22 August 2019

Effective engagement and supporting wellbeing at UK Power Networks

We love to get out, see our brilliant clients and hear about all the cool stuff they’re up to in the world of internal comms and employee engagement.

Keri recently headed to London to chat with Alex Sturge, Head of Communications, Engagement and Leadership Development at UK Power Networks, the people responsible for the electricity network across London, the South East and the East of England. The company is number nine in the Sunday Times’ list of Top 25 Best Big Companies to Work For 2019. They chatted about remote workers, wellbeing, engagement and the excellent view from the office coffee station…

Read on for the full interview. Short on time? See the round-up post here.


KO: Could you give me a bit of a background on yourself and your role here?


AS: I’m Head of Communications, Engagement and Leadership Development internally. That means looking at communications, making sure that all our channels are up to date, that we’re communicating effectively, efficiently, sending relevant, targeted communications.

We have a disparate workforce which can make communications a challenge. We’ve had to adapt and innovate to make sure that we target those employees in vans who might not have access to a line manager and might only see each other once a month in a team brief. So you have to think about things to do to engage them. We’ve recently launched a podcast on the basis that if they’re sitting in their van a lot of the time, they can easily tune in as a way of hearing communications. Engagement is good – we’ve had a few thousand listens.

We also produce a newspaper called The Cable, which is just for operational staff, which goes out into the depot and they can put it in their van and have a read. I’ve seen photos of it on the dashboard of vans; it’s a pretty good feeling when you see that!


KO: You know it’s actually being read – that’s great! 


AS: We have good channels: 89% of our people believe they are effective or very effective. Employee engagement is really the thing that keeps me most busy. It’s all-encompassing and there are many strands to it. It’s driven by the CEO. He really believes in employee engagement and good communication as a driver to performance.


KO: That’s good, you need that buy-in from above for internal comms to be a success.


AS: Absolutely! It becomes harder without the CEO’s genuine belief that people are the most important asset. And CEO’s have to believe in it enough to get out to do stuff. Our CEO does 25 visits a year to the four corners of our patch, covering thousands of miles. We do these visits to talk to employees; we don’t tack it onto something else, we make employee engagement the reason we’re going. And we have valuable and important debates with them.


KO: That’s brilliant, and I bet there are a lot of CEOs that would never do that.


AS: Definitely. I think that’s partly down to the individual sometimes, their personality; to some extent you need a CEO who is a people person..

We’ve also launched a new recognition platform online, which is all about living our values. People can recognise each other for demonstrating that they live our values. It can be as simple as someone saying thank you. It’s helped with our remote workforce because they can access it online.

We try to ensure that we’re always adapting to what the business needs. And it’s a great challenge, engaging such a geographically spread workforce. It’s easy to communicate and engage office staff because they’re a captive audience. Trying to improve employee engagement levels with those people who are out on the road is the exciting part of my job.


KO: What are your current internal comms focuses?


AS: Our engagement survey drives a lot of our key messaging; we listen to what employees are saying we could do better at and then we launch campaigns based on that. Our Green Action Plan around renewable energy, electric vehicles, use of plastics is something that has come up a lot with employees.

We also have our wellbeing campaign, Working Well, which is a big focus at the moment. Mental health has received a lot of focus over the last couple of years nationally and we’re seeing that internally too. And we’re always trying to improve in the area of Diversity and Inclusion too.

Then the other strand of our messaging is around celebrating our best ever year of performance. It’s a good message for engagement, and we want to make sure employees feel part of that success, not just managers and directors. We want everybody to appreciate that they’ve had an impact on the things that matter.


KO: Great! I’d love to hear more about what you’re doing for wellbeing?


AS: For context, we’re a company that does dangerous work, we work with live electricity! We have 4,000 operational members of staff working out there, so from a physical safety point of view, we are very good. We’ve got the best safety performance of any other distribution network operator, so we feel like we’ve got the right culture in place to deal with physical safety.

We realised, though, that we weren’t putting as much focus on mental health. We’re a business that is predominantly male, 40-odd years old, with 20 plus years’ service; not the kind of group that traditionally tend to opens up around mental health. A huge challenge for us was to start that conversation.

We broke it down into three parts that made up Working Well:

  • Mental health
  • Your energy – keeping fit and healthy, food choices and how much sleep someone gets
  • Support networks – occupational health and Validium, our employee assistance program

To launch and run a successful campaign, we always start at the top with the CEO and directors. For Working Well, they went through an ‘ambassador session’ with Mental Health England. We wanted them to understand mental health, not to become experts, but to become ambassadors, believe in the importance of it and understand why we were embarking on this journey.

You need that senior buy-in to make real change. Right? That’s obvious. But it’s easier said than done and some people bypass it because they might wonder how directors will respond. You must get them on board.


KO: That’s so important around mental health as well isn’t it? To know that it’s okay if you haven’t experienced it yourself, but you just need to try and understand it.


AS: Exactly, part of the taboo is, “I don’t want to look weak and I don’t want anyone to think differently of me”, but if you see that your CEO is behind it, it makes it more accessible and easier to open up to.

Working with Synergy we did two videos, featuring actors but talking about real mental health issues that UK Power Networks employees may have experienced.

