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Hertfordshire County Council - stress case study

Who are they?

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The County Council works with central government and other local organisations to help improve and deliver a range of local services to more than a million people, who live, work and travel in the county. Responsibilities include Education, Fire Services, Libraries, Planning, Social Services, Highways, Environment, Trading Standards and Registrars.

No of employees:
33,000 employees
60.3% part time
82% female
Business Sector:
Local Authority

What had they done when we last saw them?

During 2005, Hertfordshire County Council was involved in piloting the Management Standards. In 2006, we visited to see how it was getting on since the pilot had ended.

The Council analysed its survey results and held a small number of focus groups. The analysis showed that senior managers were committed and Unions were enthusiastic, about tackling stress. Wider staff communication and involvement was conducted through an electronic newsletter. At the time, there were a number of challenges:

Overall, it was felt that the project had enabled the implementation of a consistent approach to managing stress and had involved staff in the development and maintenance of a positive working environment. It emphasised the importance of keeping the project moving forward to ensure that staff remain engaged and it was useful to liaise with other organisations to share experiences and best practice.

What has happened since?

Hertfordshire now uses sickness absence data, occupational health reports and turnover rates to identify areas of concern. It has integrated the indicator tool into the staff questionnaire, which is conducted with all staff every 2 years, although a sample group of staff is identified to complete it each year. All activity is delivered in-house apart from an external Occupational Health Provider who supports the process.

The Council feels that Workforce Resilience is vital in promoting health and enabling high performance, particularly in times of change and reductions in staffing numbers.

Levels of Commitment

Senior management commitment has continued and all new senior managers receive H&S training, which includes managing stress related issues. Given the changes to senior management in the 6 years since the first activity, it is seen as positive that senior commitment remains at a similar level.

The Council has decided to focus on improving ‘Wellbeing and Resilience’. It feels this has helped senior managers re-focus on the issues and the importance of being proactive at the organisational level. This change in emphasis has also helped maintain interest from the unions who have been key contributors to this work from the outset.

Staff commitment seems to have improved since the beginning of this work. A lot of organisation wide activity is aimed at increasing employee awareness, engagement and participation in activity.

Were Targets Set?

The Council did not set specific targets, however it has made an ongoing commitment to reduce stress related ill health. The organisation regularly looks at sickness absence figures, the reasons for sickness absence, turnover rates, employee relations data and organisational change data to identify potential hot spots where action may be necessary.

Focus Groups

It has continued to use focus groups to explore issues and develop solutions. Representatives from the hot spot areas along with the relevant unions are invited to be part of focus groups.

They have a range of activity to promote wellbeing and resilience amongst staff including a new Intranet e-learning course aimed at increasing awareness, showing employees where they can get help to improve their health and wellbeing and a section on manager competency for line managers.


One of the main barriers identified was lack of belief in the benefits of undertaking this work. This was overcome by increasing awareness of the issues and effects on the business, communicating the value of promoting activity and showing the improvements in those parts of the organisation that had taken action. Moving towards more of a wellbeing message has helped to refresh commitment in improving employee health and to re-focus the organisation on the links to performance.

Engagement with staff is a challenge. People are very busy and it is difficult to find time to give them an opportunity to present their views and learn about stress and how it affects people. To help overcome this, communications activity is interspersed with messages around help that can be accessed through to Occupational Health Provider, exercise and diet, Staying Healthy at Work initiative and Employee Engagement.

Reducing sickness absence is a challenge in an organisation as big as the County Council (33,000 employees). To help overcome this, work to reduce stress has been embedded in the organisational culture. For example, the questions from the Indicator Tool now form part of the staff survey.

What impact has this had?

The average day’s absence per person has reduced from 20.6 to 18.4. Between Nov 06 and Oct 09 there was a decrease in the number of short and long term occurrences.. All employees returning to work have been risk assessed and where necessary a phased return, changes to the job, or temporary job change have been implemented.

Updated 2011-08-11