In this third instalment of our UNLEASHcast interview series we sit down with Gethin Nadin, chief innovation officer at Benefex, to talk employee engagement, expectation, centricity, wellbeing, app store saturation and a great deal more besides. Don’t miss out!
Check out the the audio above, or the full transcript beneath…
UNLEASH: Gethin thanks very much for talking to UNLEASHcast today, we are talking about employee expectations, a number of things – sustainability, wellbeing, this is reflecting a new role you’ve got as well.
Let’s talk about the employee, what seems to be more and more the keystone of every business if it wasn’t already. You came to me with an idea, or a statement of intent really, that the employee is the new primary stakeholder in an organization? Can you explain a bit about what you mean?
Gethin Nadin: It was something I started thinking about just before the pandemic. There seemed to be this common trait I was seeing with successful organizations where they were almost unreservedly putting the employee first. So I was looking at some big case studies of big organizations, mostly US centric or global, who were really doubling down on the idea that if we really support our people, and give them everything they need, they will deliver the best product for us, they’ll deliver the best customer service, they’ll innovate more, they’ll collaborate more.
From the research I was doing, a common feature of a successful organization was one that put the employee at the center. I started to do some separate research projects starting in mid 2020, looking at what most people strategies look like (and I’m in a pretty advantageous position where lots of the customers that I work with, very large enterprise global customers, send me their people strategies for me to look over and just feed back).
So, I was trying to look at what are the common themes, why isn’t everyone as successful as some of these big case study businesses where organizations were, and it felt to me that I looked at so many people strategy documents, it almost felt like one day at a conference many years ago, somebody created a template for the people strategy, and from that point on, everyone had used it. But they were very much centered on: how do we use people to get what the business wants?
So it’s putting the organization’s needs at the middle, and then trying to make sure that the employees fall into that and achieve things. So, we were effectively looking at how do we squeeze people as much as possible to get whatever we need to get out of them to be successful? And I think that’s how most businesses operated. A long time ago, for hundreds of years, it’s been: you go to work, you get paid, that’s the end of the relationship, that’s the end of the transaction.
But that was changing quite a lot in the run up to the pandemic, and buoyed by the pandemic, that whole situation has changed, where actually the employee is much more influential in that relationship than they probably ever have been.
And so, when I started to look at those people strategies, I started to devise my own model of employee experience, which was, if you put the employee at the center, and you support them in the way that they need, they will create good things – and employees are appreciating assets. I always felt [that] if you gave them the benefits that will support them through their lives, if you help them when they went through a mental health crisis, or a debt crisis, if you were really accommodating of the challenges they would face in life, they would repay you back with the loyalty that you needed, delivering better customer service.
And there is a great quote, which is: nobody comes up with a great idea when they’re being chased by a lion.
So I think if we could help employees remove some of their stresses in life, or help them deal with them better, would we actually have a better result? And we started to see some really good examples of companies understanding this. The one that springs to mind is Lidl in the UK: one of the big discount supermarkets, but also one of the fastest growing, is now the highest paying supermarkets. They’ve realized that actually, if we start to do all the right things by people, we will start to get the best people in the job, and we’ll help deliver the best customer service and and that will have an impact on our business. If you look at some of the research that came out of people like Gallup and McKinsey over the last couple of months, it starts to ratify that.
So for the first time since they’ve been measuring it, Gallup have now found that most people say, and when I say most people, it’s [about] 95% of people, that the employee is the most important stakeholder. No longer customers, no longer shareholders, no longer investors, but employees. That’s a big, big shift, a generational shift in how businesses operate and what business is there for. That’s been pretty significant to see that happening.
UNLEASH: Your first comment was that this is mostly seen in larger businesses about employees becoming the primary stakeholder. Do you see this filtering down to smaller organizations? It’s more difficult for them to apply these these philosophies because perhaps they haven’t got the time or the money for research.
GN: I get asked this quite a lot. I think with employee experience, I’d say it’s easier to deliver when you’ve got less people. It’s much easier to run a culture and to manage the employee experience when you’re under 100 people; it becomes far more difficult when you’re employing tens of thousands of people, because most people’s experience working for you is just their experience of working in that team, or that department with one manager.
When you look at designing employee experiences at work, when you look at designing wellbeing experiences, you almost triy to take money out of the equation, because you can think back to what it’s like to be human and what people want from our lives. And – this is pretty much the theme of my first book – you don’t have to be Google or LinkedIn or Apple who can be really experimental and spend a lot of money. Anyone who manages an SME can communicate more transparently, and can listen to their employees more. It’s obviously much easier to do that when you can get all your employees in one room at one time than it is to send a survey out to 10,000 people.
UNLEASH: A crucial part of putting the employee at the center has come through wellbeing as well. Maybe we don’t need to mention the reasons why wellbeing has come to the fore over the last couple of years, but we’re seeing an interesting development in wellbeing technologies – before it was something that was definitely a nice to have, and you know that it’s the right thing to do but not quite sure how to maybe implement it. So, talk a bit about the developments there.
