Embracing a culture of care

Public Trust is a self-funded autonomous Crown Entity employing more than 400 people and, as an essential service, it has continued to deliver its services during various alert level settings while coordinating a strong wellbeing response for its people. The organisation is proud of its ‘caring culture’ and its general manager of people and strategy, Andrew Bhimy, outlines how this has led to measurable increases in employee  satisfaction and retention.

There is a lot of talk about the mental wellbeing of employees in the workplace, but what, in your opinion, is the most effective thing an organisation can do to ensure its people are coping with all the upheaval in both the workplace and what they may be experiencing at home.

The most important things you can do are to listen and show empathy. The last few years have been challenging in ways that most New Zealanders haven’t experienced before, and everyone is coping differently.  

It’s hard to implement policy that solves for every situation and need, and nothing replaces meaningful human connection – knowing that someone cares enough to tune into how you are doing and get alongside you to provide support.  

We’ve emphasised ‘connecting’ in our culture – starting a meeting by checking in and sharing a story – it’s amazing how these conversations can help people.
Could you outline some of the initiatives that Public Trust is undertaking?

Supporting the health and wellbeing of our people has always been an important part of Public Trust’s culture of care. Since Covid, we have focused our support on mental wellbeing and helping employees navigate the uncertainty of the pandemic.  
We have upskilled leaders to help them identify and talk to their teams about mental health.  

A series of Wellbeing Awareness for People Leaders modules has been completed by 95 leaders, which provided them with practical skills to have the right conversations with their people, overcoming fears about how to start a sensitive conversation and providing support if employees need help with more complex issues.

Leaders have reported an increased level of confidence in supporting their people with these matters.

Beyond our regular free EAP services offering, we have also invested in specialised support from registered psychologists. Our psychologist partners work with teams to debrief stressful situations and help them develop good ‘peer support’ habits as well as with individuals who may need specialised mental health support. We fund these sessions regardless of whether the concern is caused by work or personal matters.  

Public Trust has developed an extensive partnership with the Flourishing Institute, with 46 sessions delivered to 788 total attendees since April 2020.  

The Flourishing Institute’s work is based on positive psychology, and is designed to help people develop positive mind-sets and resilience.

Topics such as ‘Six Critical Skills for Coping Well When Working from Home and Managing Family Demands’ and ‘Three Critical Skills for Managing in Uncertain Times’ proved particularly popular during lockdowns.  

Since early 2019 we have run an employee wellbeing programme called Tiaki and have hosted a number of events.
Last year we invested over 1,000 employee hours into health, safety and wellbeing focus groups. This gave us a detailed view on what is causing wellbeing issues in the workplace and where employees would like support.  

We had some major lightbulb moments and as a result, we’ve updated our health and safety management system to incorporate wellbeing initiatives as critical controls for identified risks such as anxiety caused by challenging clients, suicide threats and other psychosocial risks that our employees may encounter.  

For example, focus groups identified that some employees were finding it difficult to manage conversations with clients who threatened to commit suicide.  
The HSW team organised an event to coincide with World Suicide Prevention Day which helped employees understand what to do in these situations, linking this to procedures Public Trust has in place to deal with suicide threats.  

We run weekly team culture sessions called TeamTalks. Our comms and culture team works with culture champions from across the business to identify topics that are important to our people and what tools would help them solve challenges.
These talks allow teams to connect regularly on how we are and share learnings and ideas about how we work together better, rather than focusing exclusively on the work itself.

What have you found has been best received by your staff? Is there anything in particular that stands out?

Our people have embraced the sessions run by The Flourishing Institute. Jane Davis provides excellent, research-backed insights into how our brains work and how that affects our day-to-day experience of change and uncertainty. She provides a powerful, practical set of tools to help people take control of their thoughts which, for some of our people, has been life changing. I’m a big believer in empowerment – equipping our people to see positivity and that they have choices in almost any situation. It’s amazing how the conversation can shift from a victim to a problem-solving mindset when people feel like they have choices.

Anecdotally, it seems as though in general people are really tired as the past two years have been a strain. Is there anything companies can do to help alleviate this for their employees?

Yes! You have to start every conversation with wellbeing – keep it at the top of the agenda. This helps leaders read the room as sometimes people are more energised and sometimes less. Late last year we realised that fatigue levels were high, so our board approved a wellbeing leave day for all employees during November. This was well timed because we are able to hear the feedback and take action.  

People need their leaders to stay connected but also to model the way through good wellbeing practices themselves. I can guarantee that if senior leaders are working long hours or not taking regular annual leave, employees will do the same. Recently I booked some leave to attend a major sporting event, which then got cancelled. I took the time off anyway even though I had nothing to do and made a lot of noise to our people about the benefits I got from two weeks of rest and recovery ‘doing nothing’.

While WFH seems to work for some people for others it is an increasing strain. Is there anything organisations can do to for those who don’t find WFH ideal?  

It’s important to offer options if you can, which should be possible now that we are not dealing with strict lockdowns. We have made work from home our first preference for back-office employees, but have also put all of our people into a red or blue team with the option of working in the office on alternate weeks.

This helps make it safer for everyone by reducing the number of people who can be in the office by 50 percent, but also provides an outlet to connect and get out of the house.

We’ve found that for some people, working from home is really not an option so we’ve set up an exceptions process where we organise full-time office work for these people supported by a robust risk assessment and controls to help them stay safe.

Do you have any data that links employee wellbeing and employee retention and/or recruitment?

We use AskYourTeam, which gives an engagement score by taking an average from approximately 60 questions that examine all elements of how the organisation operates.

Over the past two years Public Trust’s engagement scores have increased seven percent from 60 percent (five percent below the national benchmark) to 67 percent (two percent above the national benchmark).

Employees were asked “what is the one best thing about working at Public Trust” – we received more positive comments that celebrated how Public Trust has cared for employees’ wellbeing during Covid than on any other topic.

Over the same period, our voluntary attrition rates have dropped from 24 percent to 16 percent. In our retail business, which was traditionally the area of greatest attrition, the change has been even greater with voluntary attrition cut in half from 26 percent in 2019 down to 13 percent in January 2021.

On a personal level, what do you find has been the most helpful for you or members of your team?

Mindfulness practices really help. When I make time to stop and breathe it helps me reset and identify what’s happening in my mind at the moment. When you identify how you’re feeling you’re much better positioned to do something about it.

I know a number of the team are struggling to disconnect from their computers after hours. I’ve now become vigilant about not sending emails out of hours, even when I’m managing my own work-life balance.

I’m really explicit with my team that I don’t expect them to work or respond to emails after work hours. This stuff sounds basic, but sometimes high achieving people need their leader to change the script and make this stuff okay.  

Public Trust is New Zealand’s largest provider of estate planning and management services and it is also one of the country’s largest charitable trust administrators and advisers, helping more than 420 charities to set up trusts and distribute funds back to communities. Its investments team manages around $1.2 billion of funds, primarily for charities, estate beneficiaries and students (through a Fee Protect service). In addition Public Trust’s Corporate Trustee Services offer some of Australasia’s best-known institutions a full range of trustee services and it supervises a number of KiwiSaver and superannuation scheme providers.

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