The Corporate Wellness Show Episode 2 – Michael Smyth

In this episode of the Corporate Wellness Show Kate interviews Michael Smyth from Graham, a construction company based in Northern Ireland – Michael reveals that focusing on the wellbeing of their people took them from the bottom of the BUPA health league, to the top, reducing risk factors such as heart disease.  By introducing some consistent measures, all with the wellbeing of their people in mind, Graham might even be making an impact on the safety of their workers too.  Far from it being a “nice to have” add, investing in wellness has proved to be a “have to have” strategy, even “up ticking” the bottom line of the company by this innovative approach to the health and happiness of their people.



For those who prefer to read rather than listen, check out the full podcast transcription below.

The Corporate Wellness Show – Michael Smyth

Good morning, everybody. And welcome to my own podcast, which is Kate Cook’s Wellbeing Show. And today I’m very lucky to have with me Michael Smyth, who is the HR director for a construction company based in Northern Ireland, as I understand it, but actually at least countrywide, maybe do you operate in other countries, Michael? Or is it just UK or it’s just UK and Ireland?

It’s just UK and Ireland. Hopefully you can understand me this morning, but as I say yes, I started here in Ireland and then really have progressed. I would say that 70% of our work and 70% of our employees will be from GB, not from Northern Ireland. So as I say, we’re now in the minority, the Irish people in the business, but the business itself has been in existence for 250 years. So it’s quite, and it’s still run and operated by, on a wound by the same grim fondly. 

So it’s amazing. I mean, in itself, isn’t it, because obviously it’s usually a sort of rags to riches to rags in three generations. So, so you’ve got to be part of that period of destruction now, being a family business. 

And I think it’s really important that that’s actually a really good, it’s a good starting point talking about the history. Because I always describe it a bit like Downton Abbey – in the past there was a time that the Graham business was in and everybody in families all worked for them or somebody knew who worked for them. And they were the landed gentry of the area and people expected that the Grahams would provide them with work for their families the Grahams expected obviously these people were going to work for them and there was a tremendous loyalty. So there’s a DNA, I think, built up about what I call ‘an unwritten social contract’ between the importance of actually looking after people and the business understanding that people really are vital. They are part of this wider family. One of the things that we have really been really good at doing, I believe is throughout all of this expansion to continue to have a feeling, people that feel that they’re part of a family feel that they’re valued. And they’re part of something small, even though it’s quite, it’s really big and it’s expanded so much, but they’re still part of it. And so I can still go to Scotland or England or London or Manchester or Birmingham. I can be up on the top or bottom of Ireland and you can meet people working for Graham and everyone has got the same type of lookout and feel and whatever for the business and that’s maybe a foundation for a lot of things we’re going to talk about today as to why they’ve been a success.

Well, I think that’s really relevant because I think, I remember a time where I worked for companies where we did feel like it was family and at a certain point, in the 80s.  I understand the need, obviously businesses operate at a profit, you know, that’s the whole game because if you don’t have a profitable business, then you don’t have a business. But on the other hand, I think it’s this idea of what is enough for a company and actually what you give back. And actually, I think probably it pays bucket loads in dividends back to the company if the people feel loyal, because that is the exchange that happens, isn’t it? I think there’s a  famous quote that said, you’d rather basically have a praise from your boss than a pay rise, because you want that recognition. You want to feel part of something you want to make a difference in life and not just for you to get the wages and feel exploited actually.

I know that this as a starting point for some of the questions we’ve been talking about. But even this morning, I was talking to one of our senior directors for a little piece of research that we’re doing with people who between 20 and 35 and what that’s telling us, what they value and why they would want to stay in the company or in our company. It’s about relationships. It’s about their manager. It’s about their team. The big thing it’s about feeling valued. So actually feeling valued, it’s not about I want to do that fantastic project or I want all this extra money. I want to feel valued. Part of being valued is that you get paid what is a fair rate, and a competitive rate for what you’re doing. I mean, businesses need to be able to do that and people want to feel that’s part of the value, but it’s not, it’s a small part of the value. And actually even recently, some people have said to me around why they stay in the business is because they like their manager, their manager treats them well. They understand them, spends time with them, but they also work with people that they like, and it is their family, these people they meet every day and actually moving away from that would be quite difficult you’d be given up a lot for something that seems well, actually, yes, I’m going to have a better title or I’m going to have a few extra thousand pounds. People still do decide to do that. But actually for a lot of people, that would be a harder decision if your relationships that you’ve got and work at all levels, open and down and sideways are actually really good. 

Yeah, because you form those bonds don’t you and actually as long as you say the basics are there, which is obviously competitive pay and the title and the projects you’re working on, all those things, obviously, you know, there’s some satisfaction in that, but I think people miss, the sight of the fact that life is more contextualized than just the money, it really is. Another saying is people join companies and leave managers. So it’s really important to have the relationships and in effect to get managers, to really be invested in people and have time to do that. Because often I know in other companies the manager is really pressed for work. In other words, he’s got his own work pressures and doesn’t really have time to do the nice… because all of that takes time and listening, doesn’t it?

Yeah. And I think, as I say, hopefully as we unpack things this morning, that will become evident to people, but actually to me, managers are crucial. They’re crucial to what we’re going to do. I mean, HR can be sitting in here in my lovely office today, as I say, in a hybrid world, I’m sitting in the office today, but we can be sitting and we can come up with lots of beautiful glossy brochures. We can give the right words out there.   I can say some fantastic words here today, and you can go away and think, well, actually Graham sounds fantastic, blah, blah, blah. But I could be saying that. Actually, it’s got to be in the lived experience of people and that lived experience is through what our managers do. They are, I suppose, the disciples of the message. And if they don’t get it, if they do put that out there, if they don’t act and behave in the way that we need them to, well, then everything’s going to fall apart.  We’re relying on them to make that happen. 

