Guardian Public Service Awards: workforce wellbeing winner

London borough of Waltham Forest: premature baby policy

Waltham Forest council has blazed a trail by becoming the first public sector employer in the UK to introduce extra leave on full pay to employees who have a baby born prematurely.

The move by the London borough has inspired other organisations from across the sectors to follow its lead including Sony Music, Nationwide and the Greater London authority.

“It’s a small thing we can do that will make a huge difference for families. I don’t understand why more employers don’t do this,” says the Labour council deputy leader, Clyde Loakes. Waltham Forest came up with the idea when it was looking for ways to boost the benefits of town hall staff who have faced years of austerity and a pay freeze.

Current statutory maternity and paternity benefits make no allowance for premature births. There is no extra money or leave available if a baby comes early and has to spend weeks in hospital. Indeed, the government, which has just finished consulting on its proposals to introduce statutory neonatal benefits, acknowledges that the current system does not adequately support parents in these circumstances. But Waltham Forest is ahead of the game.

It took the initiative and since last year has offered special support in the shape of extra pay and extended leave to parents who have a premature baby.

Under its deal, mothers working for the council are entitled to extra full pay from the day the baby is born until its due date – paid immediately to help cover unexpected costs.

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They can also claim extended leave, which is calculated as the time between the date the baby is born and its due date. The extra time off is added on to the date their maternity leave is due to end. Partners and fathers of premature babies are also entitled to the same benefits. “What we decided to do was fill the gap and pay for those earlier weeks in hospital, which would normally come out of maternity pay,” says Waltham Forest council’s head of human resources, Stuart Petrie. “If a baby is born prematurely the parents’ stress levels are through the roof. They aren’t thinking about being paid – it’s not a priority. But now they have the knowledge that they will be paid.”

Four staff have benefited since the policy was introduced in 2018 and have claimed between one and 14 weeks of extra paid leave. It cost the council less than £20,000 in its first year. Rochelle Francis is a customer services officer at Waltham Forest. Her triplets – Saint, Shiloh and Savannah – were born 14 weeks early; they spent five months in hospital before they were allowed home.

“At the beginning I was going backwards and forwards to hospital by taxi which was costing me £50 a day. But money wasn’t a priority at the time, the priority was the babies,” says Francis. “However having that money for the 14 weeks meant that I could get my finances back on track.”

She says the council support has made her more loyal to Waltham Forest. “I think all local authorities and big establishments should be offering this policy because of the security it offers you.

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“It was one less stress and one less burden – it was the best feeling.”

Waltham Forest sought advice from the charity the Smallest Things when it was drawing up the policy. The charity, which supports parents of premature babies, estimates that the average stay in neonatal care costs a family more than £2,500, and includes expenses for travel, parking charges, unpaid leave and childcare bills for siblings.

Its Employer with Heart charter mark recognises employers that offer staff extended leave and full pay if they have a premature baby. Waltham Forest was the first organisation from either the public or private sectors to be accredited under the scheme.

“The council was the first employer to sign up to the charter mark and as far as we are aware is the first public sector employer to offer its staff something like this,” says the Smallest Things’ founder, Catriona Ogilvy. “What Waltham Forest did was a really big move.”

Workforce wellbeing runners-up

Basildon council: HR team

Staff volunteers at Basildon council are boosting colleagues’ physical and mental health, helping to reduce sick leave and saving the authority £300,000.

They have organised a running programme, set up a lunchtime walk and weekly football club, and are behind a staff book club and crochet and knitting groups.

PSA 2019 finalist Basildon council

Basildon’s football group, set up by councillors and staff, meets weekly. Members pay £3 to play, which goes to the mayor’s charity. Photograph: Basildon council

A ping-pong club has been so popular it is now a monthly lunchtime fixture.

The council has also subsidised workplace lunchtime fitness, yoga and weight-loss classes as part of its workforce health and wellbeing plan.

Additionally, it tapped into national mental health awareness days, encouraging staff to speak openly about their personal demons and how their employer helped them.

The plan is bringing rich rewards. Twelve staff on a mind, body and nutrition course lost 16.5kg (2st 6lb) and 56% of their body fat in four weeks, while staff and residents attending a weight-loss class shed 159kg (25st) in 12 weeks. Council staff sickness days have fallen from 11.75 days per employee in 2017-18 to 9.29 in 2018-19.

The idea to tap into staff expertise to help deliver the plan was the idea of council HR employees.

The council’s recruitment and operations consultant, Angharad Hobson, says: “We don’t have the money to do all the things we would like, so we wanted to tap into our workforce and see what skills were there. We hoped it would be a success and we hope with time that we will see further reductions in staff absences though reduced stress in their professional and personal lives.”

Insolvency Service: Break the Stigma project

Staff working for the government Insolvency Service took action when they discovered nearly half of all referrals to the employee occupational health service were related to mental health – and a third of them were linked to work. Some 3,000 days annually were being lost to anxiety, stress or depression.

Insolvency Service staff at a mindfulness and yoga day.

Insolvency Service staff at a mindfulness and yoga day. Photograph: Insolvency Service

They established the Break the Stigma network group (BTS), a support group for staff experiencing mental ill health, which also aims to raise awareness of mental health issues, promote wellbeing and challenge some of the myths around mental illness.

BTS co-founder and senior technical manager Jakki Mills believes the referral figures were so high because of the nature of the service: “Insolvency is a very stressful situation – it’s something that nobody wants to find themselves in. You are dealing with people in hardship and in financial distress; it’s very hard to turn off.”

Three years on, BTS has gone from strength to strength. Staff absences are below the civil service average and there is a culture of mental wellbeing.

BTS was the driving force behind a mindfulness training course for more than 200 staff, mental health awareness training of more than 100 managers and the creation of 24 workplace mental health first aiders.

John Reilly, project lead facilitator for transformation projects and BTS co-founder, says: “Our biggest achievement is that people are now willing to open up about their mental health – that is incredible.”


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