Despite being ranked a Times top 100 company and achieving an Investors in People award, in 2010, North Star Housing Group – a housing association working across the Tees Valley, North Yorkshire and County Durham – had a worrying absence rate of 4.2 per cent. Almost a third (30 per cent) of absences among its 100 staff were attributed to stress.
A study of the causes of absence found the way North Star operated was contributing to health issues. “We had inconsistent management and a lack of strategic direction,” says Kath Walton, head of people services. Cuts to public sector budgets and the effects of the financial crisis were also causing problems. “These, combined with what we knew about the organisation’s health, led us to feel we were heading into a perfect storm.”
Walton realised the answer to North Star’s problems could only come from its people, by encouraging them to take greater responsibility for their work and the organisation as a whole. “We began to change systems and processes, and involved staff in shaping what we do and how we do it,” says Walton. “We knew this would provide us with the best chance of remaining strong.”
The organisation adopted a shared leadership model, with responsibility for management decisions broadly distributed among employees. Adjusting to a new way of working was, Walton admits, difficult at times. “You hear things you would rather not, but the most challenging aspect is you have to change yourself to understand your relationship to power.”
Broad managerial debates around sickness absence resulted in a new focus on informal, upfront discussions around absence, with employees working with their managers to agree action plans. A more formal process is only followed if the absence continued for a longer period of time.
After a period of absence, each employee now has a return-to-work conversation with their manager, and all employees can take advantage of a confidential counselling service. A comprehensive management development programme has, says Walton, “created a safe environment where challenging conversations are expected – not avoided”.
The organisation’s headline absence rate has fallen to 1.4 per cent over the past five years following these interventions. But the bigger, more important shift, says Walton, has been the emergence of a new ethos of collaboration, which has contributed to a remarkable rise in employee engagement, from 30 per cent to 90 per cent.
“We hosted an open space for this year’s staff conference, the outputs of which are helping us influence our strategy for the next five years,” she says. “Employees were invited to tell us what they thought were important ingredients for the strategy, and what elements of the business needed to be worked on or changed. We gained so much from it because they told us what’s really going on for them and for our customers.”
It’s this way of working, says Walton, which “sets us apart from the others. Yes, it can be unpredictable, simple and difficult in equal measure – but it’s that culture that makes our organisation strong and healthy.”