You’re absolutely right. And we were just sort of talking offline about box ticking, especially around wellness, and you’ve got the managers  and I’ve been in lots of companies that we’ve just discussed, but who basically literally are booking a wellbeing session and around the back, having a fag and, you know, obviously not living any of it at all and not really seeing the relevance of it, actually not seeing the relevance, it’s a waste of time, it’s a tick in the box and let’s get this session over and done with, so we can just put that tick in the box and move on, but you have a very different attitude of Graham. So what kind of inspired Graham to think, okay, we’re going to look at wellbeing, the wellbeing of our people. 

I think the starting point is some of the things I’ve talked about. I mean, as a business, I think we recognised a long time ago, but as I say, the key and more prevalent over the last 5, 6, 7 years that focusing on wellbeing, good wellbeing is good for our business. And employees were telling us that this was important to them they wanted us to focus on it. But as well as that, we’re in a construction industry. So there are issues within the industry and have been within our own business, around wellbeing, usually this industry is traditionally menial. They will work away from home or they’ll certainly work on projects, but they can be away for a period of time. They have a tendency, people have a tendency, certainly within our own business to not exercise, to not eat properly, to smoke, to drink, to make dubious moral choices is the best way of putting it. And they lived a poor well-being lifestyle, both in a physical sense, and a psychological sense. And we send all of our employees, they get an opportunity to have a free BUPA assessment every year. And so we get anonymized data back and what it was telling us that a lot of our employees, about 65% of them were a heart attack or our stroke waiting to happen.

Absolutely from health and safety point of view, obviously if you’ve got people operating at height or any of those things, working in a crane with a heart attack waiting to happen, I don’t suppose that’s a really good aspect for the business either.

No, plus there’s the actual knowledge, the fact that somebody – the knowledge is being lost. So if somebody died for example, that is actually going to be going out of our business, that’s going to be a loss to the business. I think that the industry itself had quite a lot of negative things that were happening around wellbeing and just the culture that had gone into, but as well as that, there was quite a lot of what I would say positivity. So we could say the research was showing that there was a direct link between wellbeing and engagement. People who are engaged are more productive. So we could say and everything was telling us, this is an area we needed to deal with both a positive and a negative stance of where things were going.  The board recognized that and said, and  charged me with  coming up with a plan was actually going to deliver great results for the business. That was quite a big task, but I believed in it. I believe that this was actually the way to engage people, to make the business a success, to make people a success. And I believe that we had a way that we could do it and the board were willing to back me. And I suppose really that’s, that was the starting point of where we are today. 

Was it that aha moment with those figures. It was the data coming in that woke you up to this prospect. Or did you have other inklings as well besides this? 

I think there are a couple of events happened that woke up the senior directors and that one of our senior managers did collapse. He didn’t die thankfully and that created quite  a difficult hole and a difficult thing to get sorted. And we have to look at how we’re going to get that person rehabilitated physically. And I think that that was a starting point. Also, as I say, we were getting to the stage where there was all this expansion taking place so we needed people and we needed to make sure that people were going to be successful and productive and how we were going to do that. So I was saying there was discussions that really drove that, we had massive expansion of work. We needed to get more people. We could see that these issues were there. So we had to try and come up with a way that this was going to be resolves in terms of what people’s strategy might be a better. It was a bit of an odd angle maybe to come out and say, well, actually the way to  to try and solve this is through wellbeing isn’t about, well, actually we need to look at our stats about retention, or we need to do this. Actually, there were some fundamental things about people that we needed to change. It’s a culture change that needed to happen.

I think that’s absolutely true, which is, I think a lot of companies just superimpose, you know, as I said, it’s a tick box exercise and without the structural change or, you know, a cultural change in effect, you are never going to have that, kind of going through and people seeing that as an important thing.  So I want you in a second to tell me about your overall approach to wellbeing, but, you know, actually what wellbeing? I mean, what is your kind of understanding of wellbeing and therefore, what is your approach to it? 

Well, I think that whenever I think of people, I think every individual has to have three things in harmony and maximized. So you have to have right talent, the right skills. So you need to be able to do your job and you then also have to have the right behaviours and act in the right way. And then you’ve got to be physically and mentally well as the foundation. And so as a business, if you can maximize those three things for individual, and what that means to each individual and then you’ve got the what they call the gestalt effect of actually bringing all of that together.  So actually the actual sum of all those little things is actually more than those little things put together. And so we come up with this ‘the whole ??? approach’. So what we’re really saying that, if we’re going to actually maximise wellbeing, wellbeing is quite a complex multifaceted idea. And so actually having the right skills as part of wellbeing, actually feeling confident that you your job, you know what you do, and you know you’re going to be developed and actually helps to drive forward. And it also, as I say, is your, behaviour, how you act, how you act to other people, how you act to yourself actually as well, and how you speak to yourself is really important. Then no one, wherever you are, there’s going to be certain things around your wellbeing that you need to think of and what that means. And as I say, we also had this idea of what I call the interconnectedness. Sometimes I call it the holy Trinity of wellbeing, but I call it the interconnectedness of physical, social and mental wellbeing. A lot of organisations are quite worried. They think that they have come up with all these amazing programs and particularly around mental health there can be a concern sometimes that it’s… I will give you a very quick example of what I mean. I put on a bit of weight during lockdown.  I think a lot of people have been in that situation.  Maybe not been able to get some of the exercise, but actually whenever you make that decision, it’s not just a physical impact that’s going to happen. So what actually what starts to happen is, I get endorphins from doing the exercise, but then I actually meet other people. I start to actually interact with them. I have got the social aspect of that. And actually my mental health starts to get benefit because I’ve got that going on.  I’ve got a friendship, I can talk about problems that I might have so I build that up. But as well as that, I actually start to feel good about myself because maybe I have lost weight. I’ve been able to get new pair of trousers or whatever it is. And I actually start to feel better about myself the more I go. So what started out as a session or what started out as a programme about physical actually became something else. And last year, whenever we were running our physical programme last year, one of the big things that come out of it was how employees were saying they were connecting back with their friends and family. So their friends and their family were taking part in these and they were going for walks stuff like that.  And that really impacted. So it isn’t about coming up with lots and lots of programs. It’s actually about trying to think about the fundamentals of what you’re doing, trying to actually come up with a programme that’s going to capture all of those three areas and coming out with the right angle, as well as that it’s not about Michael Smyth coming up with the ideas either.  So we have a wellbeing team that’s cross-functional. So we’ve got people from health and safety. We’ve got people from learning and development and HR, and we’ve got people from operations. So we actually spend time, looking and making a plan thinking about what we’re going to do and what is actually going on alongside that we’re actually listening to employees. You’ll probably hear that from me quite a lot today, but we do things based on what employees are telling us. And whenever we do things we ask employees what worked and didn’t work, we actually then fine tune those and take them forward. So this can’t be somebody at the top comes up with all these ideas or thinks they know best.  It’s got to be a mixture of bringing all that together and listening to what people are saying, it’s about creating a culture where we bring ideas to the forward we identified and we minimize them and we manage them before they actually start to affect people.

