Laura Cooper-Young: Ambitions and aspirations – how the Environment agency approaches health at work

The Environment Agency sets out to its employees aspirations that they should feel valued, respected and supported to reach their full potential. But how are they taking the first steps to realise these ambitions?

In 2016, the Environment Agency set itself a challenge: that working here will improve health and wellbeing. But where did this challenge come from?

We have worked hard to develop a great culture around health, safety and wellbeing. When we offer health check-ups, sessions are fully booked in a matter of hours. When we run webinars to discuss mental health, healthy lifestyle choices and how to reduce your risk of musculoskeletal disorders, hundreds of people across the organisation join in. When we offer written guidance on these topics, the documents are downloaded from our intranet thousands of times.

However, we still consistently see mental health and musculoskeletal disorders as the top two reasons that people are away from work.
Recognising that a top-down approach to health, safety and wellbeing will only ever be partially successful, in 2015 we hit the road and hosted the “Big Conversation”. Members of the national Health Safety and Wellbeing team, along with one of our Executive Directors, visited offices across England to talk to our staff about their own priorities in this area. We asked them to be honest with us about what we were doing well and what we could do better.

Colleagues repeatedly told us that wellbeing could feel like an add-on. Instead, they wanted it to be an integral part of our health, safety and wellbeing agenda. And so we set ourselves a challenge: that working for the Environment Agency will improve health and wellbeing. We didn’t want this statement to reflect just where we were at that time. We wanted it to demonstrate how ambitious we are about wellbeing. This led to the development of Wellbeing Ambition, a simple document that sets out what we want good wellbeing to look and feel like across our organisation. For the first time, we looked more holistically at how our organisation can improve wellbeing for our people – not just by offering occupational health and employee assistance interventions, but also by celebrating diversity, offering good quality training and development and sharing our successes and best practice externally.

The aspirations we set out are:

  • Valued and respected for who you are
  • Unrestricted and supported to reach your full potential
  • A sense of achievement and increased self esteem
  • Encouraged to be creative and innovative
  • A culture of trust, honesty and integrity
  • Working here should feel life enhancing

 

Some of our first steps to realising this ambition include:

  • Working with the charity Mind on the pilot of a new mental health benchmark, similar to the Stonewall Workplace Equality Index
  • Planning our wellbeing calendar of initiatives for 2017, focusing on Healthy Bodies, Healthy Lifestyles and Healthy Minds (now in its fourth year)
  • Encouraging more colleagues to share their personal stories, so that others can understand the support available to them – we recently met with Betsy Bassis, Chief Operating Officer of the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) who was keen to share her own story as part of our Healthy Minds programme
  • Considering improvements to our occupational health and employee assistance contracts as part of an upcoming retender process
  • Expanding our presence on our internal social media channel Yammer, by sharing information and asking colleagues to contribute to discussions
  • Offering more training to line managers on how to spot signs of mental ill health, how to have effective and supportive conversations with their team members if mental ill health does occur, and how to build their own personal resilience
  •  Working more closely with our employee led networks, such as the Mental Health Network and the Fatigue Network, to utilise their expertise when drafting our guidance
  • Asking colleagues to look out for others and challenge them if they are doing something potentially harmful to their health or wellbeing – as part of this initiative, we recorded messages from a range of senior managers (including Sir James Bevan, our Chief Executive), talking about a time when someone had challenged their behaviour and expressing their gratitude for the intervention
  • Sharing good practice from one area of the organisation to a wider audience – including the news that our North East Area Health Advocates Team recently achieved ‘gold’ status in the North East Better Health at Work Award, run in conjunction with the NHS, for its long-standing effort to address health issues in the workplace

We already analyse our health, safety and wellbeing data on a quarterly basis, so this is a good place to start when accessing our success. Initially, we’re looking for increased usage of our occupational health and employee assistance providers, which will demonstrate that more people are aware of the support available to them, and feel able to make use of this support without fear of stigma. We hope that, in turn, this will lead to a decrease in sickness absence, as people will seek support before their health and wellbeing deteriorates.

We know that we still have challenges ahead of us. Like any public sector organisation, we have to balance the needs of our staff with protecting people and the environment, all within a strict budget. We also recognise that life outside of work can have a huge impact on health and wellbeing, so equipping people with the knowledge to make good choices is vital. But if we can harness the great level of engagement and enthusiasm across all levels of the organisation, we’re confident that we can achieve our wellbeing ambition.

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