Mar 10, 2020

Overcoming mindset barriers to the take up of preventive wellbeing

This practice example is part of the Guidance for better workplace wellbeing.

This case study is based on interviews with nine people with roles in trades, engineering, HR, health & safety and other business support functions.

‘I would describe it as trying to make sure that we have got the right work place conditions for people to be as happy and as healthy as they can possibly be.’

Company overview

Morgan Sindall Construction & Infrastructure is a leading UK wide construction and infrastructure company with activities ranging from small works and repair and maintenance, through to the design and delivery of complex construction and engineering projects where it provides specialist design, tunneling, utilities, building, civil engineering and mechanical and electrical services across the commercial, defence, education, energy, healthcare, industrial, leisure, retail, transport and water markets.

The company employs around 3,400 workers UK-wide and, as part of Morgan Sindall Group, generates revenues of £2.972bn. It is underpinned by a strong focus on being 100% Safe, and driven by the company philosophy of ‘Perfect Delivery’. The workforce is predominantly male in skilled or semi-skilled occupations, often working remotely on site in challenging physical conditions, with subcontract labour supporting delivery teams as required.

Wellbeing risk factors

Key physical and mental health wellbeing risk factors that Morgan Sindall Construction & Infrastructure are particularly attuned to arise from:

  • a traditionally ‘macho’ culture common in the construction sector of long hours and presenteeism, which is seen as a mindset barrier to take-up of preventive interventions
  • the physically demanding nature of construction work, which brings musculoskeletal risks
  • challenges arising from the work environment such as working underground with limited exposure to daylight for periods of time, that can disrupt mood and concentration
  • hazardous environments such as road-side or rail-side and exposure to agents and substances that bring health risks
  • the contract-based nature of the work that can be located a long way from home, necessitating travelling or working away, which can disrupt family and relationships as well as bring demands from commuting
  • workload challenges that can arise from demanding clients, working in isolation and shift-work that can amplify feelings of low mood and also disrupt healthy eating and dietary behaviours.

Aspiring to be an exceptional sector performer, Morgan Sindall Construction & Infrastructure use hard and soft data to identify issues of sickness, stress and turnover levels as key drivers for wellbeing, while external benchmarking informs their integrative and continuous improvement approach.

Overall approach to wellbeing

Morgan Sindall Construction & Infrastructure leverage their existing strengths and learning from creating a safe working climate into an integrative approach that encompasses wellbeing, health, environment and HR. The strategy, approach and action-plans are built around seven occupational health and wellbeing enablers company-wide:

  • leadership
  • education
  • communication
  • healthy working environment
  • standards in design
  • engagement
  • improvement

Aligned around the seven enablers Morgan Sindall Construction & Infrastructure’s overall approach combines structured action planning, monitoring and governance processes that assign responsibilities for specific actions with local actors, along with low-touch initiatives that stimulate take-up through encouragement and role modelling. The approach incorporates the following.

  1. Structured, evidence-based continuous improvement – for design, delivery and action of initiatives throughout the company, actively seeking and bringing in key actors and experts for ideas and innovations, augmented by rigorous monitoring to establish and measure wellbeing indicators against the enablers.
  2. Learning and collaboration – ongoing learning through constant evaluation, actively seeking wellbeing oriented subject matters experts and collaboration partners, listening and sensitivity to workforce wellbeing challenges and ideas (i.e. operative voice schemes), take-up of technological advancements for monitoring, and preventive approaches to wellbeing such as fatigue monitoring that help workers recognise risks and adapt accordingly.
  3. Culture and communications – combination of structured and soft initiatives that counter the traditionally reticent and remote workforce by normalising wellbeing conversations. Combinations of visuals (e.g. posters, leaflets), face-to-face approaches by all levels of leadership (e.g. roadshows, open sessions, walkabouts, toolbox talks) and mental health facilitators, tapping into existing meetings or break times to encourage discussion. Augmented by nudge initiatives such as Building Mental Health framework, whereby local projects are awarded bronze, silver, gold awards for levels of participation in awareness building initiatives.
  4. Integration and evolution – an integrative and incremental approach to address workforce challenges through many small health, wellbeing, environment and HR changes that culminate over a period of time to improve worker experience. Examples include encouraging healthy choices, provision of quality onsite facilities, flexible working and reward packages and communications activities that are generating a shared understanding and narrative of the company’s commitment to wellbeing.

