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Boosting mental wellbeing at Port Nelson

It’s important for all employees to feel safe and supported at work. The nature of many of the jobs at Port Nelson means its particularly relevant to provide staff with good wellbeing support. As a result, Port Nelson has a comprehensive wellbeing programme that is fundamental to its business strategy while offering fun initiatives to workers that bolster their wellbeing.

For more than 170 years Port Nelson has been a bustling harbour, worked by generations of dock workers. "There's a strong sense of family within PNL's team. Our people are a real strength in terms of looking after one another." says General Manager of People & Safety, Shelley Spencer.

On average, workers at Port Nelson, which has workforce of approximately 330, tend to be older males aged 40-plus. Yet working as a stevedore ­– loading and unloading ships ­– or handlng cargo in warehouses can be highly physical and is high risk, and there are irregular work patterns. Port Nelson is tidal, making it difficult to have regular rosters and shifts are 24/7. This can mean working outdoors in the middle of the night, in mid-winter. The changing shift patterns means many staff do not see their managers on a regular basis. It can also make it difficult to commit to things outside work, which can have a big impact on people's personal lives, as well as on their families.

Around 150 of Port Nelson's employees work in this way, says Shelley. The company is "very mindful" of all these factors from a wellbeing perspective.

Wellbeing is 'here to stay' at Port Nelson

Port Nelson has always done things in the wellbeing space, she adds, but part of Shelley's role has been to bring it all together. Since 2017 the Port has had a comprehensive wellbeing strategy and wellbeing programme that are integrated into the company's annual plan and overall strategy.

"It is part of our business as usual (BAU). It's not a separate thing that runs every couple of years. It's a programme that is here to stay."

It also means the programme has a high level of visibility, which is crucial.

"A lot of businesses do really cool things, yet staff don't always connect the dots. It's important to ensure there's really good information available and people know how to access it, and that you're talking to them about it and getting from them what might work from a wellbeing perspective."

Wellbeing programmes need to be planned and co-ordinated, says Shelley. "You need to know who's going to own it, which team, and ideally have some resources allocated towards it."

Training Adviser Amanda Dykzeul runs the wellbeing programme and it's a significant part of her role, says Shelley.

"You’ve got to have somebody who's going to champion wellbeing and drive it, just as you have a safety adviser."

‘Fun and memorable’ events draw crowds

A fundamental part of the wellbeing programme is mental health awareness training. Health Action Trust runs the workshops, which all Port Nelson staff take part in. They learn how to safeguard their own mental health and to look after colleagues. People leaders receive extra training, while a small group of workers – around 18 – have gone on to become Connectors. The Connectors are available to talk to anyone who has an issue around wellbeing, and can link them up to the right kind of support.

Port Nelson runs its own Wellbeing Calendar, based on the public health calendar. It's a good example of the wealth of information and resources on wellbeing available to companies, says Shelley. "There's a massive amount of resources out there, you don’t have to re-invent the wheel."

At least two initiatives are chosen annually, based on relevance to staff, and then promoted heavily within the company. This November, Port Nelson will mark Movember with events centred around men's mental health while a Heart Health month is planned for February.


Many of these campaigns deal with tough topics, yet, by making the events fun and memorable you're more likely to draw people in and break down barriers, says Shelley. In 2019, the company raised awareness of prostate cancer and encouraged male staff to get tested by marking Blue September in a highly creative way.

Nelson's lighthouse lit up blue, some staff took part in the Blue September Sea Swim and there was a blue-themed company wide BBQ.  Senior management attended the company's regular staff 'Toolbox Talks' dressed in blue tutus and wigs, and bluebery smoothies (made using bike-powered blenders, see left) were handed out to spread the message and raise donations. Free prostate-specific antigen (PSA) testing was offered on site. Meanwhile one of Port Nelson's team of Connectors, who lost his brother to prostate cancer, spoke at the Toolbox meetings to encourage others to get tested.

Make wellbeing a normal thing

Shelley says she's been really impressed by the way port staff have embraced the wellbeing programme.

"It's been really great how open people are, in terms of talking about their experiences, or ideas of things we can do. Once you start getting these programmes in, and having regular conversations, it stops becoming an awkward thing."

There's also a good cross-section of people – both men and women, from throughout the business – involved in the wellbeing programme. "We try and involve as many people as we can, so it’s not just management."

But it's important to recognise not everyone will be willing, or able, to take part. "You do need to be very mindful of people who might be going through something. When you do voluntary things that's okay then they can opt out."

Different rosters can make it a challenge to involve everyone, too. But social media offers another way to reach people, and Port Nelson now has its own employee Facebook page. "It's deliberately not business-oriented. If we have a wellbeing initiative, a lot of information goes up on Facebook and people can post things themselves."

Take the pulse

Since late 2019 Port Nelson has used "pulse checks" to survey staff to evaluate the success of its wellbeing work. The mini-surveys can also be useful to communicate and promote the company's wellbeing initiatives and have generated new ideas.

The latest surveys showed staff were keen for Port Nelson to continue focusing on mental health. It also led to the port's main 2020 initiative – to improve workers' break rooms, making them better places for resting and wellbeing.

A comprehensive wellbeing programme can be a lot of work, says Shelley, so it's important to focus your resources.

"Take the same approach as you would for a health and safety matter. Wellbeing is health and safety, and health and safety is wellbeing. They're not separate. We have all these legal obligations to engage from a health and safety point of view,  wellbeing should be seen the same way. Have it on a meeting agenda the same way you would discuss physical safety."

"It can be really simple. Ask your people what's important to them. It can be as simple as having healthy snacks or sugar-free drinks - anything that's going to make a difference. You don't have to be that sophisticated about it, just start with a few small initiatives."

Looking for ideas to plan your wellbeing programme in 2021? See the Wellplace 2021 event calendar below:

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