We started up in 2017, when the water industry deregulated, when we only had 70 employees and now have over 320 people. I had only ever worked in large corporates with large budgets, signing comprehensive occupational health contracts, including having a visiting doctor to sites and inhouse physios, and the like.
Suddenly, at Wave Utilities I found myself starting from scratch as HR Director, writing policies with the CEO, Lucy Darch. I was given a blank canvas and I knew, with my background in psychology and mental health, the impact of wellbeing on absence and productivity. So I was determined to build wellbeing into the culture from the outset. But, while wellbeing was high on the priority list, we had no budget.
No budget meant thinking creatively
That meant I had to think creatively, especially in finding an alternative to occupational health, determined that there must be another way to do wellbeing for smaller organisations like ours. There is.
I found a broker (PIB Employee Benefits) who,as well as advising larger corporates, specialise in small to medium sized companies and I explained the basics that we wanted covered and had budget for, i.e. group income protection, so that if an employee was off on long-term sick leave it would pay half their salary for up to two years.
I wanted occupational health for no money…
I joked that I basically wanted occupational health for no money! This broker surprised me by coming back to me saying she could solve my problem, and find me an alternative to occupational health, recommending I take a look at Metlife’s early intervention service, which is part of the group income protection insurance policy. While it isn’t an occupational health service, it did meet our needs.
It’s in Metlife’s interests to deal with any health problems as soon as they present, to limit the amount of time an employee is unable to work and, therefore, the amount of money paid out via a group income protection policy. This means that as soon as an employee is struggling, physically or mentally, they are referred through the scheme to Metlife’s provider Health Assured, to its range of triage nurses, which includes psychiatric nurses.
This way, access to treatment is quicker
Immediately a programme is put in place, meaning the individual often gets access to treatment much quicker than they would do via the NHS. Also, the individual is assigned to a named nurse who quickly builds a close relationship of trust, which also improves the effectiveness of treatment. This has meant that most employees who have so far used the scheme have been able, with support, to keep working and we’ve helped people with bipolar, PTSD, chronic anxiety and personality disorders, to name just a few examples.
It’s really shown me the power of catching health issues early. Pre-pandemic, with this early intervention programme, people were seen in 24-48 hours. This is actually much quicker than access times in the large corporates I used to work at, where you’d often wait several days to hear from a health provider, and then they’d need a report sent to HR, with the whole process potentially taking weeks.
Great value & better service
This solution is not only great value for money but, also, a better service than I was getting in large corporates. But I only found it because I didn’t have an OH budget so had to be innovative; large corporates don’t have this incentive so tend to do things the way they’ve always done them and don’t tend to ask lots of questions, because they don’t need to.
The only time we’ve needed to use a classic OH provider is on the odd occasion when we’ve needed an independent medical view on whether someone is fit for work. The fact that our employees are assigned a specific nurse, and they build up trust, means that they are involved and not able to give us an independent assessment as it would change the nature of the relationship.
Early intervention so important with mental health
Early intervention is particularly important with mental health. We had an employee , who’d suffered mental health problems in the past but not been able to access treatment through the NHS, who was struggling and felt like they were not coping.
We instantly got them a referral to a psychiatric nurse who diagnosed that the employee’s PTSD was the cause of the flare up. The nurse recommended a particular treatment called EMDR, which we co-funded, and which turned out to be life changing for this individual. They stayed in work and were even promoted, before leaving for a better job.
Genuinely helping employees improve their lives
The way I see it is that we got 18 months of loyalty from them and we helped them get their life back together, which is a good feeling and they will never forget Wave. And we’ve been able to do support so many times through this process.
Our staff survey shows that our employees feel like we genuinely care. We have a 16 question survey based on a psychological model of motivation, which is in its fourth year. We thought, with the economic crisis, scores were going to be affected but 96% of employees took part and 82% described themselves as ‘engaged’.
Big corporates can show they care
Would it be possible in a big corporate for employees to feel the same way, like they’re not just a cog in a big wheel but an individual about whom the organisation truly cares about? It may be harder, but I think it’s still possible. There’s definitely far more room for questioning providers and being creative with how organisations care for their workforce’s wellbeing and questioning whether an alternative to traditional occupational health might actually work better.
To me this way of delivering an alternative to OH is a win-win. It alleviates the strain on the NHS. It helps the employee get access to potentially life-changing treatment quicker. And it means that they’re back working at their optimum for us as quick as possible. What’s not to love?
The broker, PIB Employee Benefits, which Jane Austin refers to in this article, is headline sponsor of our sister event the Watercooler on April 25th and 26th, 2023.
Taking place at Excel London, The Watercooler event is where you can gather to join ideas together, make connections, learn from peers’ experiences and find the right workplace wellbeing solutions for your organisation – whatever its size and shape.
For reasons why this is a must-attend event for anyone interested in workplace wellbeing, see this article here.
Jane Austin also contributed to this article, a roundtable on bereavement
and this article, where she talks about the crucial role of early intervention when financial wellbeing is compromised.