I think that’s really interesting. I took away the holy Trinity aspect of that, because it’s the interconnectedness as you say, because I think, you know, and it’s no criticism of companies that do mental health programmes, but I think it is so cartesian, which is, you know, separating the head off from the body and actually separating the body off from the social, you know, it’s actually, it doesn’t make sense because I think actually, you know, and again, this is here to be debated. It doesn’t mean I’m right. But it, it, it really says with, I mean, of course our mental health is something that needs to be taken care of within the bounds of that of holy Trinity in effect. But it sometimes leaves the employee as somebody whose fault it is in effect that they haven’t got the mental resilience as opposed to creating the structures that allow somebody to thrive without calling it mental health. Because as soon as you do that, you’ve medicalised it, you’ve medicalised it into something that is a problem. And actually it’s, in other cultures, because I’m an anthropologist as well in other cultures, actually, something even very severe like schizophrenia is everybody’s problem. It’s society’s problem. Whereas in our culture, it’s your problem. And I love the way, therefore, that this is an integrative approach. And actually you recognise that all the structures, the culture, everything has to be there. The outcome may be wellbeing, but it’s not the, it sounds like you’re saying, it’s not, you’ve kind of gone. ‘We’re going to do wellbeing. We’re going to do this thing’ and everybody’s going, what is it? You know, rather, it’s a thing that’s embedded, like writing in a Brighton Rock, you know, in the stick of rock it’s throughout the company, which is so important. Sorry I interrupted you with that stream of consciousness, but, you know, so do you think that’s the thing that makes you stand out, therefore in your approach? 

I think there’s a number of things that make us stand out. And obviously we’ve built this reputation over the last number of years for leadership and innovation within well-being, but we started small. And I think that’s really important. I think a lot of organisations, it’s not just even that, that they’re afraid to do certain things. They want to start doing this massive big thing and they jump into it. As you say, here’s wellbeing and then it flounders and doesn’t have credibility.  So it needs to be, it needs to be built up over time. You need to get that credibility with employees. So I think, as I say, what makes us standout is that I believe that we, we think we see it as a business priority. That’s the start. And that’s the top line. It’s not just something that’s nice to have here.  It’s not, well, yes, it’s fluffy and we’ve ticked that box.  This is something which delivers for our business. And we believe that’s driven from the top, not only in terms of the investment that directors put into it, but I actually am being involved in it and really wanting to make a difference and showing their own vulnerabilities. So whenever we have talked around mental health issues, or we’ve talked about physical issues.  They have been willing to put their head above the parapet and talk about how they might’ve been feeling and the difficulties that they can have and it’s been quite powerful in terms of that and people can see that and thinking, well, actually, if, they’re willing to do that, I’m quite happy to get involved.  And so that I think has led to really normalising conversations that we have, around wellbeing within the business.  We’re in a traditional white male industry, as, as I talked about, and that can be quite difficult for people, again we’ve had employees who say, well, actually I feel comfortable saying that I’ve got a problem, whatever that problem is, and it’s going to be dealt with, and I’m not going to be ridiculed, or I’m not going to be made fun of, or made to feel that I have done something wrong. And, and I think that’s, that’s really powerful stuff. And I think, as I’ve said, it’s, it’s based on things on employee need.  So we’re not doing it because it looks good or this organisation over here had decided, or they’ve got this lovely programme and it looks lovely. Well, actually, that’s not going to work for Graham in anything. I think we have been very good at translating theory into practice. And so looking at something which in theory and science like the right thing or a good thing to do, but actually making it work for our people and thinking about that. And it’s really getting that knowledge of, of what our people need and actually deliver on this. As I’ve said, we have employees trust us. And I think that’s important.  They trust that we are going to understand who they are, what their problems are, what their issues are.  And we’re going to deliver on those. We’re going to follow through. We’re not just saying this, it actually means something. And it’s really important that whenever we do do things that there’s an inclusivity about it, you know, we want to make sure that people, no matter if they’re disabled or their say, eight months pregnant.  Everybody can take part in what we’re doing, that they feel actually that that’s there for me. Not everyone takes those things up. But actually when we did a survey, we talked with people who had taken things up during COVID, well maybe not everybody took it up. Maybe 40% of staff took part in some of the activities, but actually what they were saying ‘Well, we knew it was there. We knew it was there. And it was quite, it was good. We thought it was great, but we didn’t need it.’ And the last thing I would say that that makes it stand out is that we’re measuring success. So this is isn’t sometimes to say, we’re doing, cause it’s just fluffy. We have to be very clear what we’re wanting to achieve both at an individual level for people. And what does that look like for the business? And so we’re continually looking at that data. I really, I really love data and the sense of, I think it shows what’s working and what’s not.  It tells you and you can’t hide it. So whenever you’ve got that, you can decide… if someone says they don’t like that, and that happens, that didn’t work well, then you have to face the fact that people you can’t say, ‘well, no, they didn’t know what they were talking about. And my program was great’. You have to realise actually that, why did it not work? How do we make it work? And actually that’s what’s allowed us and I use this little analogy of the kids story, the Elves and the Shoemaker, where, you know, you left out leather for one night and made one pair of shoes. And then made enough money to be able to buy two, enough, to buy. And that’s how wellbeing has really worked with us. We’ve seen the results and businesses have seen the results. The employees have seen the results and it’s allowed us to continue to make, to make shoes and make more shoes and very different types of shoes. 

