Trading company, Slovenia: Health and well-being
This company is a nationally-owned private trading company organised as a joint stock enterprise. It has been operating as a single trading company since 2002, when four companies merged. The company specialises in the trading of technical and industrial goods, as well as household and construction products.
Approximately 95.5% of its shares are owned by a group of 19 affiliated companies. The company is set up in six divisions: rubber manufacturing, chemicals, trade, tourism, real estate and investment finance. The company’s divisions are linked by capital, organisational structure and management.
In April 2005, the company had 333 employees, with an almost even distribution of men and women. The average age of the workforce is 44 years. Some 67.2% of the employees are aged 40 years or over (69.1% of whom are female), 17.1% are aged 50–55 years and 9.3% are aged 55–60 years.
The company is experiencing a shortage of skilled workers with at least a secondary vocational education. Some 44.4% of its unskilled workforce consists of older and disabled workers.
The company follows the group’s learning organisation strategy. Non-age specific initiatives are put in place, which provide for the training and development of all employees. Its human resources (HR) department has responsibility for the development and implementation of education and training programmes, scholarships and practical work policy, HR development and occupational psychology.
Social dialogue in the company is limited to negotiations on collective agreements regarding the wholesale sector.
Good practice today
In February 2005, a workshop on improving employees’ health by changing their attitude to work – ‘Self-motivation for health improvement: How to do something that cannot be done’ – was organised by the company’s HR department. The main target group was employees who had frequently taken sick leave since the four companies had merged in 2002.
The workshop was initiated as part of the company’s business strategy aimed at cutting operating costs by reducing the level of sick leave, which represented 6.2% of the total monthly working hours. On average, 20.7 workers a month took sick leave. Between January and April 2005, 19 employees were absent for more than 30 days. One problem that the company had faced was the so-called ‘merger syndrome’ following its merger in 2002. Characteristics of this syndrome included a sense of being overburdened, thinking of the worst possible scenario, stressful reactions, perceptions of a lack of control and a lack of information given to employees. The anxiety and fear among employees that was provoked by the merger had adversely affected employees’ morale, work efficiency and health. One noticeable consequence of this was an increase in sick leave among male employees aged over 50 years with a basic education and who, in several cases, presented a disability.
The objectives of the workshop were to:
- reduce the level of sick leave in order to maximise job performance;
- gain an insight into reasons for stress and sickness absence;
- reduce stress and increase employees’ productivity and creativity, as well as their loyalty to the company;
- ensure that employees take responsibility for their health.
Ultimately, the workshop aimed to help employees discover, understand and use their hidden potential and, thereby, reduce the overall level of sick leave.
Altogether, 25 employees participated in the workshop, which was financed by the company in accordance with its business plan concerning employees’ education and training. The workshop consisted of eight hours of lectures, teamwork activities involving the employees (eight hours) and personal interviews. All of the participating employees were selected by the HR department and the department heads and were invited to take part in the workshop. The works council and the trade union were not involved in the design and implementation of this initiative.
Despite some initial resistance to the workshops, participants benefited from the experience. The employees began to think more about their own well-being, their problems at work and about possible solutions to these issues. It was revealed that, on average, employees had faced many previous negative experiences in their job and personal life. On the second day of the workshop, the group became more relaxed and open to ‘new and strange’ ideas.
The workshop helped participants to develop a better personal insight. As a result, they learned to recognise the basic causes of stress and simple methods to overcome such a health risk. Employees realised that the demands of the market, employers and management will not change. However, by developing a better understanding of personal relations and of how they and other people work, they will be able to influence certain aspects of their lives.
Although the level of sick leave has not yet fallen, the company still considers the training to have been successful. Participants have changed their way of thinking and have taken greater responsibility for their own health. They have learned that there are always solutions to problems and that they have an important role to play in looking for these solutions. At the same time, personal relations in the workplace have improved.
In accordance with its learning organisation strategy, the company plans to continue with ongoing activities in the formal and informal education and training of employees, to help improve the company’s qualification (education) structure and to adjust to market demands. It has not yet decided whether it will repeat the described workshop. However, other measures aimed at reducing sick leave and at improving employees’ health and well-being, and which will include older workers, are being discussed.
Development of the case study
The company’s HR policy comprises a whole spectrum of non-age specific initiatives that are intended for all employees. No measure or workshop specifically targeting the older workforce has yet been introduced. The described measure has brought new momentum to the workplace as it was aimed predominantly at male workers aged over 50 years. However, the main selection criterion for participating in the workshop was the employee’s history of sick leave and not their age.
Another measure organised by the company in 2005, which was also aimed at reducing the level of sick leave, was a workshop dealing with the problem of acceptance among employees (‘Kako sprejeti nekoga, ki ga je težko sprejeti’). The workshop was intended for team managers whose daily job involves managing different personal relations; it was also complemented by a workshop for employees. Its main emphasis was on understanding the connection between employees’ personal relations and communication in their job and their private lives. The managers were exposed to new perspectives on management and personal relations and to possibilities for influencing a reduction in levels of sick leave among employees. Both workshops are part of a broader initiative designed to unite the different organisational cultures of the four merger companies into one new culture.
Note: The company in this case study has wished to remain anonymous. All relevant contact information is available from the Institute for Entrepreneurship and Small Business Management, University of Maribor, Faculty of Economics and Business.