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“Unilever is taking the agenda of mental wellbeing forward through a holistic approach, which can be tailored to the particular needs of employees in different parts of the organisation, enabling the organisation to drive real business benefit and impressive ROI.”
 

Started MHFA training
October 2013

Line Managers trained (bespoke four hour course)
1,600

Mental Health First Aiders trained (Two Day course)
250
 

Multinational consumer goods company Unilever employs 7,000 staff across the UK and Ireland in office, factory, and research and development sites. In recent years the organisation has been awarded for its Wellbeing Strategy and specifically for its approach to mental health. 

Unilever’s Wellbeing Strategy focuses on four aspects of employee health: mental, emotional and physical wellbeing, and a sense of purpose. Nikki Kirbell, Unilever’s UK and Ireland Wellbeing Lead, explains this holistic approach: “The key areas of wellbeing are interlinked – you cannot look after one effectively without looking after the others. Rather than targeting any one issue with the strategy, we chose to incorporate a person’s entire wellbeing.” 

Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) training is now an embedded part of this strategy and one which has reaped rewards for the business and its staff.
 

Why we train our staff in MHFA

Data collected on absences and occupational health referrals had highlighted to senior leaders that mental health was a leading cause of sickness absence, and was one of the top three reasons for employees claiming through the company’s private medical insurance scheme. On World Mental Health Day 2013, the Line Manager MHFA programme was launched in Unilever UK and Ireland. 

As part of its Wellbeing Strategy, the organisation has taken a unique approach to rolling out MHFA. Used as a mandatory training tool for line managers across key sites, Unilever commissioned MHFA Associate Instructors to deliver a bespoke half day version of the course.

“We recognise that line managers have such a complex and varied role so we wanted to give them the best toolkit to support their teams.”

Nikki explains: “We recognise that line managers have such a complex and varied role, so we wanted to give them the best toolkit to support their teams. To date we have trained over 50 percent of our line managers in MHFA skills and the feedback has been very positive from those who have attended a course.”  Unilever looks to embed supportive conversations as a key part of line management “For example, instead of jumping straight into performance discussions in a one-to-one, we encourage line managers to ask the employee how they are and gain a sense of their current wellbeing” says Nikki.

“By listening and responding to their emotional needs we give people a much better chance of fulfilling their true potential.”

Leading by example, senior executives have shared their own personal stories, and have been behind the programme from the beginning. Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever, says: “By listening and responding to their emotional needs we give people a much better chance of fulfilling their true potential, which is good for them and good for the company.”
 

Results

One of the first noticeable changes since incorporating MHFA into line management training was staff becoming more comfortable reporting mental health as a reason for sickness absence. This culture change had the added benefit of allowing the Medical and Occupational Health team to collect more accurate data and be more strategic in developing a targeted Wellbeing Strategy across the organisation’s many sites. 

The pattern of absences has started to get shorter and Nikki suggests that the increased awareness of mental health amongst staff has enabled line managers to pick up potential issues much sooner. Added to this, and because of the firm’s clear and open approach to promoting health and wellbeing, employees are more efficiently accessing support. This support is facilitating swifter, more positive recoveries, and in many cases preventing a situation from becoming a serious health issue.

A widely communicated intranet ‘Employee Health Hub’ gives staff access to advice, resources, and to a variety of further support tools such as online mental health training courses and trained counsellors who are available 24/7 through the Employee Assistance Programme. Employees can also be triaged to face-to-face support through the Unilever Personal Resilience tool, which is a questionnaire designed to give employees a ‘temperature check’ of their resilience and mental wellbeing. The anonymised reports that are generated can also flag up patterns, helping to focus relevant aspects of the Wellbeing Strategy to priority sites.

Also driving the strategy is Unilever’s Wellbeing Scorecard, which tracks trends in data from the Employee Assistance Programme, Occupational Health referrals, Private Medical Insurance usage, absence data, resource usage, health check outcomes and employee feedback. Nikki breaks the data down by site and by work environment to highlight key areas of focus. The central team collaborate with the regional sites, sharing best practice and encouraging them to take responsibility for their site wellbeing initiatives as part of a whole organisation.

The Wellbeing Strategy has also attracted praise from external sources. Patrick Watt, Corporate Director of Bupa UK, judged it “an extremely comprehensive programme which gives parity of mental health with physical health.” Patrick went on to highlight how Unilever is “taking the agenda of mental wellbeing forward through a holistic approach which can be tailored to the particular needs of employees in different parts of the organisation, enabling the organisation to drive real business benefit and impressive ROI.”


What the future holds

Following on from the success of the Line Manager training, Unilever has implemented a peer-to-peer support network to continue the work to destigmatise mental health issues in the workplace and to provide employees with improved access to wellbeing resource support. Based on a similar model to physical first aid, Unilever has set up 'Time to Talk' teams across all sites comprised of volunteer employees who have attended the Two Day Mental Health First Aid training programme.  These employees are available to listen and guide colleagues to relevant wellbeing resources. The teams are supporting Unilever’s commitment that no employee is ever more than #1chat1call1click away from support.

Maintaining momentum around Unilever’s Wellbeing Strategy across the UK and Ireland business and effectively communicating the available support services to all employees will be one of the many challenges that Nikki meets over the coming months and years. With such a varied employee demographic and regional spread, it is important that the organisation develops innovative ways to engage staff in its Wellbeing programme. For example, the fact that factory staff tend not to use PCs in their daily work presents a communications challenge. A solution which has recently been launched is a bespoke smartphone wellbeing app, which gives instant access to all of the available resources.  This has been extremely well received and will continue to develop to be a ‘one stop shop’ for all things employee health at Unilever.

Going forward, the key to keeping line managers and employees educated and engaged with wellbeing will encompass a range of training and support tools, including the continued use of MHFA as an intrinsic part of the programme. Nikki concludes: “Our aim is to raise the mental health literacy of our employee population. We are committed to sharing what we have learnt on this journey so far of increasing mental health awareness and empowering line managers and employees to take a holistic approach to wellbeing.”