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Mar 10, 2020

Rolling out a personal development programme for staff

This practice example is part of the Guidance for better workplace wellbeing.

It is based on interviews with seven people with roles in engineering, HR and other business support functions.

Company overview

‘We have a proud history that stretches back hundreds of years. Our success has been down to the hard work and collective expertise of our people. That’s why we are resolute in our commitment to working in partnership with them to ensure their wellbeing needs are met.”

GRAHAM is a privately owned company that specialises in the delivery of building, civil engineering, interior fit-out, facilities management and investments projects.  From humble beginnings, dating back as far as 1778, GRAHAM was incorporated as a private limited company in 1955. Since then, the company has grown steadily and significantly, and is now a leading contractor throughout the UK and Ireland.  Indeed, in July 2019 GRAHAM was ranked 95th in the 18th annual Sunday Times HSBC Top Track 100.

Now operating from a network of 23 regional offices across the UK and Ireland, GRAHAM turns over nearly £800m per annum. It employs approximately 2200+ colleagues, broken down by a regional spread of 30% from Northern Ireland, 40% from Scotland and 30% from England. The workforce is predominantly male, middle-aged, mobile and working in skilled or professional occupations. Within the civil engineering division, roles include site engineers, design managers and plant specialists e.g. crane drivers, digger drivers; and in the building division, architects, designers, site managers, quantity surveyors and planners are among the key positions. Finally, Support Services are made up of Human Resources (HR), Information Technology (IT), Payroll and Health & Safety (H&S).

Wellbeing risk factors

The main physical and mental health wellbeing risk factors that GRAHAM encounters stem from:

  1. The traditionally male dominant and itinerant lifestyle, which is commonplace in the construction industry and is seen as a cultural or mind-set barrier to the uptake of early interventions;
  2. The physically demanding nature of construction work, which brings musculoskeletal risks;
  3. Shift work, which can disrupt healthy sleep rhythms with spill over effects for exercise and dietary behaviours;
  4. Living away from home, which can amplify feelings of social isolation, depression, disrupt personal relationships and support structures, and also disrupt healthy exercise and dietary behaviours;
  5. Agile working, which has increased particularly for office staff located in ‘global’ city spaces where property costs are high, creates challenges for workforce social inclusion and communication as well as potential musculoskeletal problems from working at inappropriate home or mobile workstations.

Using hard and soft management data, the firm examined the reality of working lives across the whole of the workforce and identified key physical and psychological issues.

Overall approach to wellbeing

The overall approach to workforce wellbeing (beyond statutory health and safety provision), incorporates:

  1. Evidence-based action – using hard and soft data to understand mental and physical health risks and evaluate the strengths and limitations of current provision in the firm, piloting and testing before rolling out innovations and assessing the impact on the labour force.
  2. Inclusive Design – creating both bottom up and top down solutions that can best accommodate the different needs as well as interests of employees, and mobilise multi-stakeholder decision-making groups and implementation groups.
  3. Culture & Learning – recursive and on-going learning to create new ways of thinking about how the organisation and individuals can protect worker wellbeing drawing on leading edge research, wellbeing expertise and integrating with the underpinning cultural values of the organisation.

The cultural value of ‘doing the right thing’, in combination with the ‘family’ ethos stemming from the family-owned origins of the firm, provided a lens through which management information and actions were sense checked. For example, one dimension of the wellbeing consequences facing employees was summed up by organisational decision makers as:

“Ultimately, there was the human side in terms of wanting to do the right thing, and there was also a potential business challenge with that. In particular, we faced the issue of people living away from home that was not only causing physical issues, it was contributing to other psychological issues including depression and anxiety, marriage breakdowns and relationship difficulties.

We realised that we could potentially lose some staff and that their overall lifestyle was not benefitting them. As a business, we can’t afford to lose the quality of people who were having to work away from home, through no fault of their own. For example, if you are working down in London and you are not happy, or if you are having difficulties with your family and you are from Manchester you can get another job in Manchester or you can drive up the road. But if you are from Northern Ireland, and you have got a problem, it is much harder to resolve as the job market is much smaller, and often there are fewer alternatives. So, you had to live away from home, you had to deal with these issues, and you couldn’t just hop in a car and drive there in a couple of hours, you had to get a flight.”

At the heart of the design of the wellbeing provision is the principle of personalisation. In other words, making sure the provision was ‘bespoke’ to the needs of users, that individuals were motivated to use it, and that it was communicated and offered in a way that would make it easily accessible to users. This resulted in the development of a programme of resources over the past five years which includes formal employee assistance programme provision (made available through third party providers), educational/training and support tools and information available through an intranet portal, the generation of employee led volunteering and health-based communities, and more latterly a focus on embedding wellbeing training within managerial training and job role expectations.