Spotlight

Here we shine a light on the detail surrounding the introduction and roll-out of one particular aspect of Morgan Sindall Construction & Infrastructure’s wellbeing programme. We focus on the ways the business is overcoming mindset barriers to the take up of preventive wellbeing amongst an, in part, remote workforce.

Rationale and approach

Morgan Sindall Construction & Infrastructure take a strong evidence-based approach, utilising hard and soft data to generate the case for their wellbeing approach. Although typical in the sector, a voluntary turnover rate of 24% four and a half years ago highlighted a lack of flexibility in wellbeing approaches and drove the need for different and innovative wellbeing oriented strategies.

Given the challenges of a reticent, remote and in part transient workforce, the company responded through an evolutionary and incremental approach to improving worker wellbeing experience, underpinned by continuously looking to innovations and improvements in the ways they did this. Fundamental to this approach was Morgan Sindall Construction & Infrastructure’s ability to leverage existing expertise in safety, specifically a) being highly attuned to its workforce and b) balancing flexibility for local fora to adapt and generate ideas about how to achieve improvements in wellbeing alongside integrated delivery and governance structures.

Inception and launch

Workshops with senior leadership teams from teams across Morgan Sindall Construction & Infrastructure comprised frank discussions about what needed to be done and led to the approach ‘don’t try to change the whole world at once’ but rather focus on step-by-step incremental implementation with continuous improvement and sustainability. Devising the strategy and approach around the seven enablers for health and wellbeing provided a robust framework for activities as well as bringing gaps into sharp focus. Viewing wellbeing as a 3-4 year journey, led to dual focus on showing a caring culture through many relatively small improvements directed at the worker experience, along with communications directed at normalising wellbeing related discussions and individual reflection.

Programme and initiatives

Attuning to the workforce needs. Morgan Sindall Construction & Infrastructure’s approach to wellbeing is highly attuned to a sensitivity that the workforce take on and adopt new ideas through seeing others leading by example, showing success and opening conversations. Fundamental to this is the business’ ‘low-touch’ approach rather than being too directive, so that workers engage because they want to. This approach extends to flexible working changes, which are deliberately informal, and the low profile taken in launching wellbeing and health related technology such as fatigue bands. The company keep informed of workforce needs through communications activities that predominantly take place at the workplace, such as wellbeing forums, walkabouts, voice schemes and the launch of ‘engagement discussion’ cards, where the big messages in terms of what the company is trying to get across are used to trigger discussions and identify various improvements. This constant dialogue helps understand gaps and what works best to engage workers in wellbeing and so encourage the use of preventive support and services.

Building engagement through communications and role modelling

Tailoring their approach specifically to the nature of the workforce, meant creating space and opportunities for workers to talk through wellbeing, as this would bring benefits in itself, as well as improving uptake of preventive support and services. Observing role modelling by early adopters and senior leaders as well as external recognition (e.g. in business press), word of mouth, peer-to-peer success stories were seen as key to helping other managers and workers to come around.

‘A bit of patience, a bit of looking at some of the role models and your starting point being the people who get it. And then others watch and follow.’

