Employee wellness starts with leaders

Happy mature businessman attending a meeting with his team

By Danny Davies, Chief People Officer, Aviva Canada

The past two years have been a whirlwind of change. Every time we thought we could predict what precautions we should apply to the business next during the pandemic; we ended up surprised and having to pivot. After a while we realized the right thing to do was to plan thirty days ahead and put aside the long-term roadmaps. Not only has COVID-19 brought forward new challenges we’ve had to face as individuals and a business, but it has also brought our attention to some very real risks around wellness and mental health. 

In March, Aviva Canada released its Risk Insights Report, which surveyed business leaders across Canada to take an in-depth look at the current state of risk through the lens of business owners. Without a doubt there were challenges businesses were immediately facing and it was no surprise public health risk topped the list. However, our report also revealed that the pandemic has accentuated the concern for employee mental health and wellbeing amongst businesses with 29% of business leaders stating it’s a top concern. 

For us at Aviva, the pandemic has been an exercise in helping to balance all the pressures our people have experienced by encouraging them to look after themselves and their own first before focusing on work. Wellbeing isn’t about policies or initiatives, and although there are perks for having those things as a part of your benefits package for your business – it isn’t what makes any company stand out. Over the past two years, our employee engagement rose from 75% to 83%, which is 13% higher than the top quartile for Canadian financial services companies. This wasn’t done by changes in policies but focusing on having high quality leaders in every leadership position. A simple example would be; does it make sense to give people 2 or 3 hours time off to get a COVID-19 shot, or should we just say to people “yes please do take time away to get shots for you and anyone you need to help in your family”. Establishing honest, open lines of communication, treating people with respect, and applying good judgement from your teams is the best way any business can help their people – and it starts with leaders.

Leaders can be role models to their teams. While they’ll need business experience, more importantly they need the skills and judgement to guide their teams through whatever is going on; whether it’s a business as usual problem or supporting a family through a pandemic. For our people to be okay – their leaders needed to be okay and know that we would trust them to apply their good judgement. We had to ensure that our leaders could adapt to the new ways of working with a virtual skillset while balancing the needs of their teams and on the side take time to look after their own situations. All our leaders use our values of Care, Community, Confidence and Commitment in everything that they do. To do this we provide training that focuses on four main traits:

Authenticity: For people to thrive at work they need to know that it’s okay to be themselves in every way, and our leaders need to exemplify that. If leaders aren’t authentic, how can we expect our people to care for each other and our customers, or even feel comfortable being themselves at work? The ability for individuals to feel safe to be who they are at work is one of the most important things about working at Aviva. Every leader needs to create an environment of inclusion and equity where people can feel they have a voice to speak up. After all, what’s the point in employing 4,400 smart people and then telling them what they should think.  We have five diversity and inclusion communities to help us create this culture of inclusivity, with amazing volunteers and executive sponsors to keep us on track to ensure that all our people feel that Aviva is a safe place for them to voice their concerns and be their authentic selves. 

Vulnerability: We’re all human and make mistakes, so it’s important that people see that when a mistake is made, ownership is taken for that and that it’s okay. Mistakes are how we learn – it’s how we grow as people, leaders and as a business. People appreciate leaders who take responsibility for their mistakes and can admit to their own shortcomings, it’s another way to show authenticity to your team and build trust. People aren’t perfect, and we certainly don’t expect our people or leaders to be. As we learn we can improve how we deliver on our commitments.

Courage: Courage goes hand in hand with honesty, transparency and communication. We need our leaders to communicate with their people, to tell them what’s going on, update what is going well and what isn’t. It can be tempting for leaders to give good news but who wouldn’t want to know how we are really performing and be supported to turn things around. Not having the courage to give feedback about how to improve can lead to mistrust and anxiety.

Being present in the moment: Listening is under-rated and if we care we should listen. Our people are smart, we hired them for their skills and experience, and we need to ensure we’re hearing them when they have something to say. There are often better ways to do things, or new perspectives that can really change how we do business in the best ways. The challenges facing people over the past two years have never been more varied so really listening and not rehearsing in our minds what we will say next, can only help us lead our people better. Who knows, maybe with a bit more listening we will all learn how to improve our own effectiveness.

If I’ve learned anything in the past two years, it’s that thinking you know what’s coming next is much less effective than listening and adapting. How many of us had a clear plan of responding to the next thing in the pandemic and then had to do a U-turn? As we move to hybrid working, we as leaders must make sure that we don’t fall into old ways of working and continue focusing on our teams as people to keep the culture of trust that we’ve built together. Most importantly we need to stay present and listen, so that we can continue to do the right things for our customers, our people, and our business. 

To learn more about how Aviva Canada supports employees and the company’s culture, visit ca.linkedin.com/company/aviva-canada.

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