GN: It’s interesting. the wellbeing market is getting heavy investment, especially in the US. The number of tech startups that are related to wellbeing is now huge. If you look across the the app stores, you probably have somewhere in the region of something ridiculous like 300,000 wellbeing apps that are available to download, so a significant number. And that’s obviously risen a lot since the pandemic began.
I think that’s probably a good signal of how wellbeing has been pretty commodified. We’ve almost convinced ourselves in our lives that stress is normal, and struggling with our mental health is normal, and we can buy our way out of that. So as consumers, it’s: I’m going on holiday for two weeks, spending all that money on an exotic holiday to decompress and de-stress from the fact that my job is really busy and is burning me out.
So the whole wellbeing market, started to pitch itself as, “oh, you’re struggling or your employees are struggling, I’ll solve that problem for you.” And I think what’s starting to happen now is this next evolution of wellbeing and how we view wellbeing tools is, is that really true? I think where I’ve seen this is employers like Nike, LinkedIn and Bumble, they all gave their employees periods of time away from work, paid, to deal with wellbeing.
Now, in most of those examples, they did an employee survey and the employee said, “look, we’re really burnt out.” And they’re like, “okay, we’ve got to do something about that, so I’ll give you time off.” But they didn’t look at why employees were burnt out. They didn’t look at what structurally in the organization was causing burnout. The reality is, in my opinion, those employees are going to go back to the very same workplace that caused burnout, having had a nice rest. I’m sure there’s lots of benefits to taking a week off paid, but they’re just going to burn out again, because we’re not solving the problems.
And that’s pretty indicative of wellbeing I think – wellbeing as an industry has focused very much on crisis and point of crisis, which is – Jon, you’re struggling? How do I solve you from struggling with the thing you’re struggling at the moment? So, how do we go further back to find out, why is your mental health poor? Why aren’t you sleeping very well, what is causing you to live a sedentary lifestyle that might be causing physical wellbeing issues? And I think we’re now at this point where the pandemic forced wellbeing adoption en masse.
And I think we probably accelerated this industry by almost 10 years just because of the pandemic. And now I feel like employers are at this point where they’re pausing and saying, “we can’t just keep buying things. We can’t end up with a collection of stuff. We can’t just have 10 different apps that will all look at financial wellbeing and mental wellbeing and physical wellbeing, I can’t just buy a collection of things I need to be a bit smarter about what am I offering.”
And how is that solving problems? And how does that correlate to the other things employers do that impact wellbeing? Such as, do my people have an opportunity to voice their opinion? Do I ask them their opinion? Do I listen to what they’ve got to say? Do I train my managers to manage to understand that wellbeing and the welfare of a team is part of their success as an individual, right the way through to you? How are we encouraging good work patterns and a good work life balance?
So there’s a lot of HR and business policy and company policy stuff here as well. It’s not just about tech. And I think what we’re going to witness over the next couple of years is a deep breath and pause before people continue to just buy tech. I think that will start to weed out what is the really good tech that’s actually effective, because I don’t believe for a second that the 300,000 mental health apps available on the App Store, are all effective. Numerous studies that have looked at the effectiveness of most mental health apps, as an example that you can get online, aren’t effective and don’t have evidence to prove the efficacy.
There are some studies throughout the US that have found less than 14% of mental health apps can actually prove that they have an impact. And there’s obviously very few in the UK that are approved by the NHS, very few in the US that are approved by the federal government. I think that we will start to see some regulation there, which will weed out the less effective. So it feels like we’ve got really excited, bought loads of stuff, tried to deal with this big growing wellbeing problem. And now we’re having to take a bit of a pause and think, hang on, this is not sustainable for the long term.
UNLEASH: You’ve mentioned about the marketization or commodification of these different wellbeing apps, you’re obviously going to get opportunists, bad actors, things that were not great to see. So, how do you filter them out? How do you work out which ones are effective?
GN: Even without the regulation, there’s quite a few places who will rate some of these apps themselves and rate them against benchmarks that have been set by healthcare professionals.
One of the really easy ways is to look at who is involved in the setup of some of these things. So lots of these benefits and mental health apps etc, you want to look at, is there a healthcare expert? Is there a psychologist? Is there a psychotherapist who are the minds behind it?
Are they being built with somebody who has experience or qualifications in that mental health space? You can also ask providers for evidence. There’s nothing wrong with saying, show me how this works. Prove to me how it works. Don’t just show me case studies of customers saying we love it, show me how many people have gone through the pathway on your app and are better for it at the other side. And if they can’t prove that you shouldn’t be buying from them because the best providers in the world would be able to prove it.
Then you look at some of the organizations like Headspace, the most scientifically proven wellbeing app out there, in my opinion, because they’ve committed so much time to proving that it works. They’re like, I just want to tell employers that Headspace for work will help you sleep better. I want to prove it. And so they’ve done lots of academic studies to show that, what does somebody like before you started using app? And what are they like after they started using the app and quantify that as much as possible.