The two questions I’ve got, which you might answer together. So some of the initiatives that you’ve obviously, I mean, from what you said, if you’ve listened to what people need and want, it’s a sort of ground up as opposed to top down kind of approach. So what kind of initiatives work and how do we, and how are those measured and what difference has it made to some of those measurable things like bottom line or some other measurability factor that you’re able to say, ‘oh yeah, that’s worked because obviously the health of the people might be one thing’.  Yes, that’s the measurement, i.e. you mentioned the statistic at the beginning about the heart attacks waiting to happen. So can we measure that? What is it that you’ve done that actually has made the difference? 

Well, okay. Well, I suppose really, there are lots of different results that we have both at the individual level and corporately.  We have seen people’s lives, turn around. This is about an individual’s success and it’s all about individuality and what that means. So if you take what I said earlier at the very start about our BUPA results. So basically BUPA give you a league table and they can tell where you are in the league table in terms.  So being at the top of the league table is not good.  Okay. So we were near the top of smoking, alcohol consumption, blood pressure issues. And we saw over a three to four year period actually us become the bottom of all of those groups. So fundamentally our employees were going to these annual reviews and we were seeing all of those factors, those risk factors on those issues that they were having around their own health coming down. And we started to see our absence reduce by 100%, we’ve seen that absence for mental health. So obviously we’re measuring the amount of days that someone is off whenever they have a particular type of illnesses and how quickly we get them back.  And mental health is one where we can have an intervention. We’ve seen those days reduce down. So we’re doing something really well in terms of what’s happening with those individuals and getting people back to work, feeling physically better. And then we do lots of surveys with employees. So for example, what we’re seeing is that, 89% of our staff whenever we were in COVID we had a survey and they felt that what we were doing was reducing their anxiety. 85% of employees said that their manager support that they got was excellent. And 84% of people continually, it’s around 80 to 90% of people in every survey we do believe that we’re committed to their own individual wellbeing. And so we’re really seeing things along those lines. Turnover is dying for staff reduced by 50% over a very short period of time. And then we’ve seen from the business point of view, we’re seeing turnover, profitability, and work rhythm  have all increased during this time and our whole focus, not just the last year and half, but over the last five, six years, we’ve seen our actual turnover grow exponentially and seeing profit move in the same direction and this, 

You can’t argue with that its crazy that people don’t, companies just feel it’s, you know, it’s a nice to have and don’t, I think it’s that stopping, isn’t it – breathing, taking a breath and thinking actually we need a different approach here, but that’s amazing. I mean, you know, the 50% reduction in staff turnover and, you know, these are not in substantial results. It’s not like a few percentage points. 

I think it would be easy for people to say, well, those aren’t, I mean, you can’t necessarily compensate. Well, it was because you were doing wellbeing, but that those things help them. But actually that’s not true because what we know from engagement, for example, so engagement increased by 20%. When we started to focus on wellbeing our engagement rates for employees went just over 85%. And it stayed there, remained there, and we can gather what people are believing about the business and what they’re saying about the business. So all of these things are connected. And as I said earlier on around this whole person approach, actually focusing in and saying, ‘we’re giving you the right skills’. And we’re dealing with all those things actually is maximizing this individual.  And we developed a program called Connect, which is our, we don’t have appraisals. So we have these Connect meetings where managers and employees actually just spend time together. And we realised that managers weren’t doing that. They weren’t actually just spending time getting to know people. And one little anecdote was that one senior manager said to me that he met all his people and he couldn’t believe the burdens that they were occurring around and he said he could solve nine out of 10 of them, but he didn’t know, they couldn’t be solved until he started having the conversations. And so people continually just love that interaction and enjoy that interaction with people. So maybe coming back to the answer to the second question.  Maybe to give you some examples of some of the things that that we’re doing and how that works is maybe something that’s happened through COVID. And the challenges that we faced around employee wellbeing. I suppose, really we, like every organization, we have this immediate need that nobody was expecting, you know, and I call it like a ‘first aid response’ was required. So we suddenly had this range of experiences of people working in on site still and the difficulties of that – worry and fear of traveling and what was needed re infection and their families, and with people working at home suddenly, never been at home before.  And then we had furlough and lots of people on furlough. So a lot of the stuff we did at the start was around mental wellbeing, the mental wellbeing for both employees and their families and about trying to keep communication lines open, both that manager relationship, which was so important, that is so important and corporately as well, because actually during all of this people thought, and certainly all people who were in furlough felt all at sea and what was actually happening, do we know? And as I say, I think we’ve all had that experience of having to be thinking on our feet and we’ve suddenly find ourselves and where we are now, I think with COVID is that we’ve got this generational change in work within an 18 month period.  Something that might have taken 5, 10 years for it to happen before has happened within a very short period of time, led very much by what employees are thinking about what’s important about life. What’s important about where they’re going. So what we have been trying to do is come up with programmes and, and ways that are going to create and sustain behavioural change. And so in the short term, we had a few things. So at the very very start we had a programme called ‘Resilience to brilliance’. We tried to make things light because it was a difficult time. So Guy and myself who came up with the programme, we had eight sessions about mental health or about financial health. Because there were problems and stuff like that. But we tried to come up with song titles. So actually it was, it was to try and draw people in and make them feel part of this.  And then as the year went along in terms of employees, I think that certainly after Christmas, I think people, and then we got into that lockdown, people found it very, very difficult. And I was thinking about the theory, there’s a theory called ‘Learned helplessness’ and really what it is. I’m not going to bore you too much, but a psychological experiment that was done.  And this was obviously done a long time ago. So I have to say, this is not very pleasant story, but it was about dogs. So they used to put dogs up into a container and put an electric shock into it, so the dog jumped out, and then obviously what they did, they actually strapped the dogs in. This was in the 60s and 70s, and then the dog couldn’t get out, even if they tried. And then what they did after that was that they took the straps off and put the electric current through and the dog, even though it could escape, it didn’t because it had learned that nothing it did could actually affect things.  So that was where that concept and that theory came from. I already thought about this had come up at Christmas and around the new year, but actually a lot of people felt like there was nothing they can do. And whenever actually you feel hopeless. Well actually your physical and mental wellbeing just plummets. So we come up with a program called ‘Control the controllables’, and really what we were looking at was, well, actually, psychologists, again, have shown that if you can be in control of little things. If you feel that you’re in control of some things in your life that can actually help you build resilience and understand and good mental and physical wellbeing. 

