Making the business case for well being

Well being and a sense of purpose are at the centre of Unilever’s drive to improve performance and productivity.

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If you look after people they will be more productive and take less time off sick, Unilever’s Chief HR Officer told a mental health conference yesterday.

Leena Nair told the MAD World Summit that there was a strong business case for well being at work initiatives as well as a moral one.

She said Unilever had adopted a holistic approach to well being which embraced physical, mental and emotional health as well as a sense of purpose. Sixty thousand employees have been through ‘discover your purpose’ workshops where they talk about what they are passionate about and what has shaped them. “Finding meaning in work is a big driver of mental health,” said Nair, adding that the feedback from the workshops shows they drive better performance and increased engagement. The multinational consumer goods company also runs thrive workshops where employees talk about their well being, including senior leaders. 

Nair said that promoting well being required a culture where people can talk openly about their mental health. Unilever does this by organising campaigns and communicating regularly that people can be open about their mental health. Leaders speak openly about their own well being in an attempt to break the stigma and create a space where people feel safe to share any issues they have. Line managers are trained to spot the signs that their team members are struggling and are measured according to how well they perform both on external outcomes and on promoting inner well being in their team.

The company also has a future fit plan which puts well being at the centre of its strategic plan, alongside purpose and leadership assessment, development and skills.


Covid-19 had brought mental well being to the fore. Unilever’s employee assistance programme which is available around the world had seen a 55% increase in usage since the pandemic began. It had made use of its 3,000 volunteer mental health champions who are trained to spot the early signs of stress and anxiety and to signpost people to places they can get help. Well being had been a part of every policy the company had followed in the last six months, said Nair, and the CEO’s weekly messages to staff. 

It has been an immensely challenging yet fulfilling time for HR, she added. However, she asked: “If we do not step up now when will we?” 

Nair added that HR had played a key role in putting mental well being on the agenda over the years by producing the data on productivity, engagement and absenteeism and making the business case for putting people first. The data shows that every investment in well being decreases absence levels, for instance. “We cannot say people are our greatest asset and not look after their health and well being,” said Nair. One thing the company has learned, she added, is that well being needs to be properly resourced. It cannot be done as a side project on a Friday afternoon.

Unilever is giving everyone in the company a day off – a day of thanks – in the lead-up to World Mental Health Day on Saturday in recognition of how they have weathered the Covid storm. “Gratitude is very important to get us through difficult times.  It provides a sense of good will,” said Nair.

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