Unilever gets down to business with health

by 18 May 2010

Proving the financial worth of corporate health and wellbeing programs is often a challenge. HR Leader finds out how manufacturer Unilever has developed a robust program that is hardwired into business outcomes

Corporate health and wellbeing programs are often seen as warm and fuzzy HR initiatives, with no hard and fast business benefits. While the outcomes of such programs are often positive anecdotally, proving their financial worth is another thing. One company that has taken the lead in this area is Unilever, which has developed a global health and wellbeing program that is hardwired into business outcomes.

The program, called Lamplighter, was initially created in 2001 following a request from senior company leaders to help them improve and manage their energy levels, to allow them to get the most out of their personal time and find ways to better manage their heavy workloads, according to Dean Patterson, global health and productivity manager for Unilever.

It proved such a success that it was piloted in a number of categories and regions between 2003 and 2008. Following strong support from Unilever’s global CEO, Paul Polman, Lamplighter went global in 2009 and is currently being implemented in 30 Unilever countries reaching 35,000 employees. At Unilever Australia, the Lamplighter program is currently being piloted under the name ‘Ignite U’.

Elements of success

Unlike the community-based health approach many companies offer their employees, Patterson says Lamplighter is a specially-tailored and confidential program which addresses not only many aspects of physical health, but mental health issues as well.

“Using a top down approach, whereby senior leaders champion the program for the rest of the business, helps to encourage employee participation. Leaders and managers can inspire individuals to take responsibility for their own health through leading by example,” he explains.

While the format of the program differs slightly in each country where it is implemented, in order to account for cultural and other differences, Patterson says it always includes the following fundamental elements:

A nutrition component: Following a nutritional assessment (often involving a blood chemistry test) employees are offered tailored nutritional advice to reduce lifestyle risk factors such as blood pressure, cholesterol, poor diet, and so on.

An exercise component: A personal exercise plan is developed for the individual based on health requirements and the employee’s personal goals.

A mental resilience component: Usually in the form of an online tool which employees can use to monitor and improve their individual pressure levels as well as identify the sources of pressure in their lives.

A reassessment: After an initial six months in the Lamplighter program, individuals are reassessed to track progress.

Business benefits

Through Lamplighter, Patterson says Unilever has become one of the first organisations to be able to prove the relationship between health, engagement and performance.

A study, evaluated by Lancaster University, found that employees who participated in Lamplighter felt significantly more engaged with their work and were less likely to take time off work due to health problems, able to perform better in their job, less likely to be adversely affected by pressure at work and more likely to practice healthy behaviours at work.

Further, the overall number of employees classed as a “high health risk” dropped by 5 per cent and the overall number of employees classed as a “low health risk” increased by 23 per cent. “Increasing the number of employees in our low risk population ultimately means cost savings for the business, as low risk employees cost the company less money in health care costs and absenteeism,” Patterson explains.

Unilever first measured the impacts of Lamplighter in 2003 on a small group of employees across three of its UK sites. “Not only did we see impressive improvements to the health and energy levels of our people, the business also benefited from a financial return on investment of £3.73: 1. So for every £1 ($1.64) Unilever invested in its employees, it got back almost £4 ($6.59) through reduced health care costs and increased productivity,” Patterson says.

Lessons learned through Lamplighter

Establishing a clear global strategy is important not only for establishing global targets and mapping a plan of action, but also for guiding regional and country adopters, Patterson says.

“The way the program is branded and communicated internally and externally is key. Having a solid communications strategy and look and feel in place can help speed up a global rollout where implementation is optional, as is the case with Lamplighter,” says Patterson, who adds that it also helps establish a global appearance and overall tone for the program.

When crafting a health and wellbeing program such as Lamplighter, he also says it’s important to distinguish between the wants of an individual and their health requirements. “Differentiating between these two will help to ensure a comprehensive and successful program.”

How to measure the success of a health and wellbeing program

The Health & Productivity Institute of Australia’s Best-Practice Guidelines recommend that a comprehensive evaluation strategy involves:

1. Clear goals and objectives

2. An effective data management system which provides clear, simple, accessible and

aggregated data in a meaningful format

3. Valid and reliable methods and measurements

4. Using both qualitative and quantitative methodologies, process evaluation (evaluates the implementation of strategies), impact (measures whether the program met its objectives) and outcome (evaluates the long-term effect of the program, specifically whether the program met its goal)

5. An annual review mechanism to regularly scrutinise and review performance. This includes reaffirming management approval, redefining management expectations, and repeating the needs assessment

6. Linkage to organisational key performance indicators

7. Internal and external benchmarking

8. Dissemination of results to senior leadership, key stakeholders and employees