Employer profile: Danone sees health and wellbeing as key

Jenny Keefe says that dairy food giant Danone has a natural appetite for health and wellbeing, which it shares with staff

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You are what you eat: a philosophy that holds true for organisations as well as people. So if, like Danone UK, you have ploughed millions into positioning yourself in the healthy foods market, it pays to make sure your employees get their five portions of fruit and veg a day.

Liz Ellis, HR director for Danone UK, the dairy arm of Danone’s food and drink business, says: “Everyone wants to be in health, so that’s the challenge. How are you the one company that in consumers’ minds represents health? The alignment around health in benefits is about consistency of message.”

Danone UK, which owns brands such as Shape, Activa and Actimel, has brought in a raft of health and wellbeing benefits in the last five years. Just as Danone has steadily sold off its businesses with a less than salubrious image (including beer, cheese and sauces), it has cast off unhealthy practices in the UK workplace too.

Indeed, paying a visit to its premises in Ealing, one suspects that even Gillian McKeith would be impressed. The kitchen is piled high with stacks of fresh fruit, yogurt and bottles of Evian mineral water. The company’s 80 employees can also take advantage of a programme of health screenings, free massages and sports clubs.

Yet Danone is not the only food and drink firm to walk the walk as well as talk the talk. Jason Holway, research director at food and drink industry consultants Zenith International, confirms that wellbeing perks are one facet of a broader move: “One of the biggest macroeconomic trends in the food and drink industry at the moment is health. When it comes to food and drink, and health and wellbeing, companies such as Danone and Nestl™ are seeking to maximise the benefits they get from this branding. HR is another way of reinforcing this. To confirm that you are actually genuine, it makes complete sense to treat your employees that way.”

He adds that, a time when obesity levels are soaring in Britain, there is pressure on the food industry to act responsibly: “Food and drink firms are, perhaps unfairly, being labelled with this obesity brush. Companies like Pepsi and Coke are going to have to be seen to be acting responsibly and that’s where health and wellness comes in.”

Another positive side effect is that clean-living employees become more attuned to their health-conscious customers. “It also puts staff in the mindset to develop and maintain this healthy trend,” he adds.

Some five years ago, Danone UK’s benefits package looked rather different. Aside from two core benefits, a pension and private medical insurance, the firm offered no other perks. So Ellis set about putting together a portfolio from scratch. “From the staff surveys, no one really valued the benefits we had, so we looked at what else we could do to make it more typical to the employees we had in our company,” she explains.

As well as regular health screening, staff get free flu jabs on the premises and an occupational health visitor comes in once a month. This year, Danone UK introduced an EAP from ICAS. “I looked at loads of them but this one has a nurse at the end of the line. Sometimes all you get is a piece of paper and if you’re not motivated you’re not going to do anything about it,” Ellis says.

Employees also get monthly head and shoulder massages where sessions cost £1 and all the cash goes to Danone’s children’s activity charity fund.

And staff are particularly well catered for where food is concerned. There are free breakfasts of fruit, cereal and yogurt for all. “Like most companies, people travel here quite early because of the traffic and a lot of our employees just weren’t having breakfast,” Ellis explains.

For footie fans, there’s even a Danone World Cup. “There’s quite an active football culture. The Danone World Cup is a competition that the group carries out globally for every employee, every two years. There’s a world cup final in Cannes; it’s amazing.” With both men and women’s teams, one-in-ten Danone Groupe employees enter the championship.

In addition, there is a local jogging club for Ealing-based staff, founded by an employee who is a keen runner. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the firm also has a tax-free bikes scheme and new yoga classes are scheduled for next year.

After detoxing Danone’s workplace, Ellis’s second major project was introducing a flexible benefits scheme in July last year. Aside from the core benefits of private medical insurance and pensions, staff can select options from dental insurance, childcare vouchers, bikes, PCs and holiday trading.

This venture wasn’t all plain sailing though. One of the many challenges the company faced was making sure the scheme from Aon fitted a smaller firm. “It took about 18 months of struggle to get flexible benefits into the company. Not because people were resistant to it, but because we’re a small organisation of 80 people and it could be seen by some people as too heavy. We didn’t want to be a different company in ten years’ time,” explains Ellis.

When the board of directors said yes, it was all systems go, for two reasons. “We benchmark everywhere on everything, so we’re aware that in the food industry, flexible benefits isn’t so well known. We wanted to make sure that we were ahead of the game. That was part of the push to get it in very quickly.”

