RSPCA breeds safer, stronger culture

by 11 Nov 2008

In 2003 RSPCA Victoria’s WorkCover premium was $836,000. In 2007 it was down to $150,000. The massive saving the company made was credited to an HR-driven transformation of the organisation, including a complete change of their OH&S systems. And this saving is only one of the benefits the company has reaped since CEO Maria Mercurio decided that a complete revamp of the organisation was needed.

The non-government, community-based animal welfare charity was established in Melbourne in 1871 and became the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in 1956. Some of the challenges facing the company range from dependency on public donations to attracting and retaining career-focused commercially driven employees.

Through an HR-drive, introduced in 2002, Mercurio has managed to fend off most damaging blows from recent economic happenings which have seen many people tightening their spend worldwide. The RSCPA has also found it has to compete for its public donations through effective branding and people strategies.

“There have been huge external changes in our environment, in the government funding area, for example,” says Mercurio. “Changes in legislation, the legislative framework within which we work, competition in the marketplace. Not only for services but for fundraising dollars. The marketplace is forcing us really to become much more efficient, much more professional, [and ensure we are] doing more for less.”

The strategy

Mercurio and her executive team took a look at how much the company was spending on accident and stress claims. When they saw they were sitting on an $836,000 bill, they decided that things needed to be revised.

Bronwyn McIntyre, human resources manager for the RSPCA, explains the strategy the company used to cut costs.

First an external consultant was brought in to develop and implement a framework to support the OH&S management system, reduce the big premium the company was facing and reduce other costs associated with that high premium – such as an unacceptable rate of injury and accidents within the workplace.

All managers then attended training in relation to their accountability for driving a safety culture. The new system also formed part of every new employee’s induction and initial training program when they entered the organisation.

The new system included the establishment of designated work groups, and nominations and elections of safety representatives for staff and management. Those people were tasked with championing OH&S across the organisation and were part of a health and safety committee.

That committee meets on a monthly basis to ensure focus is kept on health and safety in everything the company does. It consults broadly within designated work groups and utilises the OH&S management system, which includes risk assessment, routine housekeeping checks and other proactive approaches to ensuring a healthier and safe workplace.

“Some of the inherent requirements of the roles within the organisation do pose a risk. For instance, cat scratches, dog bites and that type of thing,” says McIntyre. “But through the effective training of staff on animal handling techniques and also PPE (protective gear) we’ve been able to put controls in place to minimise those. It’s at a far more acceptable level than it was in the past. But we continue to drive that down as well.”

Stress Claims

According to Mercurio, the level of stress claims has been significantly reduced. Many sectors involved in caring work have the challenge of what is known as “compassion fatigue” and this was one of the contributors to the high level of stress claims within the RSPCA.

“Stress claims in particular were very high due to very bad recruitment practices,” says Mercurio. “People get disgruntled when they’re not managed well, they’re not coached and then the next thing you know they’re stressed.”

Dealing with this was a two-pronged approach. The RSPCA managed it through developing a leadership development program and focusing on psychological injury management.

“Employees would suffer from a form of burn-out from that constant exposure to needing to empathise with the situations that they’re faced with at work,” said McIntyre. “So, through 2007 and into early 2008, we rolled out a managing psychological health training program to our staff, that helped them to identify potential sources of stress or compassion fatigue within the workplace and provided them with practical tools to be able to help to manage those psychological risks.”

Some of the tools found most effective were debriefing tools where staff knew where to go to address any concerns, employee assistance programs – a free counselling service to staff and their families – and overall wellbeing programs. The wellbeing programs ensure employees have a balance within their life, and look at the contributing factors to their stress levels and how staff can put goals and targets in place to minimise those risks.

Another development which helped lift happiness among employees is the continuous training and development of leaders. According to McIntyre, the organisation has been fortunate to receive an ongoing specific donation dedicated specifically to leadership development.

“It recognises the fact that we need continuity of strong leadership and management skills to ensure that our organisation is able to continue to provide a really high level of animal welfare, advocacy and other programs,” says McIntyre. “So it’s an annual scholarship that is available to potential leaders or actual leaders within our organisation, which is wonderful.”

This funding has allowed the company to tailor specific learning to individual needs. The company also rolled out a series of leadership development workshops. There were good opportunities for secondments, acting positions and other opportunities to experience new learning in different roles within the organisation.

“We’ve still got a long way to go in terms of strong line management – a lot of people to develop yet,”Mercurio says. “But we’ve certainly made huge inroads into it.”

Attracting commercially focused people

Another significant challenge within charities and not-for-profit organisations is attracting commercially focused people to the business – those who are career-driven and may have seen their own career advancing only through a typical corporate firm.

The strong brand that RSPCA has in Victoria and nationally has helped overcome this obstacle.

“We’re very fortunate that we have such a strong brand recognition within the community,” says McIntyre. “So our brand recognition allows us to gain the interest of a lot of people from all different walks of life.”

McIntyre says that growing concern – especially among young people – about environmental issues and corporate social responsibility also helps them attract good people who want to work for, what they feel, is a worthwhile cause rather than a typical corporate.

“The shift for people wanting to contribute to that broader social responsibility element has really assisted us also to attract and retain highly skilled staff,” she says. “We’re seeing people who want to work for an organisation that actively contributes to the community and have a strong sense of motivation and satisfaction arising from that.”