Here we shine a light on the detail surrounding the introduction and roll-out of one particular strand of the organisation’s wellbeing provision called CONNECT+.

Rationale and approach

  • The programme’s evolution was part of GRAHAM’s wider cultural approach to ‘doing the right thing’. It was also shaped by the organisation’s interpretation of the competitive pressures which demanded a healthy sustainable workforce that would attract and retain talent within the context of an industry where mental and physical health risks were known[1] to be high, and skills shortages were endemic.
  • Workforce health data, from voluntary health checks made available to all employees over the age of 40 and undertaken by a health service provider, suggested large sections of the workforce were at increased risk of heart disease and stroke as a consequence of poor diet and limited exercise.
  • Around the same time, data from annual employee engagement surveys and analysis of HR data on retention, sickness and absenteeism suggested that there was room for improvement across all of these metrics.
  • GRAHAM committed to tackling these issues holistically and in a way that it felt was consistent with the values of the organisational culture. It built on the foundations of previous work on staff engagement and wellbeing, which was highly advanced and pursued through its Investors in People (IIP) Gold Award. The result was the development of CONNECT, a personal development programme that was subsequently extended through CONNECT+ which incorporated additional wellbeing resources.
  • Wellbeing was made a business priority, which was reflected in the production of a ‘Wellbeing’ anchor video that was delivered by the Executive Chairman, Michael Graham. This clearly set out, and defined, the company’s wellbeing vision and strategy.


CONNECT is a personal development programme, which was introduced to replace the traditional appraisal process that managers’ and employees’ feedback indicated was an unhelpful ‘tick box’ exercise. CONNECT was underpinned by the concept of ‘Whole Person Development’ which arose from the organisational learning during the initial wellbeing set up stage.

 “CONNECT was actually about getting managers and employees to sit down and talk to each other, to build relationships and understand where that person was trying to go. The company’s ambition was to try and marry those two together. Essentially, it was about starting to have meaningful conversations which weren’t really happening before. There was a feeling, that because people were so busy the previous standard appraisal system had become a box ticking exercise.”

Initially, a multi-disciplinary team of health and wellbeing specialists was established by the HR department and tasked with creating innovative approaches to staff wellbeing. This initial work generated a wellbeing framework or strategy document for the GRAHAM offices and sites, the creation of new roles i.e. Wellbeing Champions and a set of resources for employees and managers that would be easily accessed on an intranet hub. Investors in People (IIP) was engaged to ensure an independent assessment of the new ‘Wellbeing’ approach, and provided identifiable audit parameters and challenging targets to aspire to.

The IIP accreditation process, and the wellbeing standard, were important bridging points for bringing a coalition of resources into focus and shaping the GRAHAM approach. CONNECT was the first large scale people management process change that then followed as a means of integrating wellbeing concerns within the day-to-day management process. It was important in preparing the mind-set of both managers and employees, as well as the skills/capabilities of managers and employees to best utilise the wellbeing resources available to them.

Ensuring managers felt comfortable talking to and supporting individual employee wellbeing was fundamental to the success of GRAHAM’s wellbeing strategy. This was instigated with the initial ‘CONNECT’ personal development programme. ‘Standard’ appraisals were replaced with a combination of formal and informal ‘CONNECT commit’ meetings with managers to identify and develop personal goals.

This process generally began with a formally allocated meeting, but it was followed up with informal ‘chats’ as a proactive approach to development in the workplace with encouragement to identify and seek out training opportunities, which the company would support. HR reminders and signposting to intranet educational tools and information resources further supported managers and employees. The programme explored the adjustment of work placements to enable employees to be closer to home or even work from home if their job permitted it. GRAHAM also made healthier dietary options more readily accessible on all offices and sites.

CONNECT+ provided an extension to this ‘whole person’ perspective by incorporating employee wellbeing using a wellbeing diagnostic tool and coaching leading to personalised wellbeing plans and resources.

“Connect+ is centred on the concept of whole person development. So, if you are going to be the best version of yourself and if you are going to be the most productive successful person, you have got to have the right skills to do the job. You have got to have the right behaviours or resilience and you have got to be physically and mentally well. Therefore, only when those three things are working at their maximum are you going to be at your best. You can’t act on one, you have got to focus on all three.”