Secondly, Ellis was concerned that the project may pass its sell-by date. “The other part of my job is that I work for a fast-moving consumer goods company. We work from chilled. So if something goes wrong, [staff] haven’t got weeks or months to sort it; it has to be done there and then. Therefore HR shouldn’t take six or 10 months to resolve something.”

But were they too fast for their own good? “We introduced it half way through the year for six months. Probably the sensible thing to do would have been to introduce it in January. But because it had taken 18 months to get this programme through, I was very conscious of the fact that we said we were going to do it. So at least there was some tangible evidence that something was happening.”

The July launch stalled the introduction of two perks: critical illness cover and travel insurance. Both need to be run for a full year for admin reasons so are being launched this month for the start of a new flex year.

There was a plus side to launching the scheme early, however. “It gave us an opportunity to revise things for the next full year period and get people used to working with the system. We’ve been given some quite valuable feedback.”

Ellis is pleased with the take-up of perks. “We’re not taking anything out because everything works. Someone has taken out every single one of the benefits.” Like many organisations, buying holiday is the favourite option, with a quarter of staff doing so. The home computing initiative (with 7% uptake) and health screening (4%) are also popular.

She puts the scheme’s success down to some gentle persuasion. “There was an enrolment period and during those two weeks I hounded people into choosing benefits. We also tracked with Aon activity about how many people had signed in and how many people had made their selection.

“If they hadn’t signed in, we went and talked to them and asked them the reason why, and what we said to them was ‘there’s no problem with you signing in and not choosing your benefits but we need to know that you can at least sign up.’ By the end of the two weeks, every single person had logged on, 60% of people had made their choices and every single benefit had a least one taker.”

So what is next on the agenda for the firm? One area with room for improvement is UK recruitment. Ellis says that while people are climbing over themselves to apply in countries such as Spain, where Danone is number one in its marketplace, Danone UK is less well known. “In the UK we are still quite small. My job is about creating that awareness of who we are. The spontaneous applications I get are mainly from non-British candidates. Though we don’t want to be an intrinsically British company, I think that’s one of our points of difference.”

Career profile

Danone’s HR director Liz Ellis is something of a jack of all trades. “I think you should do something outside HR first. I’ve worked in finance, credit control [and also] sales,” she says.

Ellis has been at Danone Groupe for 16 years and began in sales for HP foods (before it was sold to Heinz). In 1996, she took a gamble and tried out HR.

“I think I was a classic line manager who believed that HR was easy. As a manager I was so frustrated, I thought ‘if only I could do this and that’. So I thought okay, put your money where your mouth is and go and do it. I was lucky with Danone because they supported me and gave me the opportunity to do [both] training and work shadowing. To make sure I really wanted to go into HR, I completed my Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development qualification [while] I was still in sales.”

She was then charged with setting up Danone UK’s HR function from scratch, which was no small task. “There was no HR at all, four-and-a-half years ago. We had pensions and private healthcare but nothing else existed.”

Case study

Gemma Phillips has been a senior brand manager at Danone UK for two years and enjoys many wellness benefits through the firm.

Her role involves marketing the firm’s low-fat yogurt brand, Shape. Yet she admits her own wellbeing can fall by the wayside. “Sometimes I just don’t put my health first. It’s funny because health comes for my target audience first and for myself last.”

She therefore appreciates Danone’s wellness benefits, such as healthy food and drink in the office. She recently took up a free health screening. “It was excellent: they take [readings] and check your cholesterol. I think the health screenings are fantastic. It’s just reassuring to know and I think the nice thing is that it does fit in with health and what we stand for.”

Aside from this, her number one benefit is buying and selling holiday, and with good reason: she has just become engaged, so the extra five days she has bought on top of her standard

Benefits box

Pension: Defined contribution scheme. Employer contributions of 10% for everyone, although staff can flex between 4% and 7%.

Private medical insurance: PMI scheme with Bupa.

Dental insurance: Denplan scheme offered as a flexible benefits option.

Critical illness insurance: Available to everyone as part of flex scheme.

Company car: Available if there is a business need. 50% of employees have cars, which they can trade up or down.

Holidays: 25 days as standard. Staff can buy or sell up to five days.

Breakfasts: Free fruit, cereal and mineral water.

Voluntary benefits: Childcare vouchers and discounted gym membership.

Sports clubs: Football and running clubs.

25 days will come in handy.