And so the controllables might be something like you can control the time you get up and routines. 

We had a suite of 12 modules that people could pick what they wanted to do. And so some of those were around physical wellbeing, you know, we had someone do physiology, because wanted to lose weight. And we had a weight loss club. We had people who wanted to find out a bit more about their personality and how they could, they can maybe understand what was happening in their mind. We had things like mindfulness. So there was quite a wide gambit of things that people could do and could learn about. And some of it was just actually just getting together and they were in groups and we had a mixture of sessions that they would come to.  They had Facebook groups, there was a way of interacting. So there was a lot of.  Again, we drew a lot of information back from what people said. It was just a fantastic success, but the idea was, well, let’s just try and make you feel that life isn’t… life on the outside here may be quite difficult and it is we can’t get away from that, but actually you’re still in control of things. There’s still things you can do, and you can still be healthy and well, you and your family. And so we really looked at managers as well. We developed a video for managers and employees and how they reconnected, especially virtually, and we had these connect meetings.  And we got actors involved and the video was just, it was just brilliant and a really good tool. And then what we realised is that managers need skills because life’s changed, work’s changed. And so we come up with a program called ‘Managing in a time of change’.  Very exciting, but it was actually thinking about the new behaviours that managers needed to have.  How that work? And one of the simple things might even be, you and I are on this today. And `i might’ve  met someone working for me for an hour, but do I know they’re really telling me the truth. So you could come on and say, everything’s great, Michael, everything’s great. I’m happy. I’m fine. Painted your smile on, but actually you’re going away the rest of the day and you’re in an awful place. So how do we actually get to the bottom of things? How do we make sure that you’re productive, but you’re motivated? How do we bring teams together and make sure they’re working together? So it was actually giving managers the skills and tools back to do this.  And I suppose where we are now is what happens in the future around people’s wellbeing and what that looks like in terms of work. So there’s been lots of people saying, let’s go hybrid, that’s, you know, a lot of organisations – let’s sell our offices.  I’m a person that says, well, look, let’s just take a step back here.  Let’s ask people, let’s think about what they want to do and support that, because things could change in a year’s time or six months. So we’ve developed a programme at the minute for both managers and employees to support them, around hybrid working.  How do I actually do that, you know, because especially at an individual level, how do I work in the office, how do I work on site, how I work at home, how do I interact, how do I get noticed, you know, how am I not going to be lost? And there’s a whole inclusivity part of this for managers as well. 

Yeah. I think that’s really relevant because I think that in this period where we’re speaking in, what is it now? Oh, it’s September still, keep on thinking we’re in October, its September still. And you know, there’s talk about going back to the office, but there’s also kind of a fear that maybe the whole thing’s going to go bang again, we’ll be back to where we were in the winter last year, which nobody wants, obviously.  So, you know, it is a very fluid thing, isn’t it? Because people at this time may feel that they want to remain at home. But actually the, the best thing in, in the end might be that social health that we were talking about this in effect, part of that holy Trinity, which people do need to, inter-react physically.  And from, from, you know, it’s not a nutrition point of view, really, but it’s sort of, I don’t know what you say. It’s a biochemical point of view, which is actually we exchange RNA coding between us. So physically we’re puffing out RNA code, which is produced naturally and that code gives people an environmental signal to all sorts of things.  So it actually stimulates the immune system. It, it, it it’s signalling danger or lack of danger. You need that interaction actually.  It isn’t the solution ultimately to hide yourself away at home, even though people, you know, there’s the fear attached to that? There’s the fear of re-engagement, there’s the fear of the commute. There’s all sorts of other things going on.  And so I think you’re right, not to just jack in the offices and just go, that’s a solution that saves us a lot on the bottom line. Fantastic. Because actually I think in the end, this will obviously settle or not settle and this isn’t the time to do it. We’re right in the middle of, in effect, possibly the eye of the storm.

