from Employment Studies, our public policy research newsletter, no. 5
Can small employers become healthy employers?
Small and medium-sized employers often do very little about workplace health and safety. While they take their duty of care for staff very seriously, ensuring healthy working practices can be more challenging for them than it is for larger organisations.
For example, it is harder to arrange absence cover and ensure business continuity in a smaller organisation. Similarly, reorganising job roles to accommodate health conditions can be difficult. Moreover, when management boils down to a handful of people (or less), there is usually no designated person devoting time to health and safety and keeping abreast of legislative requirements. Despite these inherent challenges, there is emerging evidence from the Institute’s ongoing evaluation of the Workplace Health Connect pilot for the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). that small and medium-sized employers can be encouraged to improve their workplace health arrangements.
Innovative and free service
Workplace Health Connect (WHC) is a free government-funded pilot service offered in partnership with the HSE. It was launched in February 2006. It aims to transfer knowledge and skills directly to employers to enable them to address their own workplace health needs. This is achieved by giving small and medium-sized employers across England and Wales access to an advice line (0845 609 6006) and website (www.workplacehealthconnect.co.uk). In addition, employers in five pilot regions can receive workplace visits from qualified advisers. The telephone advice and visits are confidential and provided free of charge. WHC can also signpost recommended local specialists who can help employers with more complex or specialised requirements.
WHC is provided at arms’ length from the HSE and is operationally distinct from enforcement activities, focussing instead on encouragement and capacity building. This reflects an emphasis on complementing the HSE’s traditional inspection and enforcement ‘stick’ with a business-friendly support service ‘carrot’. Together with the mission to raise the profile of the ‘health’ aspects of ‘health and safety’, this makes Workplace Health Connect a thoroughly innovative service.
While calls to the advice line have been lower than expected in the pilot areas, almost nine in ten are being referred on to the enhanced service of workplace visits, resulting in over 1,100 completed visits by the end of 2006 – about the level anticipated. The main route into WHC has been telemarketing (35 per cent of users), reflecting the use of ‘cold-calling’ as a deliberate strategy for boosting take-up, followed by the internet (27 per cent of users). On average, callers to the advice line were medium-sized employers (with 86 employees, on average) while those referred to the enhanced service were generally smaller (c. 26 employees), reflecting a needs-based targeting of the service. One of the challenges for the remainder of the pilot period is to increase take-up and make fuller use of the advice line resource.
Employers receiving visits from advisers in the five pilot areas were given advice and help on a range of health and safety issues, often very specific to their circumstances. The most common areas of discussion were:
- developing health and safety policies and improving record keeping
- understanding risk assessments
- managing the health and safety of contractors.
Levels of satisfaction with the services are high: 69 per cent of advice line users and 85 per cent of employers receiving adviser visits described themselves as ‘very satisfied’ with the service they had received.
Most employers were taking on board the recommendations made by WHC. The greatest area of change was health and safety policies. Sometimes these were being compiled for the very first time, while others were being updated and improved, or were under review. A further impact of the intervention has been in the knowledge transferred to small businesses and the change in attitudes towards health and safety. 60 per cent of those receiving an adviser visit reported ‘a great deal’ or ‘a fair amount’ of change in their views regarding health and safety issues after using WHC.
The pilots are being thoroughly evaluated by IES in partnership with BMRB. The main elements involve: survey of all WHC users and comparable employers in non-pilot (control areas); a series of interviews with key officials in the five ‘pathfinder’ regions, an analysis of management information, and case studies encompassing advisers, employers and employees. The final evaluation will follow-up progress in a year’s time, when impacts in terms of health outcomes will be measured. An accompanying cost benefit analysis is being prepared by Frontier Economics, working in partnership with IES.
Workplace Health Connect:
0845 609 6006