Albron, the Netherlands: Health and well-being, training and development
Albron is a catering company with 3,937 employees, operating at 1,100 different on-site catering locations, such as company restaurants and university canteens, as well as providing catering in the care sector and for parties and events. Some 2,947 employees (74.9% of the workforce) at Albron are aged over 36 years and 1,885 employees (47.9%) are over 46 years of age. Overall, the average age of employees is 45 years. A total of 3,268 employees, representing 83% of the workforce, are female. In terms of working hours, some 1,296 employees (33% of the workforce) work less than 20 hours a week; 1,162 of the employees (29%) work between 20 and 30 hours a week; 997 employees (25%) work between 30 and 40 hours; while 519 employees (13%) work full time.
The personnel policy at Albron consists of three main aspects: health and well-being policies; development and employability policies; and a life course and flexible working practices policy. As this is a general human resources (HR) policy, a specific gender and life course perspective are also integrated in the policy, which takes the particular conditions of older women into account, especially in relation to flexible working practices. Decisions on early retirement arrangements and primary labour conditions are made in a collective agreement and are therefore subject to agreement with the trade unions. The works council is consulted on various issues, including working conditions, pensions and HR management. The social dialogue at Albron is viewed favourably.
The original initiative
Originally, Albron offered its employees a rather traditional package for the catering sector. This was also reflected in the company’s age-aware personnel policy, which consisted of a health management system and a ‘pay-as-you-go’ early retirement scheme. Changes in the market and legal environment, however, affected the age-aware personnel policy, leading to an increase in workers’ technical and communicative skill requirements. This concerned issues such as work speed, presentation and communication skills, flexibility regarding the range of products and the requirements for the preparation, storage and sale of products, along with the ordering and registering of turnover and supplies.
The risk of absenteeism and changing skill requirements primarily applied to older workers who were most likely to have difficulties in adapting to these changes. After 2000, the responsibility for absenteeism was transferred to line management. Flexible working practices have since been developed, partly in connection with the implementation of the national life course savings arrangement at company level. In addition, the company developed training methods aimed at maintaining the employability of the workforce. Since the employees were not very interested in training programmes, the company integrated know-how and effective practices into its ‘digital assistant’ (ADA) – the IT platform used for ordering supplies and registering returns – in order to allow for a knowledge transfer among employees. Meanwhile, a set of policies was due to be developed, addressing the issue of workforce ageing from three angles: financial, health and employee development. It is thought that this approach could also be used in response to similar conditions prevailing in other companies, where the potential for development of the workforce is limited, the demand for flexibility is high and the work is intensive.
Good practice today
The age-aware personnel policy at Albron consists of three parts: health and well-being management, a training and development policy, and a policy that financially supports flexible working practices.
Following a pilot project initiated in 2000, the responsibility for health and absenteeism has been transferred to line management. The increased efficacy of absenteeism prevention measures was specifically relevant for older workers, who had trouble keeping up with technological and market changes. Line managers were required to justify their actions with regard to the absence of workers, but also in relation to work organisation and attention to healthy work practices, for example with respect to physical strain and working hours. The managers were also responsible for the functioning of the unit, which meant that they were expected to seek assistance if health problems emerged that they could not cope with on their own. Assistance was offered by newly introduced reintegration managers, who were closely involved in the monitoring and support of individual reintegration processes. Their task was to establish reintegration opportunities for sick or disabled workers as early as possible. As a result, sickness absence declined by 2% to 3%.
In 2002, a study group devised further changes – a process in which the works council, business units, staff departments and personnel departments participated. A change from ‘sickness’ to ‘health’ policies was made in 2004, promoting the central idea that ‘sickness is what occurs to you, while absenteeism is a matter of choice’. From the perspective of sickness, the company doctor is perceived as a threat to employees, whereas viewed from a health perspective, such a perception disappears. Within this framework, Albron strives to improve the physical condition of employees, believing that this also improves work motivation and general well-being. Again, this is considered to be primarily relevant for older workers, who need to push themselves to keep up with technological and market changes. Albron now also focuses on an IT-based support of health plan implementation at the workplace and offers working hours for health maintenance. On-site health measures include limiting working hours, along with the prevention of lifting heavy goods, over-stretching and other such activities; this is achieved, for example, by mixing older workers with physical limitations with younger workers without such limitations.
Flexible working practices are being developed by a project group in which the works council and the HR department are represented. The project group aims to improve work–life balance by introducing an individualised system of wages, in which workers may claim financial support for childcare, training and development, flexible working hours, partial early retirement and other provisions, without affecting their salary. This package is designed to take into account the changes over the life course. While childcare is not relevant for older workers, extra days off or reduced working hours may be significant.
Market changes were the primary reason for the development of an age-aware personnel policy, in order to curb the risk of absenteeism due to increased technical and communicative skill requirements. This primarily applied to older workers who are most likely to encounter difficulties in keeping up with changes in the working environment. Today, the emphasis on absenteeism prevention at the workplace has increased, and workers and line managers have begun to appreciate that employability needs to be maintained until pensionable age. Albron strives towards a greater understanding of the workforce and the wider population, thus acknowledging that older workers have a specific value for the company.
Pilot project considers views of senior employees
In 2006, Albron introduced a pilot project involving senior staff members of the food service business unit which caters for the education sector. The project received financial support from the Ministry of Social Affairs and Employment, in line with its national ‘age awareness’ policy. The initiative was implemented with the assistance of the independent consultancy company 50+ Carrière.
As part of the project, career planning interviews were held with a number of senior staff members who are aged over 50 years. The senior employees were asked to express their views on the topic of ‘working for Albron until retirement – in good health and with pleasure’. Respondents were then invited to describe what they consider as the necessary components for enjoying a full and rewarding career at Albron, even in the later stages of an employee’s working life.
The participants found the project to be extremely worthwhile. They consider Albron to be a good employer and agree that all staff, assistants and location managers take great pleasure in their work. The desire to provide a high level of customer service and the opportunity for social contact during working hours are seen as important motivating factors.
Senior staff wish to participate fully in all aspects of the work. In relation to certain activities that are more physically or mentally demanding than others, they would like to be able to count on the support and understanding of other team members.
Despite this largely positive picture, the employees suggest that the image which they believe Albron is trying to present – namely that of a ‘young and dynamic’ company – is too one-sided. Instead, they would prefer if Albron highlighted the diversity of its staff, as well as the balance of skills and experience evident within each team. Line managers, they contend, have an important role to play in involving all employees, including the more senior staff members, in the day-to-day business of the company. The managers can help to achieve this by making the best possible use of the knowledge and experience offered by its senior staff while improving teamwork. Other important components of an effective personnel policy include job rotation, staff recruitment on the basis of quality and required competencies, one-to-one interviews about performance as well as career ambitions and opportunities.
The senior employees also highlight that Albron’s central HR management department plays a key role in increasing knowledge of the national age awareness policy. In light of this, possible measures that could be introduced include organising preventive health checks where necessary, encouraging open dialogue between management and staff members of all ages, facilitating job rotation, providing training opportunities, and implementing a rewards system which recognises team efforts.
Albron believes that an effective age awareness policy relies on the proper recognition and appreciation of all staff, along with the retention of knowledge and experience. Lifelong learning for both staff and the organisation itself also constitutes an important part of this aim.
Martin van Gogh, Human Resource Services Director
Kees Smits, Works Council Chairperson
Albron, Jaarverslag 2005 [Annual report 2005], De Meern, 2006.
Albron, Sociaal jaarverslag 2006 [Social annual report 2006], De Meern 2007.