So, you don’t just have quotes from people who say, I love using the app, you’ve got people who can actually prove I’m sleeping better for using it, or my mental health has declined because I’ve been using it. I think any product that you’re building where you’re making claims that it improves somebody’s wellbeing, you should be able to back that up with some evidence.
UNLEASH: We’re going to take a little left turn for the final question, which is about ESG – environmental, social, and governance goals. I don’t know if you agree, but it feels a bit like the replacement of corporate social responsibility. And with that comes the question of why a business is doing this; it isn’t a box ticking exercise, it should really be a fundamental part of your business strategy in 2022. So, let’s talk about the role of HR – we covered this in a piece around COP26 time from Yessi Bello-Perez, the previous editor, but what can you what can you add to that in terms of HR and its role in ESG goals?
GN: For a long time, social issues have affected employer decisions. When we talk about wellbeing at work, when we talk about financial wellbeing, when we talk about mental health, we’re starting to see employers pick up where the state is failing most people around the world, not just in the UK.
So many of your listeners, if they’re from the UK will be aware of long waiting lists when it comes to the NHS (National Health Service). It’s a feature of kind of post pandemic world. But actually, the reality is, they were slowly climbing for many years, even before the pandemic. And the the wait for people who need to get mental health support in this country has been pretty bad for a while. So it’s estimated about half the people who need help will get it within a 12-month period.
It’s massively underfunded – state level mental health support – across the world in almost every country. If people are coming to work with mental health issues, if they’re having to take time off, that’s obviously negatively impacting the workplace. So employers are stepping up because they have a reason to, but it’s where the state should have really been supporting, especially in the UK, in Europe.
What’s starting to happen now is we are seeing this movement towards an enhanced route to profit for most organizations by putting that employee at the center, as I mentioned at the start, and there are big organizations like Barclays and PwC, and Unilever, who have really cottoned on to this and started to make some pretty purposeful pledges that say; business can’t exist at the expense of the environment, it can’t exist at the expense of people’s wellbeing, it can’t exist at the expense of the public purse.
So, how is business becoming a force for good rather than what Peter Drucker used to say in the 70s, that business execs existed just for profit, and that was it. Businesses are now understanding that [they need to] do a lot more. If I’m employing 100 people, if I’m aploying 1000 People, I’m responsible for 1000 people’s lives. And so we’re broadly seeing this slow burn of employers starting to realize that they don’t just exist for money anymore, there’s a kind of higher purpose for most organizations.
I think the fast emergence of ESG and how companies play a part in reducing emissions and being better on the environment has been a tail end of that. But it’s largely been focused on the E (environment), that’s been the big ticket item when it comes to ESG. And you’ve had people like Greta Thunberg talking about that. And it’s always been about carbon emissions and the physical environment, the S (social) of ESG is probably the thing that people aren’t talking about very much. But it’s relating heavily to the stuff we’ve already talked about today. The wellbeing of the individual, and making work a positive force in the lives of people.
Those social issues are around; how is work not just good for people’s lives, how are we making sure that people find work fulfilling and are learning more? How are we making sure that people aren’t excluded from the workforce, and that diversity and inclusion is a priority?
If you look at the United Nations 17 big sustainability goals, seven of those I think directly relate to the S of ESG. And seven of those I think employers can influence. And one way we saw this through the pandemic was the way that employers and the public reacted to sick pay. So across the US in particular, but we also saw it in the UK, you had consumers lobbying brands to say, if your employees have to self-isolate, because of the Coronavirus pandemic, you have to pay them sick pay, because that’s not just the right thing to do, that’s a public health concern. If these people can’t afford to not go out to work, and they have to go out to work even when they’re ill, that is a very dangerous situation for society to be in.
So it’s reinvigorated this idea of sick pay, and in the UK is sick pay from a state level adequate enough? I would argue it absolutely isn’t. And so actually, you’ve started to see that consumers are starting to have an opinion now on [the fact that] you’ve got to pay people a fair wage, and you’ve got to pay them sick pay. These are just the right things to do. So I think that’s starting to see HR policy and reward and benefits become ESG issues as well. And I think it’s become so strong now that the other stakeholders, not just consumers but investors and shareholders themselves, are now taking a pause and saying, maybe we need to treat people better and actually by treating people better and putting the employee at the center of the business, are we becoming more successful.
In early 2021, 600 of the largest investors in the US were surveyed, and 94% of them said, the way you treat your employees is now going to be a deciding factor before I invest my money in you, because investors themselves now know that you’re not going to be a successful business unless you take care of their people. Your people are your primary stakeholder. That’s what will make your business very successful. And so it’s gone from that idea being pretty liberal and progressive, to fairly mainstream. And I think people like Unilever are a really good example of an organization that’s doing that; Salesforce, another really good example of an organization that doing this kind of stuff. And so you’ll start to see that those businesses that do more of that start to become more attractive. And during the Great Resignation, or however long this goes on for, those companies are not struggling to recruit people in the same way that everyone else is.
UNLEASH: Great stuff. Gethin, thank you so much. Loads of really interesting developments on this coming up, I think. So thanks a lot for your time.