GEAR for Changes project promotes health and well-being
The GEAR for Changes project focused on small and medium-size enterprises (SMEs) where restructuring was being planned or underway. It aimed to raise awareness of the benefits of incorporating timely and constructive attention to issues affecting individual and organisational health and well-being into the restructuring process. It also served as a platform for the exchange of experience and knowledge. The project included participants from Slovenia, Croatia and the UK.
About the project
The EU-supported project ‘Get Employees Aware and Ready for Changes’ (GEAR for Changes) was an EU-supported project undertaken between 1 December 2010 and 30 November 2011 by partners in Slovenia, Croatia and the UK. The project’s target groups were:
- enterprises – especially small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) – where restructuring was being planned or underway;
- employee representatives;
- trade unions and their representatives in enterprises;
- occupational health and safety (OSH) representatives;
- human resources (HR) managers.
The project targeted social partners and stakeholders equally. Targets included policymakers, local communities, employment organisations and services and other labour market organisations that were creating, implementing and/or supporting measures and programmes for enterprises undergoing restructuring.
The project’s main aim was to encourage enterprises to introduce measures to prevent health and psychosocial risks brought about by the changes made during restructuring. The project aimed to raise awareness among employers (particularly line and middle managers) of stress factors, resistance to change, and the importance of good communication with employees both before and during restructuring. The project was also intended to raise awareness of the benefits of incorporating permanent, timely and constructive attention to issues affecting individual and organisational health and well-being into the restructuring process.
The project promoter was the Human Resource Development Centre, an independent unit of Slovenia’s Economic Institute Maribor. The project partners were the:
- Association of Employers of Slovenia (ZDS);
- Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Štajerska, Slovenia;
- Association of Free Trade Unions of Slovenia (ZSSS), regional organisation of Podravje and Koroška;
- Croatian Chamber of Economy, County Chamber Krapina;
- Investors in People International, UK.
The supporting partners were the:
- Ministry for Labour, Family and Social Affairs (MDDSZ), Republic of Slovenia;
- Association of Free Trade Unions of Slovenia (ZSSS);
- Regional Labour Foundation Podravje, Slovenia;
- Union of Autonomous Trade Unions of Croatia (SSSH), Krapina–Zagorje County office.
Key activities involved:
- setting up a transnational network for the exchange of experience, knowledge and good practice;
- publishing a good practice guide for employers and social partners to help avoid or reduce the harmful consequences of restructuring on individuals’ health;
- developing and implementing programmes for line/middle managers and trade union representatives;
- organising a transnational conference in Slovenia to:
- attract interest and participation by target groups and key stakeholders;
- raise awareness among them;
- inform the broader public both during the project and after its completion.
The goal of the transnational seminar held in Newcastle, UK, on 6–7 April 2011 was to provide an opportunity for the exchange of experience, knowledge and good practice. Experts, advisers, OSH and HR managers from enterprises and social partners from all three partner countries learnt about good practice, models, frameworks and approaches that could be used during restructuring.
The representative of ZSSS stressed the importance of good communication between managers and employees during restructuring as well as the need to provide employees with clear objectives. The representative of ZDS singled out measures and programmes for smaller companies which have only limited resources at their disposal with which to set up well-being programmes. The need for a systematic approach to ensuring the health and well-being of employees was also stressed, particularly because it seems to be a common deficiency in existing programmes.
A transnational e-forum ‘Health and well-being prior to and during change’ ran on the GEAR for Changes website from April to November 2011 to support the project’s objectives.
The workshop, ‘Introduction to stress awareness and health and well-being in the workplace’, was held in Sunderland, UK, in September 2011, and provided an opportunity to check the performance of businesses in terms of employee health and well-being. A questionnaire about diagnosing health problems and well-being policies in companies was presented and discussed by workshop participants.
The participants emphasised the cost of stress-related absence, a particularly heavy burden for small companies when they have to pay statutory sick pay to some workers and overtime to others. Another key challenge identified for SMEs was the effect of absences on the skill mix and limited labour for business productivity, which can lead to worries about the quality of the product or service delivered.