It’s about recalibrating or rethinking. And actually that’s one of the things that, sorry, one of the other programmes that we did with employees this year. So after ‘Control the controllables’, we moved into recalibrating, we call it ‘Recalibrating and changing’ with a focus on finance called ‘Recalculate’, we’ve had ‘Re-energize’, we’ve had ‘Revitalised’ and now we’re moving into ‘Remind’, which is going to be around mental health. And it actually links in with some of the stuff that we’re doing about coming back to the office because people are afraid and, and it’s going to be very difficult after maybe 18 months for some people to suddenly move back into the office and what that’s going to look like, how do I behave and how do I act.  So we need to re imagine what work in the office means. So actually the reason why we’re going to meet in the office, isn’t just to get our heads down and type, because you can do that at home. It’s actually to collaborate, spend time together with your team.  It’s to have that social aspect of life and have that connectiveness to people.  And I think people recognise that the majority of people want to have the best of both worlds, don’t want to not be… And so I think we have to develop some sort of training for staff as they come back and also some guides as well in terms of it’s okay to be uptight about coming back. It’s okay to come back and think, well, actually this is all quite scary. And to be able to have an outlet to come and discuss that and to think about it and to get a solution, but the solution isn’t, I’m never going to come back. And I, I firmly believe that is wrong. You know, we have a very small number of people who’ve said, I don’t want to come back to work at all, but I, I would go against that. I think that those people should be forced in some shape or form to come back at some stage because they will get a benefit from it, but they don’t think they’re going to get.

It is fear. I know a friend of mine’s wife, she has been calculating all the COVID fatalities in a notebook ever since it first happened, every single day, she still won’t go out of the house and she is, she won’t go out to all. And actually she’s, well, I say that, but she just started, she was invited to a dinner with friends she knew.  She’s, she’s sort of seen that safe, you know, it’s, it’s a psychological thing, obviously, because life isn’t safe, you know? I mean, I don’t want to make light of it, but it isn’t, you know, so she’s, she’s managed to get out of that kind of that… And then she thought, well, you know what I was okay. And it’s so sometimes with, with people who are resistant, it is total fear obviously, nothing to do with something rational really. And actually it’s about tempting people out with bits of cheese, you know, to get them and think, oh, that was okay. Actually, it was quite good fun. Actually. Maybe I missed that. You know? So, yeah.

So I think, I think there’s a say you don’t realise that and maybe some of those examples I’ve used and have used some recent examples of things that we’ve done during COVID, but what I’m trying to showcase here is that, you know, it’s about…. A lot of, sometimes you have to react, you know, so you can’t necessarily plan long term some of the wellbeing. Yes. You can, you can come up with things and think about what you’re going to do. You can have a philosophy and an approach, but a lot of the time you’ve got to deal with what’s in front of you, you know? And, and that’s probably a lesson that we’ve learned over the last 18 months, 

And how are you getting those temperature checks kind of things to get the sort of like, look, we need to do that reenergise, remind, reprogramme, you know, like, right. This is what we need we’re dealing with now… from the feedback that you’re getting through questionnaires or manage managers. 

Well, it’s a mixture. Oh, you know, well, we have a survey. I mean, we normally have a survey every year, but we’ll have other ones so like, for example, I call it a COVID survey. It was more than COVID, but it was asking people about how we had done, you know, what have we done and, you know, because had to do stuff in house as a business and how it could be improved, excuse me. And we can share that out. But we have lots of what I call pulse surveys. So we’ll go out and ask some questions, you know, we’ll get anonymous feedback and people have, we’ve got, you know, emails and we’ve got, this is where employees can come and give their suggestions, their ideas, or talk about things and again, it’s filtering its way up through managers as well. These are the problems we’re experiencing on the ground. I need support for this. So it’s a mixture of, of all of those things. And as I say, whenever we’ll have a programme in any shape, form or variety we always have an evaluation of that. And we share that, you know, some of the programmes don’t work and not all of them, but some of them don’t work. They haven’t really had to tweak them. And one of the things I think is important is that we always pilot things. So we’ll try them a little bit, first of all, and we’ll try and bring in other experts. You know, so we’re looking at people who have got the skills around physical wellbeing. You know, we’ve, we’ve partnered with a guy who owns a business to run the business.  And, you know, he was a top coach – a fitness coach for lots of rugby teams, England, Ireland, football teams in the continent, a very, very, very, very intelligent guy. And a lot of stuff that I think is sometimes you can do in that sort of grip where the innovation happens, because you’re bouncing some ideas off of each other and you’re thinking about things and you’re coming up with them.  And so I think its listen to what people are saying, but also getting people around you, who’ve got good ideas, who have got maybe different ideas than you. And also some of those external people, that you can partner with who give a different perspective and then you still come up with on a personal basis. I’m quite good at coming up with what I would call the, the idea in the sense of, I might come up with what I call the idea… I might come up with there’s the big picture thing. That’s what it looks like or that, and then other people then are able to bring that around. So for example, if we take the recalibrate programme. It was about this idea. I didn’t actually come up with the word recalibrate, but it was about resetting things at the time. Actually now we’ve gone beyond that. And things are starting to move where people need to get back to where things will be, where or think about these things and that maybe had gone out of their mind, but somebody else goes all the, you know, all these other ideas. 

The detail…

I like detail as well, but all of those things, everybody puts their card and it becomes something.  We test it out and we’ll talk to some employees. We’ll talk to some managers, we’ll get their viewpoints on it and then we’ll come back and say, well, okay, this is what we think it should look like. Let’s go and try and try it on.

Interesting. Isn’t it? Because it’s emerging between, you know, sometimes it is emerging between what people feel they want. And in, in some ways, you know, that can be people, what they feel they want is not what actually they sometimes need. You know, it’s two different things. And so you have to get that right combination don’t you of listening to what the people kind of think they want and actually saying, okay, and moulding it, something that actually in effect they need, which is, you know, an interesting thing, because if you do what people want, they might want to just, I don’t know, might want tea and cake, you know?  Actually it’s about that really delicate balance between feeling like you’ve listened, it coming from the bottom, but also it being guided from, from the top into something that’s meaningful rather than meaningless, which, you know, otherwise you give people what they exactly want, then it’s unmeasurable. And actually, yes, it’s been a great session and all the rest of it, but actually this really does nothing. 

