Friday, 26 May 2017

Pursuit of happiness

Landlords are keeping a closer eye on the well-being of their staff, in a bid to reduce stress. Anita Pati reports

The concepts of happiness and well-being are all the rage. Tory leader David Cameron has dabbled in promoting well-being as a policy, while the government has its very own happiness guru.

Despite not being known for Zen-inspired working practices, the housing sector is getting in on the act, increasingly offering employees health and well-being initiatives. Projects range from healthy living initiatives to fun days out.

Weymouth & Portland Housing Association, for instance, threw a stress-busting boxing session for staff, coached by the local amateur boxing club.

And this year Shepherds Bush Housing Group established a special well-being budget, covering free physical and emotional health screening days for all staff. The pot also pays for free, 15-minute Indian head massages, with a trained masseur visiting each of its three offices on a three-week rota.

All this costs the landlord about £10,000 a year. But human resources director David Blackburn thinks the  health and relaxation benefits are well worth the price, given that the small, 180-staff organisation cannot afford to offer other perks such as private health insurance.

‘The sector is very stressful, particularly if you’re a frontline member of staff where you’re dealing with issues like customer conflict,’ says Mr Blackburn. ‘But even in the background, the pace of change is so fast – there’s a huge uncertainty as housing associations merge or are acquired. So much is changing – what’s happening to the Housing Corporation? There’s going to be a new regulatory body… the new housing bill… people are not sure what the future holds.’

Tenants are benefiting too. Through its charitable arm, Shepherds Bush has also appointed three full-time trainers to help tenants with things like giving up smoking and eating better. The association’s employees will shortly be able to access the same services.

Stress in the city is one thing. But rural beauty spots aren’t immune. ‘Stress is a code word for fear,’ says Martin Craven, technical compliance officer at Penwith Housing Association in Cornwall. ‘If someone tells you that they are stressed because they have too much work in their inbox and they’re on holiday the next week, what they’re really saying is that they’re scared.’

Mr Craven, a life counsellor in his spare time, recently ran Penwith’s first stress-busting week. It included ghost tours around Penzance and local history walks. ‘Organising unusual activities for staff helps to provide variety in a working week – an essential ingredient to having a fulfilled existence,’ he says. ‘At the same time, staff are doing something different, hopefully taking their minds away from thinking about stressful issues going on at work as well as socialising and building relationships with others. All these elements are fundamental for a happy life.’

Mr Craven says his own life hit ‘rock bottom’ 10 years ago. ‘Despite having a good education, good family and good friends, I felt miserable and suicidal and didn’t understand why.’ This caused him to evaluate his own well-being, and he is now planning to put together another stress-busting week this summer.

It was staff absence, according to Penwith chief executive Andy Moore, that prompted the organisation to examine what else it could offer.

‘Staff have indicated there’s been more stress, a mixture of domestic and work stress,’ he says. ‘I think when you’ve got staff dealing with customers or clients that are stressed themselves or in stressful situations it’s more likely to occur and it’s much more identifiable as a cause of ill health than it was 10 years ago.’

Services including stress counselling are used regularly by housing associations. East Thames, for example, uses First Assist, a private company specialising in services like telephone counselling for employees. London & Quadrant Group employs Lancaster Life Assist, which also offers counselling.

L&Q also views annual conferences as a good opportunity to regroup and relax. Lotus Exchange provides corporate well-being and team building events including yoga and Pilates – which L&Q uses at its annual get-togethers. These have also incorporated Bollywood dancing and drumming.

Ailon Freedman, founder and director of Lotus Exchange, says ‘staff are all working disparately throughout the year so the annual conference is a time when hundreds of people can come together’.

Marilyn Fontaine, a professional holistic therapist trained in massage, aromatherapy and reiki, used to work in the housing department at Tower Hamlets Council. Ten years ago, she says, ‘I left – I  walked out after suffering stress’. She now works with housing associations, mainly giving Indian head massages on staff development days. ‘Aromatherapy and Indian head massage are one of the most beneficial treatments for social housing staff as they work on releasing tension and stress,’ she says. This, she adds, enables staff to carry out their jobs more efficiently.

‘The treatment provides the space to take time out and to cope with the increasing demands of the job such as irate tenants, increased workload, deadlines and regulations.’

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