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Why, for Unilever, wellbeing has to start with local culture change

Unilever is behind some 400 household-name consumer goods, including the Dove brand. Image: Shutterstock

Approaching employee wellbeing through a local lens and getting senior teams to lead culture change should form part of a global health and wellbeing strategy, Leena Nair, chief HR officer at manufacturing powerhouse Unilever told delegates at a recent conference. Ashleigh Webber reports.

Although supporting employee health and wellbeing has always been a necessity, the Covid-19 pandemic has driven it even further up the agenda, with job insecurity, work-life balance struggles, social isolation, health risks and bereavement all having an impact on employees’ mental and physical health.

It is often accepted that smaller businesses, where leaders, managers and colleagues sometimes have a closer relationship, have a better understanding of staff wellbeing needs and are often better at spotting when somebody is struggling. But, at the MAD World Summit in October, Unilever’s chief HR officer Leena Nair told attendees that larger, multinational organisations could also have a hugely positive impact on employee wellbeing.

The consumer goods giant has been on a seven-year journey to change its culture and make it easier for employees to talk about their mental health.

“All of us have mental health and we all have good days and bad days,” she said. “We must make it okay for people to talk about it… breaking down the stigma that surrounds it.” Nair said a key part of this is getting senior leaders – including the c-suite – to open up about their own wellbeing struggles and be ‘vulnerable’ with their colleagues, setting an example for others to follow. This has been particularly pertinent during the current pandemic.

“It’s getting easier because almost all of them have a story to tell about their own family and friends and the struggles they’re facing,” she said. “Leaders need compassion, empathy and vulnerability. I’ve shared with my team and the entire company my concerns for my aged parents.

“We’ve lost some Unilever colleagues to Covid and every time the phone rings [with the news], it’s like somebody has stuck a knife in you. It really hurts because these are our people and we know them well – they’re our friends and family. Without compassion and empathy you can’t create a psychologically safe environment.”

‘What is wellbeing?’

Unilever – which produces 400 household-name brands including Dove, Lipton and Comfort – had made great strides in its wellbeing journey long before Covid-19 hit. It began by focusing on answering the question “what is wellbeing?” and defined it as something physical, mental, emotional and purposeful.

Acknowledging that finding meaning at work is one of the key drivers of wellbeing, the company has committed to putting 100% of employees through ‘purpose workshops’, to help them understand what drives them and what they are passionate about. At the time of writing, around 60,000 of its global workforce of 155,000 have taken part.

All of Unilever’s actions around wellbeing fall under four pillars: culture, leadership, prevention and support.  With such a culturally diverse workforce spanning more than 100 countries, local leaders were empowered to adapt and deliver the strategy in ways that worked for their people.

“The word ‘wellbeing’ when translated into some of our Asian cultures means ‘crazy’, so you have to allow for local empowerment to make it right and relevant for their part of the world,” said Nair.

An example of a programme that falls under the ‘culture’ and ‘support’ pillars are the “thrive workshops” the company runs, which give staff the opportunity to talk about their mental health and wellbeing more openly. Some 50,000 employees have taken part so far.

Some 3,000 employees have been trained as mental health champions and are there to support colleagues who may be struggling. Every employee now has a “My Future Plan”, which considers an employee’s purpose and how it is lived through their role with Unilever, wellbeing and areas where they may need further support, leadership development, and skills.

“The plan formally puts wellbeing into how we look at your performance and development for the year and that’s a really big commitment to changing the culture,” said Nair. Leaders’ performance is also assessed on employee wellbeing measures, and senior teams are held accountable for driving the culture change.

Impact of Covid-19

This approach, said Nair, has been hugely successful in maintaining a positive culture around mental health and wellbeing during the ongoing Covid-19 crisis. For some time, Unilever has provided a range of resources to employees, including legal, financial, and relationship (among others), as well as tools around wellbeing and mental health. Over the past several months, the organisation had seen a 55% increase in people accessing this support, said Nair.

“Employee engagement is through the roof. Pride in Unilever is in the high 90s. Every measure has increased significantly because people think we’ve really taken care of their wellbeing in this Covid crisis… People really see Unilever is putting their wellbeing first and that has a huge role to play in how engaged they are and how willing they are to go the extra mile,” Nair added.

To thank staff for their commitment during such a difficult time and to give them a well-earned break, all Unilever employees were given the same day off at the beginning of October. Closing the business for a day meant staff did not have to worry about missing a meeting or responding to emails their colleagues were sending while they were away.

Nair explained that changing the way Unilever employees across the globe feel and act about their wellbeing didn’t come without its challenges – which in many ways have been exacerbated during the pandemic.

“Every country has responded differently to Covid and we’ve had to lean into medical infrastructure like never before,” she said, revealing that the company had bought a quarter of a million tests for 17 of the countries that didn’t have them, and introduced support for vulnerable workers, bereaved families, domestic abuse victims, and those struggling with childcare during school closures.

“The companies that truly value wellbeing have stood out because they have put people first, have protected lives and livelihoods, and looked out for the health and wellbeing of their people,” Nair said. “Personally, it’s been the most stretching six months of my life and the most fulfilling. It’s a human tragedy and a huge crisis, but if we don’t step up now, when will we?”

While Unilever has made great headway in improving employee wellbeing, Nair was hesitant to describe the company’s strategy as a success as she believes it still has some way to go. “Unless 100% of people in Unilever say it cares about their wellbeing, the job isn’t done,” she said.

Nair believed this work is only going to become more challenging, particularly as the long term mental, emotional and physical health effects of the pandemic are yet to be seen. “Thirty-five per cent of people surveyed recently said Covid has impacted their health, wellbeing and the way they think about life,” Nair said. “Covid should convince us, if nothing else does, of the importance of staff wellbeing.”

Lessons learnt

Finally, at the MAD World Summit, Leena Nair shared some of the lessons she had learnt on Unilever’s employee wellbeing journey over the past few years. “You need to get those at the top table to take a lead,” she advised. “The sense of awareness has to be at that level.”

Secondly, measuring the outcome of wellbeing interventions, and holding people accountable for their successful delivery, is essential. “Whether it be what we’re learning from employee assistance programmes, or the measurement of returns and enhancement of productivity that we see. If you don’t measure it nothing will change,” said Nair. “Things don’t change because you say they’re important, they change because you set expectations and you hold people accountable. We’re never confused about who is responsible for top-line growth… so why do we get confused about who is responsible for wellbeing and inclusion?”

Finally, she warned that culture change takes time, effort and investment. “You can’t do it as a ‘side project’ on a Friday afternoon. You need to invest resources, infrastructure and people,” advised Nair.

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