St Helens Council, United Kingdom: Recruitment, training and flexible working practices
St Helens Council is the largest employer in St Helens, a district in north-west England. The number of employees in the council has fluctuated over the last five years: reductions have occurred due to housing stock transfers, while temporary increases have been the result of increased government funding.
The council employs over 8,400 people in five departments: the Chief Executive’s department; environmental protection; urban regeneration and housing; adult social care and health; and the children and young people’s services department. Some 75% of the workforce is female and 25% is male. About half of employees work part time, 88% of whom are female. The workforce is ageing, with more than 32% of employees currently over 50 years of age. The council has an annual staff turnover of around 9.3%, which is less than the national average of 14.2% for local government.
The council has adopted policies on equal opportunities and workforce diversity. The equality policy addresses age issues and discourages age discrimination. It is common practice that flexible working options, supported by flexible benefits, ongoing education and training, apply to older workers. With almost one third of its employees aged over 50 years, the council has recognised the trend of employees working longer, but not necessarily in the same job, and has recently introduced an ‘older workers policy’ and a ‘well-being policy’.
The social dialogue is viewed as an important part of operations, especially in recent years. Several new initiatives and new policies have been implemented in the past year alone. Communication between the council and trade unions runs smoothly.
The original initiative
Initiatives relating to recruitment, training and flexible work arrangements were already in place when the council, along with most local authorities in the UK, became aware of the fact that in the near future it would have an ageing workforce. Other influences were the downturn in the number of early retirements and ill-health retirement in local government, and a review of the local government pension scheme. The original initiatives have largely remained in place. Others, such as the recruitment and training initiative, have become more standardised, since close internal monitoring and auditing of the recruitment, selection and training processes were introduced to ensure that procedures follow best practice.
Although training and development programmes have always been offered, the participation of older workers is encouraged by providing retraining where necessary to equip them with new skills. These changes are a result of realising that the council’s workforce is ageing and that older employees will want to continue working, but not necessarily in the same job they have held in the past. Most of the above initiatives seem to be successful in improving the skills and knowledge of older employees and in retaining them in the organisation for longer.
Looking at long-term outcomes, such as changing attitudes towards older employees, St Helens Council believes that if the council continues implementing the above practices as well as raising awareness of age diversity among managers and employees, the ‘early retirement’ culture will be transformed and stereotypical perceptions of older people will be eliminated.
Good practice today
Along with the above initiatives and after discussions with the employees from other departments, the chief executive’s department recently introduced two human resource management initiatives – the ‘workplace well-being policy’ and the ‘older workers policy’:
- Workplace well-being policy: This policy sets out arrangements managements must put in place to ensure that work activities do not pose a danger to employees’ physical and mental well-being. This includes taking effective action to prevent the occurrence of occupational stress. The main reason for introducing the initiative was the demographic change in the workforce, with employees potentially having to work for longer rather than retiring early. The policy aims to:
- ensure that workflows are organised in such a way that minimises the potential for adverse effects on mental and physical well-being;
- inform all employees about work hazards and the measures put in place to control risk;
- identify strategies that will help managers to recognise the occurrence of work-related stress and other mental health issues, and to apply the correct management procedures.
A hazard analysis review form has been drawn up to enable employees to record their own assessment of the hazards associated with their work in conjunction with their manager and occupational health expert. This practice illustrates the high quality of social dialogue within the council.
- Older workers policy: This policy has been introduced during the past year, mainly because for demographic reasons – as the population continues to age – older workers have become even more economically important. In addition, this policy has been developed to expand the obligations under the comprehensive equality policy, pending the introduction of new government age legislation, which is due to be implemented soon. This policy sets out the aims of St Helens Council in relation to age equality:
- opposing age discrimination;
- recognising that age is no indicator of effectiveness in most work activities, that employment decisions should not be based on age alone, and that services should be sensitive to the needs of all age groups;
- creating an environment where people are judged on their talents, skills and experience rather than on misconceptions and prejudices about age.
Health and well-being, as well as ageism issues, have been included in the council’s comprehensive equality policy. However, the above two policies pay special attention to these aspects of working life, mainly due to the demographic changes, but also due to a review of the local government pension scheme, which has an influence on employees’ perceptions of early retirement.
Even though the above policies have been only recently introduced, their outcomes and consequences seem to be positive. The council believes that the well-being and older workers policies have heightened managerial awareness of stereotypical views of older employees’ ability to do their job, and also employees’ perceptions of their own ability to carry out assigned tasks. These policies have led managers to realise that older workers have something to offer the council rather than facing the traditional early retirement in their early to mid-50s. The employee age analysis shows more clearly the contribution made to the business since the introduction of these policies: in the last 12 months, the council has appointed 293 people (24% of recruits) over 50 years of age. At present, there are 37 people employed who are over the usual retirement age of 65 years, in comparison to 2003 when there were only 21 people over this age.
As far as future challenges are concerned, St Helens Council intends to continue to raise awareness of age diversity among employees, after consulting with other organisations such as Age Concern, the Council for Voluntary Services and the Community Empowerment Network. It is also the council’s aim to continue to attract older workers into the workplace and to ensure that managers and human resources personnel are aware of the issues involved. In addition, the council plans to introduce age monitoring forms to enhance diversity and apply a process of equality monitoring to the recruitment and selection procedures.
Moreover, it is interesting to note that changes to public sector pensions in general may be the next crucial factor affecting the future development of age-management policies. The government has suggested that it may consider promoting the concept of flexible and phased retirement for the benefit of employers and individuals. Tripartite meetings between the government, employers and trade unions are currently taking place with a view to introducing public sector pension reform.
Brendan Farrell, email: Brendan.Farrell@sthelens.gov.uk
Vicky Wignall, email: Vicki.Wignall@sthelens.gov.uk
Sources: St Helens Council Comprehensive Equality Policy; Workplace Well being Policy; Older Workers Policy