South Cambridgeshire District Council uses surveys and data to inform wellbeing strategy

South Cambridgeshire District Council has 470 desk-based employees, in addition to its staff across various other functions, including refuse management in the local area. In order to cater for their diverse wellbeing needs, it relies on employee surveys and data to help shape its benefits strategy.

Each year, the council undertakes an all-staff survey, tweaking the questions as needed to either delve deeper into areas of concern raised in previous years, or take into account anecdotal evidence gathered throughout the year.

In addition, the South Cambridgeshire District Council gathers data from other sources. For example, it has an active network of mental health first aiders and provides access to free counselling to staff; without overstepping anonymity boundaries, the employer gets data on take up and usage of these, as well as other factors such as sick leave and employee performance, in order to build a holistic picture of the ongoing wellbeing of its people.

One of the ways this use of surveys and data came into play was during the Covid-19 pandemic, with the sudden shift to home working, which caught many people unprepared. From working in a controlled office environment, suddenly desk-based employees found themselves in a new, and potentially difficult, situation.

Chloe Whitehead, HR business partner at South Cambridgeshire District Council, says: “We identified that there was a need for additional physical resources, because lots of people had grabbed their laptop and rushed home when they were first locked down, but hadn’t anticipated that they would then be working from home for 18-plus months.

“So, we used surveys to dictate what equipment would be provided, and we were also able to pick up that there was a very strong desire for people to continue hybrid working, and that it was really positively supporting their performance, as well as their physical and mental wellbeing, which is why we then introduced a hybrid-working policy.”

In January 2023, South Cambridgeshire District Council will be running a three-month trial of a four-day working week for its desk-based employees. In order to understand the ramifications and track the success of this trial, data and surveying will only become more important. If it is a success, the council will look at both implementing the set-up permanently, and even rolling it out to its non-office-based employees.

In terms of how this trial could affect wellbeing, Whitehead explains: “One of our primary focuses is around recruitment, which might not sound directly like it impacts employee wellbeing, but when you’re struggling to fill roles it puts a lot of pressure on the staff you have, so we see fixing recruitment as being supportive of wellbeing.

“The other side of it is, more directly, that a four-day week means that staff have additional time not working, not looking at a screen and sat at a desk, and can choose to use that time in a way that supports their wellbeing. That might be paying attention to other elements in their life, like childcare or time with family and friends, which obviously has a very positive impact on mental and physical wellbeing.”

This might then have a knock-on effect on financial wellbeing, considering the potential for reduced childcare and travel costs, adds Whitehead.

The council is still in the planning stages as to what data it will track, and what success metrics will be looked for, but performance and productivity data will come into play, as well as sickness and absence. In addition, the council plans to repeat its all-staff survey at the end of the trial, to understand how the reduced working days might have affected wellbeing trends.

“One of the ideas we’re considering is satisfaction ratings: asking people, as part of the trial, how satisfied they are with their performance, and whether they feel that they have achieved what they needed to achieve in that week,” Whitehead adds.

“There’s sometimes a big difference between what people have achieved, and how they feel about it. Someone might have done an absolutely excellent job, but they might be beating themselves up about the one thing that went wrong, so actually, it’s really important that we monitor how people are feeling about working the four-day week, as well as what they are actually achieving.

“We’re also looking at perhaps implementing regular nudge surveys, like ‘how satisfied are you?’, or ‘how do you feel on a scale of one to five about your health and wellbeing at the minute?’”

It is important to take context into account when handling data. January is typically a low point for both wellbeing and productivity, for example, and there might be other factors influencing these trends, such as the ongoing cost-of-living crisis. Therefore, the council is going into the trial with the expectation that it will positively affect productivity, sickness absence, wellbeing and even physical health among employees, while also understanding that data is not everything, and a poor result does not mean a failed trial.

To this end, it is just as important to couch the data in discussions with employees and anecdotal research, in order to understand what is really driving the trends showing up in the numbers, says Whitehead.

“Even if [we] survey people and know 99% were saying one thing, if [we’ve] got one or two employees who feel the other way, that still needs to be addressed,” she concludes.

“We are very encouraging of communication, and our CEO has always operated an open-door policy, and really does like it when people contact her about anything, and the leadership team is the same.

“We like people to feel they can speak out and raise concerns or questions, for example in our regular town hall sessions. Having open, direct communication is really key generally, but will also be absolutely vital during the four-day weel trial, because three months isn’t a long time to adapt to new ways of working, so we need to be very reactive when information, both positive and negative, comes up.”

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