reduce absenteeism and boost productivity.
One of RCS’s training facilitators, Claire Lynch, of Mynydd Llandegai, is a Human Resources expert who has worked in manufacturing and financial services HR departments, and now runs her own business, Swn a Sbri, teaching children singing and dancing.
“The Managing Absence workshop is not about employers singling out staff who have been off sick, but about enabling them to help prevent staff suffering high sickness levels in the first place.
“The common cold and viral bugs are the biggest causes of short term sickness but coming a close second to that are musco-skeletal problems such as bad backs and necks, or mental health concerns like stress and exhaustion. These can be long term and cost employers a lot of money in reduced productivity.
“We want to help employers look out for the signs of both mental and physical health problems among staff and encourage them to act before they get to the stage of long term absenteeism.
“At the core of our workshops is the idea of engaging with staff, maintaining effective two-way communication and opening the door for staff to alert their bosses early about situations they feel are potentially affecting their health.
“We offer ideas for improving overall staff wellbeing, for example offering counselling support to help staff dealing with bereavement, or offering flexible hours to help staff meet their caring responsibilities.”
RCS also offers group wellbeing training for employees as an early intervention to prevent people going off sick, and one to one support for employees to support them to return to work sooner.
Among those who took part in the initial Caernarfon session were Stephanie Yau-Jones, of Supertemps, Bangor, one of the longest established family-owned recruitment agencies in North Wales.
“It has certainly given me a much deeper insight into measures which can be undertaken to prevent workplace sickness. I’m lucky Supertemps makes training of its staff a top priority – like sending me on this course, for instance. I know they will be willing to listen to some of the important ideas generated here. Hopefully if more employers do the same we can collectively lower the region’s absenteeism rates.
“I definitely recommend other businesses take time out for this. Even if you are busy with tight deadlines, the long term benefits of the training sessions are well worth making room in your schedules for.”
Lee Duggan is a manager with charity Gisda, Caernarfon, set up in 1985 to work with the homeless and vulnerable people in society. It currently employs about 40.
She found the course extremely informative, saying: “It’s sometimes refreshing to step back and look at a situation from a new angle. There were so many ideas to consider here, not just put forward by Claire, the workshop leader, but from other participants. It’s always good to share views on how to deal with different situations and develop new approaches.
“The morning provided us all with an opportunity to consider new options for tackling sickness in the workplace, including some key preventative measures such as creating a staff welfare action plan, regularly monitoring employees about their feelings, giving them chance to discuss problems and suggest proposals for improvements.”
A quarter of attendees on the free morning session were so impressed they signed up on the day for future initiatives.
RCS partnership manager Julia Cain said more indicated they will be following suit once they have reported back to line managers about the merits of the scheme. She said:
“We were very pleased especially at such an early stage in the rollout. We’ve had encouraging comments from all those who took part.”
Claire Lynch said:
“Different people need help at different times and not everyone reacts uniformly to the same to situations. Some may even continue attending work while physically ill but in the long run this could result in them having to take more time off as their condition worsens under the strain. Employers need to look out for signs like this and address the situation promptly.”
She believes one of the main reasons Wales has high absenteeism rates is because its economy relies heavily on the care sector and tourism which are the two categories of business recorded as having the highest levels of sickness in the workplace.
“North Wales also has a high number of small businesses and start-ups which is excellent news in one way, but it also means that many of these business do not have and often cannot afford dedicated HR departments rehearsed in tackling the issues we have been discussing today.
“That is where RCS comes in. We offer free advice and information in this area, a means to help them overcome existing or potential HR hurdles. Our workshops upskill participants – employers and employees – and also offer signposts towards other useful avenues they can go down for help now and in the future.”
Caernarfon workshop attendee Marianne Foster, a manager with Holyhead-based homeless charity Digartref, was full of praise for the ‘beneficial and informative’ sessions.
“What I found especially useful was the chance to share views with other managers in different fields but facing similar issues in the workplace. That and the information provided about places to approach for specialised help in future were extremely useful.”
Wendy Griffiths a trustee with Bangor and District Women’s Aid said the course was tremendously helpful:
“It placed the emphasis firmly on staff wellbeing and ways to not only achieve that but maintain it long term, something which is important for the ongoing success of any organisation.”
The Wellbeing Interventions for the Workplace workshop covers: the importance of wellbeing and how it impacts on performance, how the use of practical tools can increase wellbeing, how to enhance resilience and employee engagement.
The Managing Sickness Absence workshop covers how to reduce short-term absence, causes and costs of absence, and a model for dealing with absence.
The next workshops will be held on March 7, 12, 19 and 27 in Llangefni, Denbigh, and Colwyn Bay and there will be more throughout the year.