Bolton fitness initiative gets staff back to work

October 19, 2007

Stress management programme based on physical activity has halved sick days. Melanie Newman reports. A stress management programme based on promoting physical fitness among staff has dramatically reduced absence rates at Bolton University.

Employees were taking an average of 16 sick days each in 2004. Shirley Silcock, the university's human resources and community manager, said: "We had an appalling sickness absence record. Of the 16 days per person, almost a quarter were related to stress, anxiety and depression.

"Sickness absence was costing the university about 1.6 per cent of its payroll just in lost time - not counting sick pay, occupational health or cover," she said.

In 2002, Bolton took part, with 13 other universities, in a pilot scheme to examine occupational stress in higher education. Feedback indicated staff felt a low commitment to the university and thought that the university's commitment to them was low.

Absence levels improved when the institution gained its university title in early 2005. But the award's morale-boosting effect was offset by organisational changes, efficiency reviews, a job evaluation audit and relocation of staff between two campuses.

Ms Silcock persuaded managers to bid for £50,000 from Sport England, which has a £1 million fund for workplace health promotion. The cash is funding a three-year project that offers activities including horse riding, badminton, sailing, canoeing and kayaking. The university sport centre's opening hours have expanded and staff are offered membership subsidies previously available only to students.

The sickness absence rate among the 200 participants fell to almost half during the first year of the programme, and remaining absences are more likely to be for colds and flu, or unclassified. The most active staff also had the best attendance records.

Only about 12 of the staff on the programme are academics, however. Bruce Cain, Bolton's director of human resources, said the participation of academics was an outstanding issue for the university to address.

Employment lawyer John McMullen, partner at Watson Burton, said Bolton's situation was "not uncommon". The initiative was a bold step, he added.



The Health and Safety Executive is investigating Leeds Metropolitan University after a complaint about staff stress from the University and College Union.

An HSE spokesman said it would visit the university this month to establish whether stress management guidelines have been followed.

The union's complaint to the HSE follows a survey of union members in March, which found that a high proportion felt they had been bullied or had witnessed bullying.

The BBC's Look North programme also reported staff allegations of bullying in three reports last month. One staff member told the BBC that colleagues would "come into my office to hide from the people harassing them" and said staff would "hide in cupboards" and avoid walking down certain corridors to avoid managers.

A spokeswoman for Leeds Met said the HSE had contacted the university "informally" to request a meeting to discuss policies and processes for wellbeing and stress management.

"They do not want to discuss any individual cases. The university is happy to meet with the HSE to discuss these issues. The HSE has not given any indication that the meeting arises from a specific complaint," the spokeswoman said.

She said it was "deplorable" and "irresponsible" for the UCU to "use the media to make unspecified allegations of what they call bullying but which might be just management of change", while not responding to "repeated requests for specific allegations".

Adrian Jones, a UCU regional official, said he did not have permission to reveal members' names. He said he had repeatedly asked Simon Lee, vice- chancellor of Leeds Met, to approach the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service with the UCU, without response.

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