Fit to serve?

Source: PSE Aug/Sept 2017

As Oldham Council looks to transform the health of its population, Dr Carolyn Wilkins OBE, chief executive of the local authority, explains how the borough and its staff have begun to practice what they preach.

Transforming health outcomes is among the highest priorities for councils across the country. From working more closely with the NHS and third sector to other more unique solutions, there’s a huge range of creative and innovative work going on.

That work is driving municipal leaders to confront, study and understand health issues more closely than ever before, and I’m sure I’m not the only one to sit back and think: “I wonder what my own health is like?”

Long hours, rushed meal times and a lack of sleep will be a familiar pattern for chief executives and directors across the country and is not exactly a recipe for good health.

So, while I doubt the people of Oldham will look to me as their inspiration when it comes to staying healthy, I wanted to challenge myself, and the organisation, to ensure we don’t just spread a healthy message but practice what we preach too.


Fit for Oldham

If we’re challenging residents to live a healthier lifestyle, it’s quite right that they should be able to challenge us to do the same. That’s where Fit for Oldham came from.

We can’t be hypocrites, pushing public health messages out with one hand whilst pushing crisps and sweets into our mouths at our desks with the other.

We’re serious – Fit for Oldham is one of our most important initiatives and we’re going to make it work. Initially we engaged a well-known company who provides workplace health interventions for us. Their work was fine, but with sickness absence a continuing issue and wanting to confront the issue properly, we knew we had to do more.

We brought the project in-house, appointing a project manager and setting up a working group and that’s when Fit for Oldham was really born.

After putting a plan together we launched the idea at our staff conference. What followed was a week of introductory activities, giveaways and leisure offers designed to get even the most exercise-averse team member to sit up and take notice – and it worked.

More than 350 people attended classes from yoga and boxing (not together!) to mindfulness and Reiki, being given flexibility by their managers to do so.

For some it was just a free opportunity to enjoy exercise or relaxation, but for others it was the start of a remarkable transformation and even, dare I say it, something life-changing.

We used the feedback from the week of free sessions to put together a regular programme of events to support staff with their physical and mental wellbeing. Tailoring the activities to their needs, we arranged a range of sessions which were provided and run by our local leisure trust, Oldham Community Leisure, at our main civic building. From yoga and mindfulness to netball, running, walking and football, there is something for everyone.

We gave staff the flexibility to attend, take part and feel comfortable in doing so – being Fit for Oldham, both in body and mind, is a part of the job.

To make the project sustainable we implemented a small charge for sessions to cover the cost of organising them, and to ensure they stayed at the top of the agenda we worked hard on our communications.

We launched an excellent new interactive online calendar, allowing staff to browse and book sessions online, which has become one of our most popular intranet pages.

As many as 500 people are taking part now and it’s building a real community within our workforce.

On top of that, since the scheme started, a total of 458 staff members have taken up memberships with Oldham Community Leisure. Meanwhile sickness absence rates have gone down by 11%.

We aren’t all walking around looking like Olympians, but it’s certainly generating a positive atmosphere. It is great to see and, for some, it has had a more profound effect.

Take Cherise, a member of our organisational development team. Having fallen down a flight of stairs some years ago, Cherise suffered a serious injury to her back which damaged her discs to the point that she spent significant periods of her life in a wheelchair.

After a long period off work, Cherise began to improve but walked with crutches. She was also heavily reliant on a daily cocktail of very strong painkillers, including morphine. As a mother and a proud Oldhamer, this was a huge problem in her working and daily life.

That’s all changed now, though, after colleagues in our close-knit People Services team, who lead the Fit for Oldham project, encouraged her to give it a go. Cherise came along to our first yoga session and while her limited mobility meant she could not do every single stretch and pose, she gave it a go and really enjoyed herself.

Crucially too, having gone home expecting to feel severe pain the day afterwards, she didn’t – she felt great for having done something active and got bitten by the exercise bug. Fast-forward a few months and Cherise is a changed person. Embracing exercise as a solution to her physical problems, we now cannot get her out of the gym. She’s a full-time member at the local leisure centre. She swims, does yoga and exercises in the gym. Colleagues have also been excited and inspired by seeing their friend make such incredible progress.

Cherise has now scaled back her medication, lost a significant amount of weight and whilst she uses a crutch to support her whilst walking, is far less reliant and can get around more easily without significant pain.

With results like this, and a number of other success stories to call on, it makes all our hard work worthwhile.


The lesson for local authorities?

I’m not saying we must all become athletes. I’m not even saying chief executives should rush to implement similar programmes.

But what it has shown us is that by making a real commitment to the health and wellbeing of our staff, we can make a real difference, set an example and inspire others to follow our lead.


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