Unilever HRD: 'The balance between human interaction and technology is key'

Shruti Ganeriwala sits down with HRD to talk mindfulness and the importance of mental health champions

Unilever HRD: 'The balance between human interaction and technology is key'

Everyone has their own way of perfecting their mental and physical wellbeing. For Shruti Ganeriwala, her chosen methods are yoga, reading and spending time with her husband and daughter. Ganeriwala, HR director, foods and refreshments at Unilever ANZ for the past seven years, recently addressed an audience at our HR Tech summit on the intersection between mental health and technology.

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While tech tools have enabled access to information and resources to better understand our own health, multiple pieces of research suggest that tech has a negative impact on psychological wellbeing. Hours spent in front of a computer often add to a sense of isolation, exacerbated by remote working and the isolation of the pandemic. The background to all this is a mountain of workplace stress. According to a 2019 survey conducted by LinkedIn, nearly half of workers today suffer stress in their jobs, with 70% of them feeling it from their workload and work-life balance. 

Post pandemic, data shows that this anxiety is lingering.

Fostering healthy workplace cultures, monitoring appropriate behaviour, identifying hazards and managing risk are priority planks in HR workplace strategies – and all are backed up by legislation and penalties for employers who don’t comply. It’s a question of finding equilibrium between flexible and face-to-face work and the tools and structures needed to make that happen.

“Balance between human interaction and technology is key,” Ganeriwala says. When you have an organisation as large as Unilever, getting around to the 900-plus employees spread across Australia and New Zealand is simply unfeasible and tapping into technology, such as Tools for Teams, offers solutions.

It’s about reach and accessibility, says Ganeriwala, using tools that focus on individual needs and reinforcing them with in-person initiatives. Aligning with her own preferences, for example, is the company’s headspace meditation app, which can be accessed any time by employees but is also backed up by lunchtime meditation classes in offices.

As part of a strategy around developing mindfulness and emotional wellbeing, Unilever has been rolling out training for its global workforce long before the pandemic. In 2021, Unilever upskilled 4,000 of its staff as mental health champions, putting them through a developmental curriculum and boosting their skills to become peer supporters. This operates alongside an EAP, but as their chief medical officer and vice president of global health, Diana Han, said in a Mindful webinar: “There’s nothing more impactful than being able to reach out to a colleague who understands your environment and the stresses that you’re under from a professional standpoint, but also from a human standpoint.”

Where technology really opens a window for HR leaders is through measuring the impact of their initiatives. Afterall, if you’re not measuring the ROI on your investments, how can HR petition the C-suite for a bigger slice of their budget?

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“The metric that we can report on the most consistently comes directly through the voices of our workforce. Every month we are ‘sense checking’ with the workforce and a lot of questions are very focused on health and wellbeing,” Han says.

Questions such as: “Do you feel that you are able to speak up when there is a challenge from a mental health standpoint?” are part of a team toolkit focused on psychological safety. And any teams scoring in the bottom 30% are given extra coaching. Metrics improved throughout the pandemic which, given the challenges, was good news for Unilever.

“Since lockdown we have done a series of mental health sessions such as around suicide prevention. The change has been the speed at which we are doing this mental health first aid, and it includes everyone: our board went through a full day of training around mental health,” Ganeriwala says.

Unilever works in partnership with experts invited to address personnel - but there’s also a focus on internal storytelling with senior leaders talking about mental health challenges they may have faced.

Ganeriwala says one of the lessons learnt by senior management was that interventions had to be customised to what works for each particular employee group.

“We had our people from factories or field teams coming along to mental health and wellbeing sessions that would be very head-office based. We had to try wearing different hats, engage the right people and give information in the right way that would be received well,” Ganeriwala says.

The rise of the CMO

Feedback showed them that employees appreciated using technology as the most inclusive approach. Another interesting development of the pandemic has been the rise of Han’s role in large, consumer-facing companies. Many companies have added a CMO to their leadership teams or extended the role to include contributing to strategy, overseeing compliance and shaping internal policies and culture. But where does the role and responsibilities crossover with an employee’s manager or that of HR professionals?

In Han’s case, the CMO role includes setting policies for employee wellbeing and overseeing their implementation. But the CMO role also offers potential for product and service expansion, such as digital health, clinics and market access.

With no guarantee that another pandemic isn’t around the corner, the role of both CMOs and the use of technology to support health and wellbeing in the workplace are surely here to stay. For HR leaders, it’s about finding that balance between a reliance on emerging tech and the irreparable role of human connection post-pandemic. 

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