So it’s a very organic process.  Given time. So, you know, we’re already talking about what we’re doing next March to June in the sense that we’re trying to think about ideas and what that might look like and what an overall structure might look like, but what will actual become will happen closer to the time, but we’re, you know, there’s a lot of that sort of fluidity, taking place. 

Well, listen, I’ve got sort of a couple more questions for you. We started a tiny bit late, so I hope it’s okay just to go on a little bit later than, than the top of the hour, so to speak. But I wanted to just ask a question about the people who, you know, and I find this in companies generally, which is, you’ve got the people with the keanies, you know, the keanies who always going to take advantage of these programmes. And then you’ve got the people who are not the keanies who think they’re okay. I think you’ve mentioned that in, in, in what you were saying, you know, they’re like, oh no, we’re fine. We’re absolutely fine.  They may not be fine because of those burdens they’re carrying around without you knowing that they’re burdens. So how I think I understand that within the holy Trinity, obviously there’s lots of different flavours and contexts of how you might kind of capture people into the wellbeing arena. But I was wondering what, what’s your take on the keanies yes. But what about the people who kind of need it, but don’t think they do. 

Yeah. I think that it can be very difficult to get some. There’s always going to be a small percentage of people that you’re never going to reach for these things, but there’ll always be something that people will, will want that will impact them and it may not be them. So one of the things that we have found with, with some people that they’re quite happy to try and get support for their family. So they’re quite happy if we’re, if we’re doing something that’s going to impact their family and it’s going to be positive for their children or for their partners, that can be really, a measure for them to get involved. And you know, there’s a lot of things happen on site that maybe become like a vault, like a community, like a community event, or they’re a social impact, you know? So a lot of stuff we might do, which could be, we’re going to have a sponsored that we’re going to do it for the local charity here. We’re going to sponsored row, or we’re going to have a sponsored walk or a sponsored run. So people get maybe involved because we’re not saying, well, you’re doing wellbeing. They’re actually doing something which they think that they’re doing to benefit their community or the site where they’re working and certainly around mental health its being… maybe getting people involved in being able to spot the problems that other people have. So we’re not saying we’re asking you about your mental health or worried about your mental health, but actually why not be looking for your mate sitting beside you and what the problems might be and how you may be able to solve those. And I think, as I say, it’s a hard one to answer because… 

No, but I think you’re right. What you say is actually in effect, you know, if you don’t label it as well, wellbeing or wellness or whatever, I mean, there is a certain, you know, element of people who just go, you know, that’s just like, not me, you know, I’m just not playing that game or that, but actually if you… in effect a sponsored walk, you know, it’s kind of still getting some movement in you’re not, not calling it that. And I think that’s a big mistake. People do make, which is, you know, forcing the agenda, you know, it’s sort of like, and it feels sometimes like very suspicious because it’s kind of like, so what do they want? You know, why are they forcing us to do this? What is it actually, they’re getting something out of it and I’m not getting anything out of this. So I think that the holy Trinity, the interconnectedness is key on this one. And it sounds like that you’re involving the wider community. Not least, obviously the family, but how does that impact the wider society? Do you, do you think? 

Well, what we have done is, and a lot of the, so we have a, a quarterly theme. I would call it… an overarching idea for the year of, of all that’s actually going to mean and we’ll have a theme that we’ll unpack during that quarter. And one of the parts about it is actually how we get involved with the community and what we do, you know, so for example, we had, soccer, we had a couple of guys that worked for us who are very, you know, they play amateur football, and they were running football coaching classes. We had another site, an area at region, and what they did was they did a couch to 5k for the community and they got involved with it. So everybody was getting involved and it was about the wellbeing of the community. And about using the open spaces and things that they had, and part integrating into. So a big part of construction is integrating into that community because you can be doing what I’m saying is that are obstructive, you know, you’re cutting down their roads or you’re making noise at certain times or dust. And so a lot of things we might be doing could be going and cleaning their windows, but actually then getting them involved in these other things and understanding. And so that’s really important and that’s actually sometimes driven by the client and you get a lot of leeway on what you’re going to do, or how you’re going to do it. So certainly as I say, like what I would call a very basic level, we’re getting them involved in programmes that we run.  But I think as well as that, you know, the fact even ourselves, the impact we’re having in society by having healthier staff, they’re likely to be more alert. They’re going to have less accidents. So there’s going to be better public safety, better understanding, even being able to look at someone’s mental wellbeing and how they are made up and actually understand… the stuff I talked about, the behaviours and how we actually treat people and impact of the communities on as well as that. A lot of stuff we’re trying to do is work with young people, trying to attract young people into our industry, but also recognising that there’s a lot of substance abuse. There’s a lot of crime.  There’s lots of issues that are going on with those young people. So we tend to find that we’re doing things that are actually going to impact the wellbeing of young people, but they’re also going to impact eventually that actually wellbeing of those communities in terms of how they get on socially, how they go on physically, we’re creating physical spaces that are physical spaces that people are going to live.  A very simple example. We we’ve got a job of re cladding, quite a number of the potential Grenfell sites in London. And that itself is actually creating wellness for those, those people, psychological wellbeing, they’re going to be safe, but also just the areas around it, where they can exercise and stuff like that.  So, and as I say, we’re getting involved in that. And I suppose really, we’re trying to help.. do our bit here by helping our employees have less reliance on the NHS, because if we can afford to do that for our employees and we can afford to give them these annual checks and everything else that’s going on, then actually it’s not, we’re allowing other people who get up the queue quicker. And so I think, as I say, there’s a lot of things that we do for our employees, that impact them. And even at the minute, one of the big issues that we have with employees is young children with mental health issues. So, we really are focusing on how do we support those young people themselves, but how do we support the parents and the wider family? It’s actually quite shocking Kate in that, you know, an example last week, I was talking to an employee whose daughter has attempted suicide twice in the last six months and still cannot get a referral on giving her access to support through the NHS.  It’s not NHS its fault, but the reality here is that there are people out there pulling their hair out? Not been able to get things addressed. So we have decided this is just too big an issue. We need to take something forward here. A very, hopefully a very small number of employees are going to have to use this as a service, but it’s essential and what we’re going to do.  And so that’s starting to get us, that’s got a bigger impact on society than just what we’re doing here, me sat in this office here today for our Graham employees, it’s, you know, it’s the loss of that young person and their life and their potential and everything else. 

