WDP overhauled its benefits strategy to provide what was important to employees

The charity rethought its pay structure and introduced several family-friendly perks that crucially didn't break the bank

WDP overhauled its benefits strategy to provide what was important to employees

Although no sector has been immune to the effects of the pandemic, few have felt it quite like health and social care, with the extra pressure on an already overstretched workforce leaving many staff burnt out, and some considering leaving altogether.

But for many organisations in the field, the extra challenges of the last two years have also catalysed more drastic, longer-term improvements to how they hire, manage and care for their people. For London-based substance misuse charity Westminster Drug Project (WDP), Covid acted as a springboard for an overhaul of its people strategy to transform an “old-school”, reactive and bureaucratic HR function, explains head of people and talent development Symon Wheelhouse.

During the four years preceding Wheelhouse joining the charity in 2019, it had successfully won five contracts and almost doubled in size. “The organisation kept growing and did lots of positive work, but some structural things weren’t there,” Wheelhouse explains. A promotion into his current role after a year gave him the green light to push through his plans.

Today, WDP works under a people partnership model, and has a “cascade” of information across different departments thanks to HR partners meeting with service and operations managers once or twice a month. “They have conversations about challenges, recruitment needs and sickness absence data, and look at where there might be any issues,” Wheelhouse explains.

As part of its revamped people strategy, the charity also carried out a pay review and benchmarked all starting salaries to the upper quartile within the sector, with almost all (89 per cent) of its 380 staff seeing a total reward increase. “However, we’re still a charity working with limited funds,” Wheelhouse highlights. “We’ll never be able to offer the same rates as the private sector, but we can at least commit to being the upper quartile – that’s sustainable for us and more importantly, the best we can do for our staff”. 

But despite not being able to stretch to larger pay increases, the charity was still able to introduce several cost-neutral benefits after listening to employees’ needs. Staff now receive full sick pay from the first day of absence for up to six months, and then another six months at half pay, which, Wheelhouse points out, is commonly seen in the NHS. Employees also have the right to request flexible working from the first day of their employment. 

Alongside this, Wheelhouse and his eight-strong HR team introduced a number of family-friendly leave policies, such as paid time off for a child’s first day of school or for pet bereavement, on top of leave for staff undergoing IVF or gender transition, or experiencing domestic abuse, menopause and perimenopause.

“I wanted to look at a lot of people policies and ask ‘what can I rip up and chuck out of the window?’” he says. “It’s not possible to do that in every set of circumstances, but our people are on the front line supporting the most vulnerable in society, so it was really important that we did this in as broad a way as possible.”

Following the overhaul, recruitment has increased exponentially, according to Wheelhouse, with a marked increase in applications and subsequent appointments following the introduction of the new policies – specifically in nursing and frontline roles, against the current tide of the sector.

“As a charity, supporting our staff who in turn support vulnerable people aligns really well,” he explains. “We’re here to help people improve their lives and it’s important for me as a people practitioner to recognise that all staff have lived experience, whether that’s relevant to what we do as an organisation or not.”

However, WDP’s benefits offering is also helping to make waves across the wider industry: the health and social care sector is a “very competitive tender environment”, and under TUPE regulations, employees legally retain their terms and conditions when they are moved to a new employer. “When people are looking at jobs, they look at our benefits and rewards package against all others, so it’s gently encouraging other organisations within the sector to say ‘WDP are offering this, now we need to step up’.” 

And this ‘ripple effect’ is particularly important to Wheelhouse as a practitioner. “I like being a bit positively disruptive,” he admits. “If there’s a way to influence frontline workers in the sector being better valued in any small way, then people in positions of power need to step up and make those changes”.