The following were identified as the main risk factors that can lead to work-related stress:
- demands (Are employees able to cope with the demands of their jobs?);
- control (Are employees allowed a say about how they do their work?);
- support (Do employees receive adequate information and support from their colleagues and superiors?);
- relationships (Are employees subjected to unacceptable behaviour such as bullying?);
- role (Do employees understand their role and responsibilities?).
Improvements in productivity, quality of work, morale, attitudes and behaviours, employee engagement, and loyalty and advocacy were all seen as benefits of investing in employee health and well-being. Other benefits are reduced sickness absence, reduced cost of temporary cover and lower recruitment costs.
Good practice guidance
A guide for enterprises and social partners, Health friendly restructuring guide (2.73Mb PDF), was published in August 2011 with the aim of promoting and introducing efficient health and well-being actions to prevent change-induced health and psychosocial risks. The guide is also intended to improve understanding and implementation of healthier ways of restructuring by involving all social partners in the process of planning, implementation and evaluation.
The chapter addressing the key factors in restructuring that affect employees’ health stressed the importance of the following:
- open dialogue between employees and managers;
- effective communication;
- a health-friendly working environment and organisation of work and working processes;
- creating work assignments for a quality workplace;
- training, education and reassignment of employees.
The guide also examines the role of trade unions in ensuring the health and well-being of employees in a company undergoing restructuring, emphasising the legal framework for the role of workers’ representatives (Council Directive 89/391/EEC of 12 June 1989 on the introduction of measures to encourage improvements in the safety and health of workers at work).
Restructuring is stressful, but the uncertainty and stress created among workers in restructuring companies by poor information dissemination is often much greater than it would be if they were told in advance about planned changes and their consequences.
The main role of a trade union is to keep workers informed and to negotiate and consult with the employer. The restructuring guide emphasises that trade unions must take care not to get caught up in spreading a negative emotional response and so miss the opportunity to promote a creative response and positive action. It is important that trade union representatives include negotiation techniques among their communication skills to allow them to manage the delivery of difficult messages.
In the last chapter, the guide presents advice and recommendations about what both the employer and the employee can do to manage health, work and well-being in times of restructuring and change. The guide outlines measures that can have a positive impact on well-being as well as on productivity and business effectiveness.
In October 2011, Investors in People International organised a training programme for SME line and middle managers. Its aim was to:
- raise awareness of the importance of effective management practice during times of change;
- develop understanding of stress factors, resistance to change, the importance of supporting employees’ career and skills development, and communication prior and during restructuring.
By the end of the programme, managers were expected to:
- to be able to recognise and implement effective communication during restructuring;
- understand how an organisational health and well-being approach can be secured;
- have explored the next steps in achieving workplace well-being.
A training programme for trade union representatives was also carried out in October 2011 with similar aims to that for line and middle managers.
The final stage of the project was the transnational conference on health and well-being held in Maribor, Slovenia, on 8 and 9 November 2011 where the project’s conclusions and recommendations for future action were presented.
Over 100 satisfied social partners, personnel workers, experts in health and well-being at work, line managers, designers and executors of policies and other participants from Croatia, Slovenia and the UK expressed their satisfaction with the results of the project. They were particularly pleased with:
- the good practice guidance (Health friendly restructuring guide);
- the training for middle managers and trade union representatives (important partners in the operation of companies and organisations for health and well-being at work);
- the opportunities to learn and share good business practices.
Among the conference’s conclusions was that ensuring the participation of employees was crucial for successful restructuring and change. There is increasingly more evidence that successful programmes that address issues of health and well-being have a direct effect on improving productivity. Satisfied and healthy employees have improved attendance, motivation and productivity. Some of the healthiest organisations, which operate successfully and have excellent employee participation and motivation, do not have expensive well-being programmes. They do, however, focus on the basics needed by those facing challenges at work, including:
- good communication;
- flexible work procedures;
- effective and fair line managers;
Mirko Mrčela, OHRC