Overwhelmed! This one word sums up the current mood from multiple perspectives. From crumbling health and medical infrastructure to extended lockdowns to disheartening Whatsapp and news updates every morning; ‘Overwhelmed’ is the unfortunate yet dominant sentiment around us.
Born from this very sentiment, we are witnessing a sharp spike in anxiety and stress levels around us. Sadly, this might be the proverbial tip of the iceberg. The long-term mental impact of isolation and grief will be far deeper than what meets the eye today. Most people, especially the vulnerable ones have been home bound for more than a year now, leading to frustrations piling up and precipitating a pressure-cooker like environment. Relationships- both personal and professional are beginning to get impacted. Data suggests that the young millennial workforce between 18-25 years of age, is even more impacted. It is time to face the disregarded reality of the dilapidating mental health of the country’s workforce.
We at Unilever acknowledge that we are living in an asymmetrical reality and unusual times like these require unusual actions and behaviours. This pandemic is a humanitarian crisis of an unforeseen magnitude. It is the time to prioritize the Health and Wellbeing of employees- not just physical, but also mental and emotional. It is the time to wrap our arms around our people and shift the nature of our relationships to be more emotional and supportive. It is the time to lead with utmost empathy and trust to foster a culture of compassion and healing.
While Unilever prides itself in being a people-centric and caring Employer, we’ve taken a slew of measures within the last one year to take extra caution for protecting lives and livelihoods. I am summarizing some of these initiatives below:
- Putting People First!
Unilever espouses the belief that when we take care of our people, our people will take care of the business! From the very onset of the pandemic in March last year, Unilever implemented the highest level of behaviourial protocols in our end-to-end operations, ramping up necessary infrastructure and support. Expanding our direct influence to not just our own employees but also nearly 20,000 people of our outer core whose livelihoods depend on Unilever Bangladesh, we started monitoring the health vitals of each and every individual on a daily basis and provide immediate medical and healthcare support where needed. We are even tracking and ensuring 100% vaccination registration for eligible workforce by driving massive awareness, guidance and myth-busting sessions.
We have significantly bolstered our Medical and Healthcare support system internally to take all possible care of our employees. This includes Doctors on board, purchase of life-saving equipment like Pulse Oximeters, Oxygen Concentrators and Cylinders, BiPaap machines, High flow nasal cannula devices for our Factory and Corporate Office, isolation facilities and fever clinic at workplace, partnerships for Home Testing and Homecare services including Doctor consultation, patient counseling, home nursing care etc. This support along with the caring and humane touch provided by the Company Doctors round the clock, is helping us build psychological support for our employees in these troubled times. Multiple team members including our senior-most leaders have been personally in contact with every impacted team member and their families, putting humanity ahead of organizational hierarchies.
- Driving Purpose while making sustainable living commonplace
As producers of essential hygiene products like handwash and sanitizers, Unilever had to ensure uninterrupted supply and abundant availability of our products in the pandemic for the nation’s wellbeing. In the process, we have not only saved millions of lives, but we have managed to protect the livelihoods for thousands of people involved in our extended supply chain operations. The journey hasn’t been easy but is driven by a strong sense of purpose by our Frontline Heroes in factory and sales, to serve the nation in its hour of need.
A big necessity for ensuring business continuity was safeguarding basic enablers for these Front-liners, which included safe transportation, food supplies, safe accommodation, protective gear and medical support. By ensuring these, we have been able to rekindle the sense of purpose and pride in our Frontliners, giving them optimism to thrive despite all the uncertainty around them. This emanates from our core belief that Companies with Purpose Last, Brands with Purpose Grow and People with Purpose Thrive!
- Unleashing Speed & Agility
From the onset of COVID, we have been able to unleash flexible working in the truest sense. This was possible not only because of the strong IT infrastructure and agile collaboration tools, but also because of us embracing an agile Mindset – one that we have been driving long before COVID. Agile, with a Capital A does not only refer to how/where you work, but how we are able to prioritize resourcing of business-critical projects. Through Workforce Planning and FLEX- an internal tool that enables internal talent fluidity by proactively matching people’s profiles with opportunities across Unilever, we were able to find a sweet spot. All this whilst building capabilities that both the individual and the organization needs at speed.
- Driving Employee Engagement through Connects & Learning
All our Head-office based employees moved to Work from Home modality last March. The new normal was overwhelming for most and we felt the need to dial up engagement and virtual connects across the organization to provide people with the necessary comfort and assurance. These connects comforted minds like a cup of hot chocolate on a cold winter morning!
We realized that engagement and learning helped employees feel optimistic and fulfilled. It was working like a dopamine rush and so we decided to dial it up in a big way! We invested 13,000+ hours in learning, certifications and capability building last year and, in the process, Unilever Bangladesh became the Number 1 Learning Organization with the highest number of Active Learners in the Unilever Universe!
- Bringing Mental Wellbeing centre-stage
Through hundreds of engagement-connects with our employees, we realized the extent to which the mental health had been impacted in this pandemic and therefore we identified Mental Health as a key priority. As a part of our commitment to ensure all employees are 1Chat, 1Call, 1Click away, Unilever Bangladesh introduced the Employee Assistance Program which provides free, professional counselling support 24/7 to employees for any issue that causes them stress or anxiety. This service has been an essential one to our employees as we witnessed a staggering 106% more helpline usage incidents within this pandemic period, confirming the need for such systemic and on-going support.
To create a more sustainable eco-system, we have also trained several of our internal employees as Mental Health Champions. These volunteers provide an unbiased listening ear, that is often the most valuable yet scarce support in tough times. Parallelly, we continue to create awareness and break mental health stigma at workplace by educating employees through experts.
Research suggests that managers who display high levels of empathy have 3 times the impact on their team’s performance than others. We are sensitizing our leaders and every line manager to lead with more empathy, compassion and genuine care.
It is high time we reconsider our age-old Organizational and Leadership constructs. Employees need genuine care, hope and optimism to thrive. One of my biggest leaning from the pandemic is that building deep social and meaningful connections is the best way to battle social isolation. We need to Humanize Leadership and the time is now!