Article: Human energy is the most critical business resource: Cathryn Gunther, Mars Inc

Wellbeing

Human energy is the most critical business resource: Cathryn Gunther, Mars Inc

How do you inspire well-being in a 140,000-strong global workforce? Cathryn Gunther offers her advice in this exclusive interview with People Matters.
Human energy is the most critical business resource: Cathryn Gunther, Mars Inc

The world we want tomorrow starts with how we do business today – the people behind Mars Inc, maker of well-loved food brands M&Ms, Milky Way and Skittles and many others, live by that mantra.

With a global workforce of more than 140,000, the century-old company places value on creating a "culture of health and energy," according to Cathryn Gunther, Global Head of Associate Health & Wellbeing at Mars. 

In this exclusive interview, Cathryn gives us a sneak peek into Mars' approach to workplace well-being, along with practical tips on how to inspire other organisations in leading employees who are energised for their mission:

How is Mars promoting well-being among a global workforce? 

The pandemic has been a great equaliser of stress – everyone has been impacted by the changes, disruption and worry that COVID-19 has brought to bear. Mental health in these uncertain times is of paramount importance. So, within my role at Mars, we’ve listened, reflected and responded to what our Associates around the globe need in terms of support, as they work in an increasingly complex health, social and business climate.

At Mars, we are committed to promoting a work environment that enables our 140,000+ Associates across the globe to not just work, but to thrive. The way to create that environment is to build a culture of health and energy that encompasses mental, physical, financial health and career growth, as well as inclusion, social belonging and a sense of purpose.  

In terms of mental health, our goals are threefold: to raise awareness and reduce stigma, to create a culture of mental well-being, and to enhance access to services and support. Each of these goals are interdependent, and we offer resources, tools and services that are designed to support our Associates across the globe and provide personalised support as needed.

What makes your well-being initiatives unique? How are they changing the lives of employees for the better? 

Based on my varied experience in corporate health, Mars is distinguished in how it views energy as an output of holistic health. We know that when people are fully energised, they are physically engaged and mentally focused. They maintain a more positive mindset and are purposeful. Being fully energised allows people to perform at their best – in both their personal and professional lives.

What is special about Mars – that I’ve not seen in many other companies – is this intentional focus on individual and team energy. That focus is a culmination of the other areas of health that we typically hear about such as physical health, mental health, a sense of belonging, purpose and financial health.

Mars data shows that our Associates’ energy is strongly related to engagement and job satisfaction, and high-energy managers lead more engaged teams.

One of our signature programs is called “Energy for Life.” In Australia and New Zealand, 25% of our workforce has participated in this 8-hour program. In short, it trains Associates to connect to their purpose and build energy management practices across physical/mental/emotional/spiritual domains, to equip them with the skills and life habits to bring their best energy to what matters most. It’s my belief that human energy is the most critical resource a business has, so it’s been wonderful to come to a like-minded organisation that has a long-term commitment to workforce well-being.

How have you supported Associates throughout the pandemic with coping skills?

COVID-19 has created the space to talk about mental health at work. This has helped to reduce the stigma, and to recognise that everyone “has” mental health – like we do heart health, or lung health. The past 2+ years have set the stage for people to share their lived experiences, to speak authentically about their own challenges and struggles – and importantly, speak about how they reached out for support to get the help they needed.

Across Southeast Asia, for example, we held a “Pandemic fatigue” webinar that had over 300 Associates in attendance. We’ve had many leaders, managers and Associates share their stories, and it’s created a movement of acceptance and compassion. I think that’s quite special at our company.

Mars has also cultivated a culture of mental well-being during the pandemic through senior leadership support and a myriad of programs at the country level. Our Global Associate Assistance Program offers short-term, no-cost 24/7 consultation support for Associates and their families.

In China, for example, there has been a deliberate effort to reinforce the importance of mental well-being at work. Our programs and support have focused on building resiliency, physical and spiritual energy as a mechanism to relieve stress, tips for dealing with uncertainty, honouring recovery time, providing “me time” – meaning time or days off from work, and conducting a series of mindfulness sessions – just to name a few.

We try to meet people where they are – and engage our Associates in educational and programmatic approaches that are relevant to their personal situation.

We are pleased that these efforts in China have been recognised by a series of awards: the Aon Award Winner 2021 “Healthiest Employer,” the China Healthiest Workplace (CHW) Award Winner 2021 “China Healthy Workplace” and the Mercer Award Winner 2022 “Outstanding Women Care Award.”

What is your advice to other employers who are still figuring out the best steps for promoting the health and well-being of their employees? 

Given that most of the world’s adult population spends one-third of their lives at work, companies have the extraordinary opportunity to create health at work.

Very simply, employers can ask: “What are we doing to ensure that every day our employees leave work healthier than when they started?” Although it’s hard to sum up this topic in a few sentences, here are a few tips to foster a workplace that prioritises holistic health and mental well-being:

1) Embed healthy practices at work

Companies that invest in workforce well-being – through healthy leadership practices, good nutrition, movement during the day, no-tobacco policies and advocating for mental health – can reap the benefits of a healthy, engaged and productive workforce.

Strategies that are designed to make the healthy choice the easy choice can be embedded in everyday work life. Promote workforce health as part of everyone’s daily routine. And establish metrics to evaluate the impact of these investments and to course-correct as needed.

2) Be a role model

Reflect on your own habits and energy level. Reset workplace patterns to intentionally set aside time for health-enhancing behaviors for yourself and your teams. Take small steps by having shorter, focused meetings, encourage recovery breaks, walking meetings and moments of gratitude. Take a course on ergonomics, stress management or practice mindfulness – and share your experiences with colleagues. By practicing new ways of working each day, you model healthy behaviours and explicitly give the gift of permission for others to do the same. This contributes to creating a new social norm for organizational well-being.

3) Talk about mental well-being

Speak to the value of supporting mental health at work, neurodiversity, and psychological safety. Encourage story-telling and create venues for people to share their lived experiences. Train your managers and employees to understand the signs of stress and how to have a compassionate conversation that helps people access the support they need. Reduce the stigma of mental health by shining a light on the prevalence of mental health conditions and the resources available to your workforce.

At Mars, we have established a strong foundation of health and energy, yet we have much more to do. As we move through the last stages of the pandemic, let’s recognise and act boldly on this once-in-a-generation opportunity to make a step-change in workplace health and well-being.

It’s good for employees, their families, our businesses and society as a whole. The world we want tomorrow starts with how we do business today. And that’s a world where everyone is thriving. 

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Topics: Wellbeing, #MentalHealth

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