EKC Group has focused on staff wellbeing without breaking the bank

Following a restructure and with morale at an all-time low, the further education provider needed to give engagement a boost

EKC Group has focused on staff wellbeing without breaking the bank

I’ve been here for 10 years. I just love it so much,” laughs Emily Johnson, assistant principal at Broadstairs College. With a varied career before her decade with the college, including a stint as a self-employed flooring contractor and several years looking after data for the likes of Halifax and Tesco, Johnson is no stranger to change. Which is fortuitous, because the organisation has changed almost beyond recognition during her tenure, having merged with several other institutions in the area – the most recent only last year – to become part of EKC Group. It now comprises five further education colleges in east Kent, as well as three business units covering commercial ventures, community education, apprenticeships and corporate learning. “We’re quite an entity in the south-east now,” she says.

Similarly, her colleague, Natalee Hill, deputy head of HR for the group, returned from maternity leave to her role as HR manager at Canterbury College in 2017 to find it had become part of EKC Group. But with the organisation constantly changing and more potential shake-ups in the pipeline as it continues to expand, looking after the workforce has proved a challenge for Johnson, Hill and their teams. Following a restructure last year, says Johnson, staff survey results “weren’t fantastic” and morale had hit a low point. “If you hadn’t been placed at risk of redundancy yourself, you knew someone who had,” she says.

Add that to a high sickness absence rate and work needed to be done to turn EKC Group into an employer of choice. “The senior leadership team was committed to making this a really good place to work, and for people to go home and say ‘I love my job’,” says Johnson. But with more than 1,300 employees across the group, from lecturers and administrators to support and catering staff in the commercial areas, finding a solution was no mean feat. After researching best practice in improving staff wellbeing, including attending CIPD events and speaking to other local organisations about their approach, the team began to ask the workforce directly – which, they say, has been the key to getting it right. 

Although policies and procedures had been standardised across the group following the mergers, doing the same to the organisation’s wellbeing strategy was far less simple. “Sometimes, what you think people want and what they actually want are two different things,” says Johnson. “You might put in yoga classes to improve wellbeing, but they may not want yoga classes. You’ve got to engage your staff to find out what will really work for them.”

Following feedback from employees, Broadstairs College collaborated with local sports facilities to offer a range of activities; trained a group of mental health first aiders; and is educating its line managers in the importance of spotting signs of mental ill-health. It’s also encouraging the incorporation of more physical activity into day-to-day roles, including taking the stairs instead of the lift, and having one-to-ones while walking along the seafront rather than sitting in a meeting room. 

“It’s all physical activity, but it’s not necessarily boxercise or ballet, which people may not want to do,” says Johnson. But, as Hill explains, improving wellbeing across the group has been as much about better promotion of existing initiatives as it has introducing new ones. “Some of the benefits had been there for quite some time, but we weren’t promoting what we had on offer,” she says. 

And added to the ever-stretched budgets the education sector is enduring, EKC Group is finding itself having to do more with less to improve mental and physical wellbeing. “Funding is definitely a challenge, and we provide things within the confines of what we’re able to,” says Johnson. “But it’s not necessarily the things you can throw money at that make the difference.”

Work has also been ongoing to move away from the organisation’s ‘always on’ culture, which Johnson says has been detrimental to employees’ mental wellbeing – and that means the senior leadership team leading by example in not expecting staff to answer emails after 5pm, or at the weekend. “In this day and age, technology is everywhere and everyone’s jobs are so busy, it’s almost like the working day never ends,” she says. “It’s been a really hard change for some people. It’s up to them if they want to send emails at 8pm, but they shouldn’t expect a reply – we all have lives outside work.”

Despite only being a focus of Johnson and Hill’s for the last year, the impact of the organisation’s renewed effort to improve employee wellbeing is already being felt. At Broadstairs College alone, the number of staff who say they feel valued has increased 12 per cent, and across the entire group, the number of employees who agree their manager is considerate of their workload has increased from 50 per cent to 68 per cent, while those who say they are proud to work at EKC Group have shot up from 57 to 79 per cent. But they’re not stopping there. “The more people we speak to, the more ideas we get,” says Johnson. 

Plans are afoot to trial other initiatives including working a nine-day fortnight, a step challenge and a technology-free day. “Different initiatives work better in different areas of the business,” she adds. “Our wellbeing policy isn’t set in stone – it’s always evolving.”

But all this effort isn’t just in aid of getting better survey results, says Johnson. As well as the benefit of happier students coming from happier staff, she highlights that looking after the workforce is just the right thing to do. “It’s not all about the numbers – we have a moral obligation to our people’s wellbeing. They’re like our family, and we want to see them happy at work.”