Interview: Alistair Thomson

The finance director at HIV advice charity Positive East talks to Ian Griggs about a social enterprise launched by his organisation

Alistair Thomson
Alistair Thomson

The HIV advice charity Positive East, based in east London, has created a wellbeing programme it wants to sell to other organisations. When the charity applied it to its own team, the result was a cut in staff absence of more than 50 per cent and a boost in productivity.

About a third of the 35 staff members who work for the charity have HIV themselves and the organisation was used to staff absence related to ill health.

Between April and July 2012, staff took 52 sick days off. But in the same quarter of 2013, that figure was more than halved, to 25.

"We try to employ people with HIV and, typically, their health is more frail than that of the average person," says Alistair Thomson, finance director at Positive East. "We had a problem of sickness, especially in the winter, when people with HIV take longer to recover."

Thomson believes poor staff health has several negative effects on operations, even if staff do not take days off. "People are not as effective as they might be," he says. "They make errors, they miss deadlines and work has to be redone, so it is a productivity issue."

The charity realised that much of the health advice it gave to beneficiaries was also relevant to people without HIV, so it set up a social enterprise called Fourwellbeing to develop the programme. It has not yet succeeded in selling it, but is in discussions with the chief executives body Acevo and the Charity Finance Group.

Thomson says it would have seemed odd, having devised the wellbeing programme, not to implement it at Positive East.

Every staff member was given a health self-assessment covering eight areas of wellbeing, including nutrition and activity levels, and received a score of between one and 10. Then they attended a one-day workshop, and at the end they were asked to choose up to three lifestyle changes for each strand.

Staff were asked to commit to the changes and join a support group of colleagues connected through the professional networking website LinkedIn. The support group is to "hold each other's feet to the fire" and make sure that people keep to their promises, Thomson says. They are reassessed every three months.

Thomson has taken the programme himself and he has given up alcohol on weekdays, gets out of the London Underground one stop early and spends more time doing yoga.

"I feel better for all of it," he says.

The transformation of the organisation has been remarkable. Staff absence in the first quarter of 2013 was 25 sick days - half that of the same period in the previous year.

"There is also less standing around in the corridors gossiping and more time spent working," says Thomson.

According to Thomson, the UK has the highest rate of staff absence anywhere in the developed world - about two weeks per employee, amounting to about 10 per cent of all wage costs.

So are wellbeing programmes the answer to every charity's productivity problems? Thomson thinks they are and says they also build in resilience.

"It makes sense for the charity and public sectors because it enables them to deliver more services with the same or fewer resources," says Thomson.

"In the face of future budget cuts, the poor people who have a statutory duty to deliver public services will have to be more resilient."

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