I think it’s interesting in terms of how we started the conversation, which is the sort of, you know, it’s kind of a, an old fashioned view, in effect that Graham’s family, that’s what I’ve come away with today. Sort of to think that, okay, you’ve, you’ve grown and you know, and you’re national now and not just in Northern Ireland, but, but, but basically that you still have those values, you know, the values are very important. And I think that is something that we’ve abandoned, you know, or many companies have abandoned. So, so how do you think in finishing? Because we could talk all day. Because it’s absolutely fascinating. How do you think other organisations can kind of, you know, follow a start? You know, I think the intimidation thing, I’m actually working with another construction company, literally who’s come to me. They want to do something. They, they keep on just putting it off with, they’re unable to just put the sort of, what do you call it, the stake in the ground and say, look, just, let’s just start doing something, you know? So it it’s, it’s pushing it down the road and yet they know they have a problem. So how do people sort of follow your lead? 

Well, I think four or five, very simple, separate points. And because I know we’re having a long time, but I start simple, you know, don’t try and do everything here at one time.  I don’t think maybe the message from here this morning here is you don’t have to do everything at one time. I don’t think you should try and follow what other organisations are doing. Just because that’s the latest thing to do. It’s great to maybe look and say, well, there’s Graham have done X, Y, and Z, and maybe learn from that because a lot of things that we’ve done, you know, they’re easy to replicate and they’re adoptable to different types of industries and they’re scalable, you know.  So you can learn from other companies, but don’t do it because you think that’s going to tick the box or it’s going to make you look good and listen to the staff, what do they need? And there’s an art in listening to people, there’s an art in understanding what it is they need as opposed to what they want.  Try to give them those things try to put those things in place. I always say Kate, and for anybody in HR, any work that I’m doing, I always say, start from the premise is ‘what would make you go, wow’. So get a piece of paper and write down whatever the topic is, what would make you go wow. So if you were being onboarded to a business, what would make you sit back and go ‘That was amazing’. And I said, whenever you write that, you look it up, you look at it and go, well, actually that’s really common sense. That’s not rocket science there. And I said do that, think about, what’s going to make you, what would make you think about it? Think that’s fantastic about your service or whatever, none of this becomes difficult. And I think you get staff involved in delivery, and management. You make sure that they’re involved, that they know what’s happening and that’s going to give you the buy-in. And the last point I would say, really, it’s all about communicate, communicate, communicate, it’s getting the message out there. It’s getting those successes. It’s letting people know you take this seriously. This actually does matter, it’s important to the business. It’s important to your manager. It’s important to us and it should be important to you. And people will then will feel I’m comfortable to come and actually talk about this.  If I’ve got a problem or to come and make a suggestion and see what that is. And so it’s not about self-publicity, it’s not about making look ‘aren’t we wonderful’ and whatever, but it’s actually making people say what you say and what you need makes a difference. And we will make a difference. And whenever someone sees an individual who’s changed their life, from whether they’ve been taking drugs or whether they’ve lost weight or had a mental health issue though. That’s just so powerful whenever people can see them. 

So Well, I mean, that’s an amazing, you know, and obviously it’s an ongoing work. It’s not finished. It’s that Sistine chapel you’re, you’re, you’re, you’re in creation. So, and, and painting something beautiful and meaningful and, you know, with good values and making people feel, people feel valued and making people feel valued makes, gives value to the company. And it is, should be a virtuous circle in, in that respect. Well, I mean, so people can find out about Graham through, obviously, I mean, I know that if younger people are listening to this podcast, I’m sure they will be, will be thinking, how do I get in touch with this amazing company? So, so how do they do that? 

Well, obviously, as I say our website, it’s got lots of information there and you can just contact us. So it depends on if you want to talk about a career or you want to talk about what, what jobs we have, or if you always, we have all the information will be there and obviously they can contact just the HR team. That’s always a really good starting point directly. And the information will be on our careers website. You can go through that and it’s just So it’s not, it’s not difficult. And someone’s always happy to have a chat, there’s lots of information on our website about who we are and what we do. And as I say, there’s always an opportunity to come and meet some of our team, come and see where our sites are and listen to… if a young person comes and says, well, I don’t really want to talk to Michael Smyth, you know, because he is an oldy man with a white beard, he looks like Santa, but you know, if someone, wants to get the real gen, what’s it like to be a 22 year old working in Graham, what’s reality like, we’ll always put people in tough with those individuals. And, you know, you’ll get a really good response because we’re really keen. And we want people who share our values, who believe these things are important and want a good career and want to be happy in the job they do. That’s the starting point. 

You can’t get better than that. And you know, the pursuit of happiness, obviously very important value and well for today, Michael, I always so enjoyed speaking to you. It’s so inspirational. Honestly, you know, I’ve been in this, you know, I’ve been in wellbeing for 21 years.  I have absolutely seen it at all. And, but, you know, it’s, it’s about that integration and, and also the pursuit of excellence in this area. It’s just wonderful to see.  So for now Graham thank you as a company and Michael Smith, particularly as an individual thank you so much for sparing time today and talking to us here. Thank you. Thank you. 

Thank you.

Go well.

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