They feel really genuine and we had a lot of feedback saying that people thought they were real employees, so that’s really good.

It created a debate, started that conversation and people started to come forward. We’re not saying that mental health has to be something as severe as psychosis. It can just be a little bit of anxiety, a bit of depression; it’s not always something totally debilitating. You can still function, but you’re just not your best self.

I always encourage employees to own whatever it is we’re doing, because that’s how you create real change, that’s how you embed things. You can run a comms campaign and an engagement programme, but unless the employees are leading it, becoming advocates and taking it on themselves, people lose interest.

We trained 170 mental health first aiders, volunteers from across the business. Most of them have witnessed some kind of mental health issue. It’s proved very popular.

When you ask people if they think the company cares about their health and wellbeing they can think, “what’s happened this year?” and they’ll think of Working Well. It felt real, not just like a poster campaign. I expect our wellbeing score to go up as a result.


KO: Nice! And is that something that your remote workers can access as well?


AS: Of course, the majority of our mental health first aiders are remote workers. They’re dotted around the patch so you’re never going to be far from someone. And actually, the numbers of people getting involved in operations has probably exceeded expectations. All of the mental health first aiders details are on the intranet, updated regularly, so they can find somebody if they want to talk and open up.

The job of the mental health first aider is to sign post, they’re not there to diagnose or counsel. But they’re good to have there to talk to and be able to refer colleagues to our employee assistance program. 


KO: You need that human element, don’t you? Especially around mental health – it’s so hard for some people to open up, but if they see someone like themselves doing it, then they might feel like they can do the same.


AS: Breaks down the barrier doesn’t it?

We posted about Working Well on Yammer. People could watch the videos and ‘like’ them and it even started conversation in the comments as well. It also allows remote workers in operations to be in touch with their colleagues and get involved with the conversation. And it doesn’t feel like a corporate platform, so people are more open to it.

We did a fair bit of promotion around Working Well. We marked Mental Health Awareness Week and make sure that we have drop-in sessions for staff, daily communications, charity days. Our community champions come up with 12 charity days a year and have the responsibility to decide what they want to do. They know what works where they are and are empowered to make that happen.


KO: It’s going to be so much more authentic that way as well, isn’t it? If it’s coming from a colleague.


AS: Yeah and it is simple, but you need to go through the process of letting go. Control is stifling and while you do need control and compliance, you also need to give people the chance to develop and show how they can contribute to the success of the business.

We also have operational wellbeing days. We go out to our operational team and spend two days with them to talk a bit about mental health and other elements such as diet, nutrition and sleep with professionals; ex-athletes, doctors, psychologists. These have been really well received.

It’s important to cover the physical side of things as well as mental health, because for operational workers, some need to be able to climb a pole to perform their role. For that you need to have the right diet, you need to be the right weight, you need to get the right amount of sleep. There is a huge physical element which we still continue to push.


KO: That’s an amazing amount of support your employees can take advantage of.


AS: Some of it already existed, but I guess part of good internal comms is taking what you’ve got and packaging it up.


KO: Absolutely. Are you noticing any improvements in productivity or fewer sick days and things like that?


AS: We track the amount of sickness attributed to mental health, and actually, we want to see it go up. We know people across the company are going off work for mental health issues, but they’re not recording it as that. They’re saying that they’ve got a physical illness; if employees at UK Power Networks are struggling with a mental health issue, we want them to be able to be open about it.


KO: That’s an interesting way to put it because my assumption would be that you’d want it to go down, but that makes sense.


AS: I mean, we don’t want it to go through the roof! But if we’ve successfully changed the culture, you’d see sick days attributed to mental health go up.


KO: And ultimately, if people are going off for mental health issues and being open about that, they can take the time that they need, get the right support and then can come back to work and probably be way more productive than they were being beforehand.


AS: Absolutely. I hope it’s making a difference; time will tell.

Each year since 2016 we’ve improved on our engagement score, and this also reflects success in other areas of the business, so I can quite confidently argue that engaged employees contribute to the great results that we’re seeing as an organisation.

The key with all of this is to base campaigns on fact. Before you start a communications or engagement programme, make the link between what you plan on doing and the employee asking for it. Why are you doing it? Establish that up front.

The second thing is senior buy-in. Communications have to be signed off by the management team and be headed up by a director.


KO: So that’s kind of a pretty good rundown of your wellbeing stuff. What’s next? Have you got anything cool up your sleeve for the next few months?


AS: We’ve got a focus on learning and development coming up soon, launching a leadership academy for 800 line managers. We want to make sure we’re really helping managers to be their best. Some managers might have been promoted quickly and we want to give them the right training to manage people too.

We’re going work with them to achieve chartered manager status, a diploma. It means that everybody comes up to a standard level against things like managing poor performance, difficult conversations, managing budgets, akin to creating a leadership culture. 

So that’s what’s been keeping me busy really…


Wow, what a brilliant chat and insight into all the work that goes into engaging employees at UK Power Networks. We love to see companies going the extra mile with their internal communications and it’s promising to see companies supporting their staff’s wellbeing in such a big way too. 

Do you need some help with your employee engagement? Are you looking to support your people to be happy and healthy but you’re not sure where to start? Get in touch, we’d love to hear from you. 

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