A team of leading external wellbeing specialists was engaged to train managers and to provide specialist health and coaching input. The resulting programme consists of four core elements:

  1. An easy to use personal diagnostic tool – this provides personality diagnostics that identify the employee’s personality and behavioural style preferences i.e. dominant, influencer, steady and compliant (DISC). Its aim is to provide the employee with insight into their own preferences and how this impacts on how they like to be treated and valued by line managers and colleagues. This is generally delivered through a one-day workshop. The employee can then voluntarily share that information with their line manager as part of the CONNECT discussions.
  2. Personal coaching – employees are assigned a coach who interprets the diagnostic and spends time understanding the challenge they face. Coaches support the employee to develop a practical plan and techniques/tools to support the employee make changes.
  3. Integration with CONNECT – line managers are trained to interpret the DISC personality profile and how to use it in the context of a CONNECT meeting to support work productivity, teamwork, leadership and communication. The information from DISC is aimed at helping managers to better understand their line reports and provide more effectively tailored development plans.
  4. Wellbeing diagnostic – employees are offered the opportunity (and take up has been high) to take part in a wellbeing diagnostic service which requires the individual to wear physical health monitoring equipment for a week. The data is overseen by external health experts who then provide a confidential meeting with the employee and provide feedback on their heart-rate, blood pressure and other health indicators and discuss a tailored plan to help the employee achieve change. Supplementing this, the employee can then access additional wellbeing experts to support individual wellbeing needs e.g. nutrition, exercise, or sleep.

Strategic support

GRAHAM faced key delivery challenges which arose from:

  1. the mind-set of a male dominated workforce, often reluctant to seek advice;
  2. geographical dispersion of employees across sites and offices, making it difficult to design and rollout programmes to reach those who most need help.

To resolve these challenges, a plan was developed which had three key components. This helped to embed strategic responsibility and accountability for the initiative within the organisation’s management processes. The three components consisted of:

  • A tiered governance structure and the establishment of a multi-functional team incorporating HR, Health and Safety and operational teams.
  • Buy-in from the Executive Team and promotion across the business helped to get the ball rolling on pilot studies, providing ‘Wellbeing’ data which could be collated, analysed and actioned.
  • Best practices were identified and customised with an Annual Plan agreed to and monitored.

Impact and looking forward

Impact indicators: Initially the Wellbeing initiative, which was tied into CONNECT, was piloted with 10% of the workforce.

Evaluation evidence collected during 2017/2018 indicated strong success, as the following statistics demonstrate:

  • 85% of participants rated the programme as excellent on an independent survey
  • 80% of participants signed up to make personal wellbeing changes
  • 70% of participants took advantage of additional voluntary feedback and specific expert sessions
  • 95% rated the personality profiling/behavioural coaching as excellent and that it would drive personal development and performance
  • Turnover for this group fell to 1% (against company average of 10%)
  • In the 2017 employee engagement survey, the participating cohort:
  • Increased its overall engagement index score by 15%
  • Outscored all other employee groups on every engagement indicator by at least 10%
  • Increased its positive opinion on company commitment to development by 20%
  • Increased its opinion on their managers’ ability to support and develop them by 27%

Broader analysis following the continued roll out of the pilot across the entire workforce has resulted in:

  • Sign-up for ‘Wellbeing’ activities increasing by 50% in the last 2 years
  • Absence at GRAHAM has reduced by 100% in the last 2 years
  • Overall staff engagement has increased by 15% in the past 2 years with a 90% positive feedback on the CONNECT wellbeing programme
  • A 20% reduction in the number of smokers in the last 3 years
  • A 33% lower staff turnover compared to the industry average

Furthermore, an unplanned positive outcome is that the HR department is developing demand led services arising from CONNECT discussions. Equally, employees are sharing their experiences of the CONNECT+ programme, or have seen the positive physical, psychological or behavioural changes of their colleagues which has led to employee driven requests to be involved. In addition, the generation of employee-led grassroots wellbeing actions and networks has spread. For example:

  • Strong attendance at voluntary workshops or talks
  • Engagement with health related challenges e.g. Around the World in 80 days Step Challenge
  • A rise in the number of positive news stories around mental health being disclosed and diffused through internal social media channels
  • Engagement with activities that support Public Health campaigns for example, Prostrate and Breast Cancer, Healthy Heart, Suicide Prevention week

In summary, there is evidence of employee engagement with wellbeing issues as a discretionary activity because it means something to these individuals.

All these signs point to the conclusion that the CONNECT and CONNECT+ initiatives are working and highly innovative across all industries – winning the IIP Excellence in Wellbeing Award in 2018.

Moving forward, GRAHAM is focused on embedding the sustainability of the initiative as the firm grows and the initiative is rolled out more widely across the workforce population.

As a measure of GRAHAM’s belief in CONNECT and CONNECT+’s ground breaking impact, it is investing over £1m throughout 2018-20 to roll out the programme to all of its 2200+ employees.

[1] The firm used industry statistical data and bench marking reports from professional bodies, government departments, and third party occupational health service providers.

Case study written by Kevin Daniels, Professor in Organizational Behaviour, University of East Anglia


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