How Co-op Used Data to Develop An Effective Workplace Wellbeing Programme

Northampton UK October 28 2018: day view of cooperative logo sign hanging on shop wall.

Data used to be a topic that caused people to glaze over but that’s no longer the case.  As reported by Make A Difference News, as well as looking at evolving pressures and priorities, our fourth #COVID 19 virtual roundtable explored the role of data in guiding wellbeing programmes. One employer that has followed this path is the British consumer cooperative, the Co-op.

With a diverse family of retail businesses under its umbrella, including food retail and wholesale; e-pharmacy; insurance services; legal services and funeral care, the Co-op is the largest consumer co-operative in the UK. It is in excess of 3,700 locations and has over 63,000 employees.

The Co-op’s workforce is diverse and is broadly representative of the UK population. The organisation employs 16 year olds right through to 80-90 year olds.

Paul Caudwell, Co-op’s Health Wellbeing Manager, took the time to run me through the role that data played in helping the Co-op to develop their approach to supporting workplace wellbeing.

Getting started

The plan started back in 2018, with the initial nudge coming from data that showed absence rates were higher than expected. But there was no data to show the cause of absence, if it was being logged correctly or whether managers were supporting absent colleagues in the best way.

In drawing up their mental health and wellbeing strategy, the Co-op realised that they had to make sure they first understood their people. Coming from a technical, pensions background, Paul was not afraid to dig under the bonnet into the organisation’s data to identify the issues that needed to be tackled.

He realised that first and foremost it was essential to have robust data around cause of absence. This insight would then enable the organisation to put the right measures in place early to support people back to work.

The data provided the insight that financial wellbeing was a key issue. By the nature of the work, many colleagues were on minimum wage. The team recognised that there was a high level of debt amongst colleagues and that a personal approach would therefore be needed to support wellbeing.

Finances were tight (the Co-op had been going through a tough time in 2018) but the team managed to secure a limited budget and resource.

With the backing of his Chief HR Officer, who believed strongly that supporting the health and wellbeing of colleagues was the right thing to do, the 2018 budget was not required to deliver Return On Investment (ROI).

It was also recognised that the programme would be creating tools that helped to future-proof the business.

The solution

From the insights provided by the data to hand, it was clear that the scale of the issue may have been bigger than anticipated. It was agreed that the 2018 priorities should be around absence management, mental health and financial wellbeing.

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The wellbeing programme was about much more than simply providing fruit bowls or ticking a box on a CSR report. The goal was to achieve a cultural change that would fit with the Co-op’s overall HR objectives. These focus around recognising that people need to have meaningful work, with 5 strategic people priorities:

  • Leadership capability
  • Recognition
  • Inclusion
  • Apprenticeships
  • Wellbeing

Since 2018, Paul has seen the initial budget increase significantly to acknowledge the importance that colleagues place on wellbeing support. Knowing what questions to ask colleagues in surveys and how to draw relevant insights from data has enabled the team to be specific about what they want to achieve with this budget.

The outcomes

The Co-op have measured the outcomes of the wellbeing programme from day one. Where absence trials have taken place there was a significant decrease in sickness absence and a shortening of the length of absences. But this was just the start; the Co-op has gone through extraordinary amounts of change and Paul and the team have been able to see where changes have had a knock-on effect on colleague wellbeing.

The Co-op entered Britain’s Healthiest Workplace and have been keen to use this as a benchmark of year on year progress. In 2019 the Co-op were the most improved large employer.

Feedback from colleagues is gathered regularly through an annual survey, monthly pulse surveys, which always have a wellbeing question included in them, and listening groups. Questions are devised internally. Wellbeing questions are also being included in engagement surveys.

In theory, the programme could become self-financing; a profit centre rather than a cost centre. But this isn’t the key driver – it’s about doing the right thing for colleagues.

Paul’s top tips:

  • For those getting started, take a look at your data. Look at what you’ve got. Even realising that you don’t have good data is a good first step.
  • People can get hung up on too much detail. If you try to measure the impact of everything it becomes impossible. When getting started, aim to assess the impact of one measure definitively.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask your employees what will make the biggest difference to them. It’s OK to be honest about what’s realistic too.
  • It’s key that surveys are confidential. Employees need to know that insights are not fed back on an individual basis.

Since 2018 and the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic this year, the priorities and pressures that Paul and the team have been dealing with have evolved and the wellbeing programme is evolving too.  If Co-op hadn’t had a wellbeing strategy in place though, when the pandemic hit, they would have been starting from scratch. Instead they are bringing measures forward that they already have in place and putting wellbeing front and centre.

About the author

Claire Farrow is the Global Director of Content and Programming for the Mad World and Make a Difference Summits. She also drives the content for Make A Difference News. Claire is on a mission to help every employer – large, medium and small – get the insight, inspiration and contacts they need to make real impact on workplace culture, mental health and wellbeing in their organisation. She has been freelance for more than 15 years. During that time, she has had the honour of working with many leading publishers, including the New York Times



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