Royal Mail’s reward strategy pays off

Last year, Royal Mail went out on a limb with its scheme that rewarded employees for workplace attendance by handing out cars and other luxury prizes, but the strategy has achieved key goals, says Jon Allen, head of employee relations at Royal Mail.

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As British industry responds to the pressures posed by the global market, its ability to be efficient and competitive is paramount.

Part of the jigsaw is the relationship employers have with their employees and how they piece together the demands of the business with the needs of their staff.

Hundreds of millions of pounds a year is lost because people, for different reasons, are not able to carry out their jobs, either in the short or long term. For all companies, management of this is vitally important.

As the UK’s largest single employer, the steps that Royal Mail takes to manage absence among its 193,000 employees will always be on the radar of the human resources industry.

When we went public with a scheme that rewarded people for their attendance by handing out cars, holidays and vouchers as prizes, there was a fear that this novel approach would be ridiculed.

That did not materialise. Between August 2004 and January 2005, 37 people won cars for taking no sick days and during that time, sickness absence levels went from an average of 6.4% to 5.7%.

These figures translate to an extra 2,000 people at work who are collecting, sorting and delivering the mail on any given day. The benefits to the business outweighed the cost of the scheme by about 80-to-1. The scheme still continues and we continue to monitor its effectiveness and listen to what our people have to say about it.

The nature of the challenge our delivery postmen and women face can’t be underestimated. They go out in all weathers and at all times of day and risk any number of hazards, ranging from aggressive dogs to slippery stairwells and back strain from reaching low-lying letterboxes.

As an organisation it is important to recognise that our people who are off work have the right support when they are ill. Managers keep in close contact with people to make sure they get the right level of help. That may be in the form of physiotherapy or other occupational health services, which we’ve made easier to access.

The special nature of the work, delivering 84m items a day to 27m addresses six days a week, demands thinking long term instead of just ahead at the next six months or year.

To that end, Royal Mail has established an Attendance Academy, which is chaired by Professor Mansel Aylward, the former chief medical adviser to the Department for Work and Pensions. The academy, which is based at Cardiff University and meets every three months, invites people from within Royal Mail and from other outside organisations to share their best-practice ideas to see how they can be extended.

Our hope is that this will become a kind of lab in which the best and most imaginative ideas can be encouraged and applied to the business. Crucially, it’s not only human resources specialists who take part. The people in charge of implementing policy at an everyday level, the operational leaders, will also contribute.

We’re confident this will benefit the business and create an original strand of thinking that could also be taken up by any other organisations that want to be involved. The main aim is to see what can be done about sickness absence and what new approaches can be taken in tackling this issue.

What we’re aiming for is a balanced approach that means we can combine attendance incentives with a common sense means of helping staff when they are sick and speeding their recovery so that they can return to work fit and well enough to carry out their job.

In a market that’s now open to competition, it’s crucial that Royal Mail continue to deliver quality of service to its customers. Part of the key to rising to that challenge is our people, by supporting them when they need it, and by ensuring that their needs and those of the business are aligned.