Joint venture benefits all

A series of breakfast meetings between wellness managers from a number of well-known South African retailers, including New Clicks, which received a special commendation in the Company Partnership Award category, led to a cooperative joint venture to provide employees with better workplace healthcare initiatives.

Daniela Rudner, employee wellness manager at New Clicks, contacted wellness managers from other retailers to find out what their companies are doing around corporate wellness and HIV.

“Everybody seemed happy to share information, which was helpful.

“I found that we can learn from one another and invited them for an experience exchange session.

“During our get-together we realised that we all face the same challenges arising out of the geographically diversified nature of retail. We decided to have three-monthly breakfast meetings to see if we could develop some solutions,” Rudner says.

She says bringing healthcare ­initiatives, such as health screenings, to stores is expensive because it is possible to reach only a handful of employees at a time.

For example, most of New Clicks’s 7 500 employees are spread across 500 Clicks, Musica and The Body Shop stores around the country.

At one breakfast Rudner suggested that the time had come to cooperate and conduct joint sessions to make better use of resources and develop some economies of scale.

“If we targeted the staff of four to five retailers with an initiative, it would be more viable.

“The idea of offering onsite HIV testing to our staff in shopping malls was born,” Rudner says.

New Clicks, Foschini and Woolworths decided to cooperate on a pilot voluntary counselling and testing (VCT) project.

Although most of the retailers provide free HIV testing, ­employees have to make a call, book an appointment and go for testing.

It is a process that takes time, effort and trust, so many people simply do not go.

“We found that if we bring HIV testing onsite, many employees make use of the opportunity,” says Rudner.

A cooperative testing project also meant that the testing would not be done under the umbrella of a particular employer but rather as a retail industry initiative, which helps to destigmatise the process and instil trust, the latter always being an issue with workplace testing.

When planning the pilot the retailers decided to leave it up to each participating organisation to prepare its store staff for the VCT. “Although we agreed that HIV education is a vital prerequisite for the willingness of staff to undergo HIV testing, the levels of training that staff had been exposed to were too different in each organisation.

“Providing quality training is another retail-typical challenge as operational needs always come first.

“We either take a few employees at a time or make use of the stores’ once-a-week staff meeting.

“However, if you want to provide quality training, an hour is usually insufficient as our HIV training is extensive,” Rudner says.

Although the three retailers offer an outsourced HIV management programme to their staff, people will enrol only if they are aware of their “positive” status.

“Besides employees finding out their status, a key objective was to get any employees who tested positive to enrol in our HIV management programmes.

“We briefed counsellors on each specific company’s benefits so they could assist employees with company-specific information,” Rudner says.

The pilot took place in October 2007 over two days at the Cavendish mall in Cape Town.

Negotiations with centre management were successful and it supported the project by providing a venue for free.

Action Against Aids, a non-profit organisation which receives funding for offering VCT, offered its services to 125 employees from the three retailers.

Rudner says feedback from the organisers, participants and the VCT service provider was favourable and the wellness managers were encouraged by the high uptake.

The approach meant that the retailers could provide more ­numbers for testing and make the process more cost-effective.

Six months later a follow-up initiative was carried out at Cavendish, as well as a second pilot in Paarl, which provided a contrasting, more rural environment. The testing was carried out in tents outside Paarl Mall using a different service provider (NewStart).

“We learned that if we want the programme to work we have to work with what we can get, even if it is not ideal.

“We are still at the stage of testing different scenarios, processes and service providers.

“The aim is to create a standard approach that we can use when we roll out the joint programme nationally,” Rudner says.

The latest pilot, conducted in Promenade Mall in Mitchell’s Plain, provided unique challenges—it was disrupted by three bomb scares in two days.

Since the first testing was carried out, the original band of three retailers has expanded to include Pick n Pay and Shoprite Checkers and there is increasing interest from other retail groups in joining the programme so that even greater economies of scale can be developed.

As the standardised programme is developed and a national roll-out comes closer, so the initiative has identified another need.

“Now we need a project manager who can oversee the programme nationally and coordinate the projects for all participating companies,” Rudner says.

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