AkzoNobel’s UK HR Director, Edward Elliott, speaks to myGrapevine magazine about the firm’s virtual wellbeing festival ‘Wellfest’ – and the importance of giving employees a voice...
The pandemic placed workplace wellbeing firmly at the heart of the business agenda. According to research by mental health charity Mind, one-third of UK residents experienced a deterioration in their mental health – but while some businesses rushed to respond to the wellbeing challenges of the pandemic, others failed to respond appropriately at all. In fact, research from Mental Health First Aid found that, shockingly, 25% of staff claimed that their workplace had not checked in on their mental health since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
However, some organisations were ahead of the game – including the multinational paint and performance coatings manufacturer, AkzoNobel. The Amsterdam-headquartered firm, which owns brands including Dulux, Hammerite and Cuprinol, has 33,000 employees to look after (3,200 of which are in the UK), meaning that supporting wellbeing has to be a top priority. According to Edward Elliott, AkzoNobel’s UK HR Director, wellbeing had been a focus for the company – and at the heart of the people function’s agenda – since long before the pandemic.
In a recent interview with myGrapevine magazine, Edward explains that, what changed during the pandemic wasn’t AkzoNobel’s focus on the wellbeing of its employees, but how they delivered it. Working from home forced the company to review how it used technology. Edward says: “What the pandemic did for us is make sure we utilised the virtual space and made it more equitable and inclusive.”
'Wellfest' was a truly amazing experience
The company – whose purpose is ‘people, planet, paint’ – already had an employee-led HR programme in place, Thrive, which consists of eight networks: LGBT+, women, ethnically diverse, mental health, physical health, working parents, career and capability development, and sustainability – that deliver information and support to colleagues throughout the organisation. “Each network has a pillar lead that sits on the management board that I chair, and they have their own team of volunteers from across the business,” Edward says. These volunteers work with colleagues to provide ideas and input into the events and support material that Thrive delivers.
When the pandemic hit, the organisation was already listening to the needs of its employees, thanks to Thrive. So, when a group of employees – led by Steve Hill, Territory Manager at AkzoNobel UK & Ireland and part of AkzoNobel’s internal Thrive team – came up with the idea of a virtual wellness festival during lockdown, they got the support from the leadership team that they were looking for.
The result was ‘Wellfest’; an employee-led, virtual wellbeing festival which ran for four weeks during March 2021 throughout the UK and Ireland. The free-to-attend festival consisted of 110 events over seven virtual ‘tents’ – health and nutrition, mental health, a kids’ tent, hobbies, physical activities, and a talk café – with events taking place at different times, including early mornings, lunchtimes and evenings, to suit different employees’ working patterns.
“For colleagues with easy access to emails, we could use internal social media to keep them updated with what was going on. For colleagues that didn’t have that same access, we utilised QR codes and team briefs to make it as easy as possible for everyone to get involved,” Edward explains. The events were also recorded so employees with different working patterns could watch them on demand – a practice the company has continued, and which demonstrates how technology has helped make them more inclusive.
‘Wellfest’ was a hit, with 3,000 tickets booked for events that included talks by high-profile speakers such as ex-special forces-turned-TV star Jason Fox, polar adventurer Victoria Humphries, and radio DJ and wellbeing champion Fearne Cotton. However, despite such famous faces taking part in the workplace wellbeing event, employee experience and workplace wellbeing remained at the beating heart of the festival. “What was really lovely was that colleagues across the business gave up their own time to host events,” Edward smiles. “We had yoga, a cook-along and cocktail making. There was a real sense of community at a time when people needed to feel connected and included.”
We’re really proud to be building a diverse and inclusive culture where everyone can perform at their best
This focus on the employee experience is, in Edwards’ view, why the event was so successful. “In the past, HR has been reluctant to share the planning and execution of wellbeing [initiatives], but for me, the key element of the employee experience is giving that voice to colleagues and encouraging them to give their input,” he says. “What made ‘Wellfest’ really special – and actually this is central to the way we approach wellbeing at AkzoNobel – is that it was by colleagues, for colleagues. They came up with the idea and pitched for the budget. If it had been an HR-driven activity, I’m not sure it would have had the same impact because authentic people were talking about things that mattered to them, and that has a real power to engage people. That really created the blueprint for what else we’ve done on wellbeing.”