A raft of communications generate the narrative that the company prioritises workforce wellbeing. Regular cascade meetings, team talks and posters along with large-scale campaigns, leaflets and the intranet, raise awareness and show what is available for workers to help themselves, such as external resources.  These communications are augmented with quarterly roadshows by the senior management team who open up about their own mental health issues, which encourages workers to be more open about their own wellbeing challenges and experiences. Similarly, the company runs facilitated sessions in which workers are split into small groups to share their own wellbeing stories and ‘time to talk’ days in which mental health advocates are available lunchtime for coffee and confidential chats, along with lots of leaflets and videos showing about the different sources of formal help if people want it. Emphasis is on an informal low touch approach, so people can engage as much or as little as they want, under-pinned by persistence. Morgan Sindall Construction & Infrastructure’s approach is paying dividends in terms of workers feeling more comfortable to raise their own wellbeing issues in the workplace environment:

‘we had an extended sort of toolbox talk about mental health and wellbeing at the end…It was an open invitation, it wasn’t a you must come to this, so I would say the vast majority of people actually attended that…. It’s difficult in this kind of environment because it is a bit of a macho world still and I think it’s going to take a while to break that down.  But it was interesting that they split us up into small groups – literally 3/4 people and we sat in a corner and I can talk quite freely now about my own problems. I don’t drone on about it, I will listen to other people. But if the right circumstances arose then I wouldn’t be ashamed or frightened to sort of share my experience.’  (Site worker)

Creating a powerful change in worker experience through many small things. Morgan Sindall Construction & Infrastructure use VOICE schemes and feedback as part of bringing about a caring culture change programme for employees, promoting health and wellbeing for everyone. This incremental approach comprises multiple initiatives, which in isolation are relatively small, but when part of a raft of changes become more powerful in terms of the worker experience.

Using the lever of working patterns, the company encourage informal flexible working to counteract a long hours culture and presenteeism, such as working fuller days in order to leave early on Fridays. Initiatives such as the cycle to work scheme encourage and support cycling to work and help to address commuting issues, as a number of office locations are in areas that are not easily accessible by train or bus. A salary sacrifice scheme to buy five days extra holiday per year helps to address work-life balance, while heavily discounted gym membership in local areas provides accessible healthy choices for workers. Other aspects of the wellbeing programme include fresh fruit in offices, fresh water machines, porta-cabins designed to certain specifications and no exceptions to high quality. There has also been an increase in natural light in offices on-site and attempts to replicate natural light as much as possible for workers underground to reduce the detrimental effects of continuous false lighting or darkness. Furthermore, delivering their communications driven approach at local level saw almost 200 mental health facilitators/first aiders volunteer across the group, to provide support to workers when needed, take part in local initiatives and help spread messages on the ground.

‘we are actually in this month’s People Management which is the CIPD professional magazine on this very subject. Where we have again got two or three of our employees, very publicly, one of them just happened to be a married couple saying we work in two very different areas of the business. But one has got the flexibility to work a shorter week and leave earlier, the guy can actually work at any location he needs to work at that makes him closer to home if he needs to pick the kids up. And they are saying, ‘these are not big formal things but this really works for us. And why would we want to work anywhere else?’

From informal initiatives such as break time table tennis competitions, to specialist mental health first aider training, flexible working and rewards, Morgan Sindall Construction & Infrastructure’s investment in wellbeing is proving beneficial. This was proven by their recent acceptance of the Gold award for their commitment to workplace wellbeing from MIND.

Impact and looking forward

Impact indicators. Efforts to generate a shared understanding and narrative around the company’s commitment to wellbeing has borne fruit with a recent staff survey showing 99% of employees view that wellbeing is a priority. Moving beyond lag indicators, the company is currently looking to develop leading indicators to help with planning, evaluation and investment decisions around their wellbeing and health agenda.

Looking forward, Morgan Sindall Construction & Infrastructure has implemented programmes in place for training project-based mental health first aiders, it also delivers training modules on mental health and runs stress reduction workshops hoping to sustain the differences it is making. The business is also an active participant in industry wide awareness campaigns such as the recent World Mental Health Day. Ongoing improvements and additions are all being undertaken with the aim to continue improving their health and wellbeing approach in a constantly changing industry.

Case study written by Kevin Daniels, Professor in Organizational Behaviour, University of East Anglia

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