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People power: Unitec’s staff-led wellbeing programme

Unitec's Sustainability and Wellbeing team shows how it's possible to create a valued and inclusive programme that doesn't cost the earth.

In 2017, Maja Zidov joined Unitec as its Sustainability Manager. One of her first tasks was to look at how to better engage Unitec's 1,400 staff on sustainability issues such as zero waste. But, she says, it soon became obvious that she was starting from a low base, with declining morale and high staff discontent.

Unitec had a Wellness programme in place but that year's annual staff survey revealed that many saw it as a band-aid, she says. "It wasn’t addressing the things that were affecting people and causing them stress. We had to take a step back, and look at things from a wider perspective."

Maja also realised that, before tackling sustainability, she needed to work out how to engage staff at a more basic level.

Then in 2018, two things happened which presented an opportunity to do things differently. Firstly, the Government intervened to manage the institute's poor financial performance, bringing in a Commissioner and an interim CEO.

In addition, the Government's Reform of Vocational Education (RoVE) proposal laid the foundations for large-scale change within the ITP sector, and the likely formation of one national institute.

In such turbulent times, there was a need to tackle wellbeing, but it needed to be done with careful financial management, Maja says.

Unitec's existing wellbeing programme focused on the physical side of health and took a coaching approach. "There was a big cross-fit programme, an 'optimise your potential' course, nutrition, stress management… it was good stuff, but it was only reaching a few people, at quite a high cost per head," says Maja.

In the first instance, Maja partnered with Unitec's Health and Safety team and undertook an organisational-wide survey. It polled staff on what they most wanted from a wellness programme – "what suits you, what times work for you, what sorts of things interest you – that sort of thing," says Maja.

It also provided key information for a wellbeing policy and strategy – a first for Unitec, says Maja. "Previously, our wellbeing programme was our wellbeing strategy."

Turning a challenge into an opportunity

The strategy is based on a community development approach, which acknowledges that "most of what we need is probably already here, we just need to give it visibility," says Maja.

Unitec's wellbeing programme is now, largely, run by its staff who share their passion and expertise across the organisation. The activities include meditation, yoga that helps you learn te reo Māori, facilitated team building sessions, hula dancing, TED talks, stream clean-up working bees, badminton and group cycle rides. There are regular workshops (with a sustainability twist) including how to make your own beeswax wraps, shampoo bars and cleaning products, as well as a weekly gardening session. The wellness programme team co-ordinates the schedule, supports those running the various activities and helps set up any new ones.

This approach has allowed Unitec to "turn the challenge of a limited budget into an opportunity". The numbers speak for themselves. Maja, who is now Sustainability and Wellbeing Manager, is supported by a part time co-ordinator who focuses on wellbeing – a smaller and more targeted resource than in previous years. In 2019, Unitec's wellbeing programme had 4,000 participants – up a third from three years ago, and was delivered on a quarter of the 2016 budget.

The past two years have also seen a big focus on psychosocial safety. The new senior leadership approach was transparent, provided clear and motivational vision, and involved staff from across the organisation in the decision-making.  A new Code of Conduct was collectively developed and rolled out across the organisation, delivering a commitment to an environment free of bullying and harassment.

Unitec also partnered with the ReThink team and introduced a training programme to address biases and stigma associated with mental health. A quarter of staff (24.4%) took part in the voluntary one-day programme.

Meanwhile, Unitec's three-year Manaakitia te Rito renewal strategy has boosted positivity and engagement, demonstrated in its positive Staff Engagement figures. In 2016, just 46% of staff said they were proud to work at Unitec. This increased to 71% in 2019 and nearly 85% in 2020; a record high. Staff had very positive feedback on Unitec's positive stance on health and wellbeing and the physical environment, allowing staff to do their jobs well.

Unitec's organisational culture has changed considerably over the past three years, according to Maja. It is people who have been central to its success. "Even back when I started in 2017, the number one thing I heard from staff was that they were staying at Unitec because they loved the people who work here and were passionate about supporting the success of students. We already had a caring organisational culture, it just wasn't official."

Unitec has also channelled funding from its wellness programme to implement a change resilience programme. Nearly 120 staff from across the organisation have been selected to attend resilience workshops and join a 'train the trainers' programme facilitated by the Changeability team. Unitec is looking to work with its trained staff to develop a peer-to-peer support network.

Staff-led and 'super-sustainable'

Unitec has also developed a series of people management workshops, says Maja. "In 2021, we're talking a lot more about managing risks to our staff's mental health ­– how do we help leaders manage workloads and the work-life balance of their staff? The policies and strategies are now in place, so we've now got a very operational focus as we look to embed change at the team level."

Unitec poster

Unitec's ongoing wellness programme continues to be mostly staff-led and remains "financially super-sustainable", says Maja.

After all, sustainability principles have been an integral part of the changes made to Unitec's wellness programme and the implementation of its wellbeing strategy.

"Sustainability principles allow you to do more with less, if you rethink things. Start with an abundancy mindset – focus on what you have and how you can use it better. We are such a diverse, passionate and knowledgeable community and we've got everything we need to solve the problems we care about.  That [is] our mantra."

Creating a buzz around the wellness programme was hugely important, she adds.

"Visibility is key. This is where the sustainability perspective was helpful, because sustainability professionals get taught how to understand the system, work with the collective intelligence of the group, and get things changing, moving. Positivity breeds positivity. Engagement breeds engagement.

"It was about bringing together all the previously siloed activities, and giving them a new, refreshed, energetic brand.”

Unitec’s change over the past three years has been transformative. But it has happened thanks to a number of basic, common sense changes, says Maja. "Simple can be amazing. Just do it. Be consistent. That’s our story."


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