The ‘Wellfest’ event was repeated in May 2022 – but tweaked slightly to reflect the fact that the country had come out of lockdown. “We knew we wanted to run it again – things had changed but the desire was still there,” Edward explains. This year, it ran for two weeks, themed round mental health awareness – the first week coincided with Mental Health Awareness Week – and included in-person as well as virtual events. “With us coming back to the office, having that opportunity to connect was really important,” Edward explains.
Again, ‘Wellfest’ was a success, with nearly 2,000 tickets booked over 60 events. This year’s speakers included Josh Connolly, a mental health advocate who beat a life of addiction and gang culture to become a resilience coach – but again, it was the employee-run events that gave the festival its unique sense of inclusiveness. “One of our own – Dulux Creative Director, Marianne Shillingford, did a painting masterclass that was really well attended,” Edward continues. “What wellbeing means for me – and all of us at AkzoNobel – is giving colleagues a strong voice, and we do that through initiatives like ‘Wellfest’ and Thrive.”
The high attendance rates at ‘Wellfest’ – as well as Thrive's sessions, which have included work around domestic abuse and the menopause – demonstrate that AkzoNobel’s employees are really engaging with the company’s wellbeing initiatives and thus with the company itself. Data by US-based research firm Gallup has revealed that engaged employees produce better business outcomes than other employees across industry, company size and nationality, with business units that are highly engaged having 21% greater profitability. So, not only are AkzoNobel’s wellness initiatives good for employees, they’re good for business too.
“Giving people a voice and empowering them to work on wellbeing activities is really good for engagement,” Edward agrees – but for him, the focus is all about inclusivity. “We’re bringing 3,200 colleagues from all across the UK and Ireland together in a community. We’re really proud to be building a diverse and inclusive culture where everyone can perform at their best. We want colleagues to feel respected and welcome,” he says.
What the pandemic did for us was make sure we utilised the virtual space and made it more equitable and inclusive
What’s also important to Edward – and AkzoNobel as a whole – is that the company doesn’t just walk the walk on wellbeing, it talks the talk, ensuring that colleagues have the support they need at all times. Although the company is looking to create safe spaces where people can have honest and open conversations about topics that matter to them, whether that’s breaking taboos around mental health, or physical health topics like the menopause, it also wants to ensure employees have the tools to tackle these issues. “It’s not just about talking about these matters, but putting in place appropriate support, whether that be education and awareness for people managers, to introducing mental first aiders, to highlighting and signposting people towards external support services,” Edward says. “But again, it’s more than these things – it’s also about helping people navigate and be confident in an ever-changing world.”
Of course, inclusive work communities are also good for business. Not only does it make sense that work environments where colleagues are engaged and supported would enable them to work together more effectively as a team, but a whitepaper by Cloverpop found that inclusive teams actually make better business decisions up to 87% of the time, and they make those decisions twice as fast within half as many meetings.
Bev Whitehead, Marketing Manager at Dulux Decorator Centre, was one of the Thrive team who helped organise ‘Wellfest’ 2021 and 2022.
She commented: “With over 60 events run by colleagues for our colleagues, ‘Wellfest’ was a truly amazing experience. I feel privileged to be part of a company that has its employees’ health and wellbeing at the heart of its strategy.
“Activities ranged from talks about mindfulness, managing stress, nutrition and menopause to fitness classes, comedy, furniture renovations, cooking classes – there really was something for everyone. Most importantly, it helped connect and build relationships across different teams right across the business,” she added.
It’s clear from her enthusiasm that ‘Wellfest’ really did deliver in, not just helping colleagues with their physical and mental health, but in building engagement.
Going forwards, the company plans to continue its strong focus on employee-led wellbeing. “Thrive will continue to play a large part, and its success is due to the colleagues that drive it forward,” Edward explains. “For me, it’s about continuing to listen to what wellbeing topics and issues we should be discussing, and what we need to be creating guidance and support on. It’s about giving voice and empowering people to really move forward – with HR as the partner.”
In the meantime, it’s encouraging to see a company that puts employee engagement and wellbeing front and centre – and is daring to bring it out of the HR department and put it into the hands of employees themselves. Unhealthy, unengaged employees are a drag on not just productivity but, obviously, profitability – and who knows better than employees themselves what will help them to engage with the company? Creating a strong employee-led wellbeing programme, as AkzoNobel has done, is one highly effective way of achieving this. After all, as research by Salesforce found, employees who feel their voice is heard are 4.6 times more likely to feel empowered to perform their best work. The future for AkzoNobel looks very bright indeed.