Case studies

Why Saint-Gobain decided wellbeing should begin with healthier leaders

29 Mar 2018 By Marianne Calnan

Focusing on management first has helped the firm create a company-wide wellbeing culture

Facing a shortage of skilled labour only exacerbated by potential further losses as EU workers head overseas with Brexit looming, the manufacturing sector needs to do everything it can to hold on to staff.

Construction material manufacturer and distributor Saint-Gobain is no exception. The company owns many familiar industry brands, including British Gypsum, Jewson and Weber, and employs more than 17,000 staff in the UK and Ireland across its manufacturing sites, retail outlets, offices and extensive distribution network.

For Natalie Harvey, head of L&D for Saint-Gobain UK and Ireland, the key to attracting and retaining people was to treat them as just that. “Sustainable development has been at the heart of our strategy for some time and, by looking into sustainable leadership, we discovered a clear link between staff engagement, wellbeing and business performance. We had already done a lot of work on our environmental credentials, so it was time to look at our people credentials.”

Conscious of growing burnout among senior leaders, Harvey set out to develop wellbeing and resilience within Saint-Gobain’s management, which would in turn help improve their performance. “We decided to focus on factors that can negatively affect our people, such as stress, fatigue, a poor work-life balance, obesity, lack of sleep and a bad diet,” she says. 

Harvey and her team worked with Mary Sisson, director at leadership development and coaching solution provider Awbery Management Centre. “The programme we developed with Saint-Gobain is based on our new leadership project, ‘Fit To Lead’,” says Sisson. “This integrates leadership development and mental and physical wellbeing, and is based on our research into burnout in leaders.”

Harvey says: “We wanted a programme that would sit within our existing health and wellbeing strategy, ‘Fit4Work, Fit4Life’, but was designed specifically for leaders. The idea being that starting at the top would gradually inculcate a culture of wellbeing across the organisation. If employees are healthier, they’re generally happier, and so are those around them – plus they are more resilient, lose fewer days to illness, are more productive at work and are more likely to want to stay with us longer. It’s a win-win situation.”

However, some members of senior management were sceptical about how much executives would prioritise their wellbeing. “I needed to prove how important boosting leaders’ awareness of their health and wellbeing was to effective leadership and business performance,” says Harvey. “It’s just as critical as developing their skills.”

Management convinced, the newly created Fit2Lead programme began with a 20-week pilot for 16 leaders in January 2016. Accessible through an online learning platform via both desktop and mobile to cater for a workforce spread across the UK and Ireland, the programme allows participants to track their personal health and wellbeing journey and access a range of resources, including nutritional advice. 

Participants record a series of health metrics at the start of the programme, including their weight, blood pressure, cholesterol and body fat, alongside taking fitness tests. Kitted out with fitness trackers, refillable water bottles, reflection journals and food and exercise diaries, individuals are also paired with a ‘fit buddy’ for extra support and encouragement, and given access to presentations from speakers including Olympic gold medal-winning athlete Sally Gunnell and cardiovascular specialist Dr Dorian Dugmore.

Despite some initial scepticism (“It was like pulling teeth – our leaders just didn’t see the need,” says Harvey), all 16 of those in the pilot scheme became strong advocates for the programme, even introducing further initiatives within their own teams. When the pilot ended in May 2016, they had collectively lost 37lb in weight, reduced their waist measurements by 35cm and improved their fitness levels by 22 per cent.

“The numbers are just the tip of the iceberg,” says Harvey. “Other improvements will take longer, but will reach much further. When our pilot participants started telling their colleagues, it snowballed and suddenly there was a wave of interest right through the business.”

Fit2Lead’s success was followed by a second, equally successful cohort. A third is now underway for 30 executives in Saint-Gobain’s building distribution sector, and will be quickly followed by a fourth in the construction products sector.

“We’ve heard some really positive stories from those who have taken part,” says Harvey. “The CEO of one of our sectors joined the scheme, and brought his new knowledge back to his team, who are now eating, exercising and sleeping better, and therefore performing better at work. It shows the importance of treating people as people.”

Beyond Fit2Lead, all 17,000 of Saint-Gobain’s UK and Ireland employees have felt the benefits of extra health and fitness initiatives across the firm, such as walking meetings, healthier options in canteens, competitive group walking, free fruit, a focus on improved hydration, standing desks and a new programme focusing on mental health called ‘It’s OK not to be OK’.

As well as improving their wellbeing, Harvey believes that the programme has helped make its participants more effective at their jobs: “Leaders need to have awareness of their impact on others and a greater sense of self, and the ability to listen, empathise and be inspiring.” 

With all its successes, was Fit2Lead worth the investment? Harvey is confident it was: “In terms of the results we have achieved and will continue to see, the shift to a culture that values health and wellbeing, and the growing strength of the workforce’s internal relationships, it wasn’t expensive at all.”

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