Leek United Building Society is based in the Midlands, but its member base is nationwide. Highly committed to its mutual status with a firm dedication to local communities, this 160-year-old organisation has been seeking to modernise its operations to continue thriving in today’s fast-moving financial services world.

An HR seat at the top table 

Up until 2019, HR had a peripheral profile at Leek United, explains HR Director Rob
Longmore. The function was notably absent from the executive table and, consequently, from executive strategy and focus; a coherent people strategy that linked with wider business objectives did not exist to the level that was needed to truly engage its people. Unsurprisingly, therefore, employee health and wellbeing received little attention, which led to some people challenges in areas such as sickness absence and staff turnover, as well as employee engagement and morale.

The appointment of Chartered FCIPD Andrew Healy as CEO, and the subsequent inclusion of HR on the executive committee, has changed the situation beyond recognition. An extensive consultation exercise with employees, involving more than 50 separate workshops as well as multiple pulse surveys, was initiated to inform the people strategy. The Society has since implemented a transformational programme of initiatives, moving strategic HR to the centre of the organisation’s corporate agenda. A core element to this strategy has been a focus on employee health and wellbeing via the Society’s employee support programme (ESP).

The five pillars of wellbeing

The Society launched its ESP in mid-2019. The programme would ultimately prove
instrumental in ensuring an ‘unflinching focus’ on the safety, health and wellbeing of staff during the pandemic. The ESP’s five key components are:

  • In-house support: Policies covering all aspects of health and wellbeing were put in place and augmented with internal resources, such as well-trained and supported mental health first aiders and domestic abuse support champions. Other initiatives, such as regular health and wellbeing weeks, promote healthy eating and a positive lifestyle and highlight the full range of support services available to employees.
  • Third-party support: Togetherall’s digital mental health support platform (‘a safe, online community where people support each other anonymously to improve mental health and wellbeing’) was launched and continues to be available to employees 24/7. The platform allows individuals with mild to moderate mental health challenges to speak anonymously with peers and to share feelings and experiences openly in a supportive and uplifting environment. Professionally trained clinicians monitor the community to ensure the safety and anonymity of all members.
  • Line manager training: The Society views good line management as a crucial link in the employee wellbeing chain. It’s committed to ensuring that all managers understand their role and are confident and capable in this area. Training was rolled out to all managers to help them identify and support team members with their welfare needs and issues.
  • Executive promotion: The Society’s leaders, including the CEO, regularly promote the Society’s health and wellbeing provision via video and written addresses. Many have openly shared their own experience and that of their family members, which has had a profound impact on creating a more inclusive and open culture around mental health.

‘We need leaders who visibly lead on wellbeing. Our CEO is a powerful advocate of this, and the dynamism and openness he shows towards mental health sets the tone for an inclusive and compassionate culture. It’s also a reminder that everyone, including leaders and managers, can experience stressors. He also challenges
his own management team to truly lead by example on wellbeing.’
Rob Longmore, HR Director

  • Pandemic-specific support and communications: A special ‘COVID-19 Support
    Committee’, led by the CEO, has operated throughout the pandemic. This involved very regular communications to all staff dealing with updates on the pandemic, key business messages and staff safety updates, both in the office and at home. This meant that the sudden shift to homeworking, which involved more than half the workforce in 2020, was essentially seamless, leaving all colleagues feeling that they weren’t isolated despite being away from the office. The CEO also issues weekly messages, frequently in video format, to help keep staff informed and motivated.

‘Yes, our approach to health and wellbeing is holistic and strategic– but it’s not about a label; it’s fundamentally about the actions wetake and the impact of those actions on our colleagues and their lives.’
Rob Longmore, HR Director

Financial wellbeing takes centre stage

Financial wellness is typically the poor relation of most employers’ wellbeing programmes, but this is far from the case at Leek United Building Society. As Rob comments: ‘Given the current climate of the pandemic and the economic challenges posed, looking after people’s financial wellbeing is fundamentally the right thing to do.’ 

Recognising the significant impact that money worries can have on mental health, in
December 2021 the organisation embarked on the implementation of a comprehensive set of initiatives to enhance employees’ financial wellbeing, including:  

  • a workplace savings scheme to encourage savings behaviour by employees who can save as little or as much as they like every month from their net pay
  • commitment to a fair and equitable pay system, such as signing up to the Living Wage Foundation and a generous cost-of-living increase to salaries, weighted towards lower-paid staff and backdated one year to provide a welcome lump sum for everyone at Christmas
  • effective pensions and retirement planning, including an uplift in the employer contribution to the occupational pension plan from 6% to 7.5%, without requiring an increase in the contributions from staff
  • a supportive occupational sick pay scheme, with full pay for six months for individuals with significant health conditions
  • a review of maternity, paternity and adoption pay, resulting in two weeks’ full pay for paternity leave in addition to two weeks’ statutory, along with a considerable uplift in maternity and adoption pay (from six weeks’ pay at 90% of salary followed by 33 weeks’ statutory to 13 weeks at full pay followed by 13 weeks’ half pay and then 13 weeks’ statutory).

Demonstrating commitment with investment

The Society’s health and wellbeing provision continues to expand and deepen its impact on the workforce. As well as providing a strong employee support programme, it has signed up to the Good Business Charter. The Charter ‘requires clear, fair and transparent policies that support and encourage employee wellbeing and ban unreasonable penalties for legitimate sickness’. 

As part of its focus on preventing ill health and encouraging early intervention where possible, the organisation has partnered with Bupa to provide regular, comprehensive health screening for everyone. Employees aged 40-plus are offered an in-depth mental and physical health screen annually, while the under-40s are offered one every two years. The screening demands a considerable financial commitment on the part of the Society, but it’s one that it’s determined
to maintain. ‘Our investment in the scheme shows how it’s actions and not words that will resonate with people,’ says Rob. ‘We firmly believe that fostering a well, engaged workforce means people will feel valued and understand that the business truly cares about them.’

The Society will gather anonymised health data from the Bupa health checks to ensure it targets future wellbeing initiatives on the health needs of the workforce. According to Rob, activity in the health and wellbeing space needs to be evidence-led and the outcomes monitored to ensure that it’s having impact where needed.

Investment is also being committed to improving the Society’s premises. Links between the quality of workspace and employee engagement and wellbeing are well documented, and Leek United’s investment in both its branch network and customer service centre aim to modernise it's workspaces, giving energy to all staff. Another key objective of this work is to make the premises accessible to all, providing dignity to all staff and members that visit the Society. 

Evaluating the impact

Significant benefits have flowed from the Society’s serious investment in health and
wellbeing, including:

  • Employee engagement levels have been transformed and are now well ahead of industry benchmarks for banks and building societies, with the score for wellbeing more than 20% above peer averages. In the most recent (independent) employee survey, the score of 88% for the statement, ‘The Society has prioritised my health and wellbeing during the pandemic’ was one of the highest in the industry. The highest overall score of 92% was for agreement with the statement, ‘The Society has provided strong leadership throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.’ ‘Internal communication’ scored at 90%, an improvement of more than 60% against 2019, showing the value of the considered approach that has been taken. 
  • Absence rates have reduced significantly over the past year, and while this may be partly due to increased homeworking, a similar reduction has also been noted within the branch network. In branches, staff have continued to admirably work on the front line throughout the pandemic, providing consistent service to members.
  • Staff loyalty and retention rates have increased dramatically, and the Society has experienced very low voluntary turnover levels compared with many others in the sector. 
  • In terms of the wider business benefits, ‘staff efficiency’ has improved significantly in terms of business volumes versus cost of delivery – for 2020, costs as a proportion of total loans and advances reduced by 1.3% against 2019 and by 5.2% against 2018.
  • The organisation’s culture was independently audited in 2021 by one of the ‘Big Four’ audit firms and received the highest possible grading, with a hugely positive overall assessment. This is an achievement that the Society is fiercely proud of.

The Society works hard to prioritise employee wellbeing and embed tangible actions across its operations, culture and people management practice. ‘We’re proud to demonstrate the difference that our investment is making on these important metrics, at a time of such turmoil in the external environment,’ says Rob. ‘It shows how employee health and engagement go hand in hand with business performance.’

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