Informa Markets

Author Bio ▼

Charlotte Geoghegan is Event Manager for Safety & Health Expo and SHP at Informa Markets. She is responsible for content, strategy and sales of physical events and digital products. She is also an active member of the Women in Health and Safety committee.Before Charlotte went into this role she was Head of Content for the Safety & Health Expo, SHP, IFSEC, FIREX and the Facilities Show. She joined Informa (previously UBM) in 2015.Charlotte has spent 10 years in media & events and her academic background is in modern foreign languages. You can find her on LinkedIn here
June 13, 2023

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Merging safety and wellbeing at Danone: In conversation with pioneer Bruno Vercken

Bruno Vercken is a self-confessed ‘engineer lost in HR’ and Global Head, Health, Safety and Working Conditions Director at Danone. Managing health and safety for a global company with 100,000 employees, 200 plants, and 400 distribution centers, he is also an employee representative and union leader – a role he undertook to ensure there was a free voice to challenge senior leadership on the rise of psychosocial risks.

Danone established a global safety framework back in 2003. As the Global Head of Occupational Health at the time, Bruno recognised the need for two major changes in the framework. Firstly, he made changes from the behaviour-based, safety culture programme to a programme incorporating stricter compliance and standards for high-risk scenarios. The second change was incorporating health and wellbeing into the framework.

Now Bruno is on a mission to get health & safety professionals to lead the crusade in tackling workplace mental health, a mission which took him recently to the EHS Congress in Berlin to present his message to a senior audience of international health & safety professionals. In this article, Bruno Vercken, Global Head of Health, Safety & Working Conditions at Danone, discusses the company’s innovative approach to integrating wellbeing and safety at work. He highlights the importance of addressing both physical and mental health risks, and the need for senior leadership engagement in these efforts. He argues that health and safety professionals should lead the crusade in tackling workplace mental health and emphasises the role that academic research and a strong business case could play in convincing senior leadership to prioritise mental health in the workplace.

Charlotte Geoghegan (CG): Tell me about the strategy for workplace wellbeing at Danone.

Bruno Verecken (BV): The heart of it is for wellbeing to be integrated within our safety at work strategy. Most of the root causes of accidents and mental ill health are the same. It is about fatigue because of high workload and changing priorities. It’s also about rushing because everything is urgent. My vision was to apply to mental ill health the same risk prevention strategies that we apply to physical health and safety. Having two different approaches, with HR taking care of wellbeing and ops taking care of safety would not make the life of people at work better.

When we started this integration back in 2015, we had parts of the business well-embarked into the programme – operations, plants and warehouses, and we knew we had a chance with sales & headquarters.

An example of how this could apply to staff in the headquarters would be a salesperson speeding, not responding to speed limitations. Or a marketing professional rushing down a staircase while trying to do something on their laptop – If I were to try stopping them, saying ‘you’re at risk of falling down the stairs’, or ‘pay attention to speed limits’, they’d tell ‘I haven’t got time for this, I’ve been up since 6am, rushing and working until late in the evening because leadership have changed the strategy of our last product launch – so you don’t answer my needs by telling me that. Reduce my stress at work and I’ll listen to you’.

Our goal in 2015 was to embark on this project with all the employees. Paying attention holistically to the risks perceived by employees, including ergonomic, physical and psychosocial risks. And the other choice we made at that time was to focus on stress at work. Often it’s not people that are sick at work, it is, first of all, work that is sick. We only have one mind, so if work is healthy, people are more likely to be healthy.  And we have found that the most exposed people to psychosocial risks are often high in the organisation, so if you engage them, you will have a payback on safety.

Both of these changes required engagement with very senior leadership.

CG: I don’t see this as a common or standard way of doing things?

BV: No, you’re right. The way we’re approaching this at Danone isn’t the standard way of doing things.  I am an HR person, I used to be VP of HR Operations and I report to HR. And when we talk about wellbeing and stress factors we talk a lot about people, organisation and management, which are legitimately viewed as HR topics. Health and safety people often recognise these topics but don’t always feel they have the skill or authority to attack them and they kind of push it back. I made an effort to train and foster a cross-functional approach.

Most approaches to mental health risk prevention fall in the trap of focussing on personal resilience stuff, like massage, fruit baskets, mindfulness training – I don’t say this is bad, it helps you to be stronger, but it doesn’t tackle the risks as the source.

CG: In your EHS Congress presentation synopsis you mention problematic window-dressing strategies. Is that what you’re referring to?

BV: Yes. It’s a massive issue. Addressing this properly is difficult because there are plenty of reasons to push it back.

We don’t want to say we are mentally sick. So there is a lot of denial and even some shame. There is helplessness in misunderstanding what work-related stress is. And it is difficult to address real root causes related to business demands vs resources imbalances, recognition and uncertainty about the future of work.

For many reasons, senior leadership don’t want to tackle this. There is some push back.

Also, we know that permanent transformation is becoming a mantra. We know that we are pushed to do more with less. We know that digital transformation is the latest buzz, which can be a major source of stress. And with that is the problem of recognition – often senior leadership focuses so much on transformational work that they overlook consistent efforts in employees’ day-jobs. This lack of recognition can create frustration and anxiety about the future.

Another difficulty, in terms of KPIs, is modern leadership only works on what can be measured. What is important is measured. And what is measured is acted upon. And when you talk about mental ill health you face a strong challenge on measurement. On safety you have incident frequency rate, number of days lost by million hours worked etc which gives you clear figures to work with. To describe the level of stress of an organisation, it’s more complex, we can’t measure it by a single KPI.

Many recognise the huge impact and outcomes of stress at work, they recognise the root causes, but they focus on resilience trainings, EAPs, sports, nutrition, sleep seminars and fruit baskets. They recognise the outcome, they recognise the root, but there’s a disconnect.

CG: I know a lot of health & safety professionals who have struggled to get the level of investment they want in their wellbeing strategies. Often senior leadership will accept a certain level of stress in an organisation and will not want to do anything to reduce it. What do you think could help?

BV: In a former EHS Congress I shared business case elements for senior leadership to invest in psychosocial risks prevention. And it doesn’t work so well yet. What we need as a profession is to stand up and dare to address this.

Perhaps we need academics to make a strong case, to show there is a level of permanent transformation that is harmful to people. By conducting research and publishing studies that highlight the negative impact of workplace stress on employee wellbeing, academics could arm health & safety professionals with data needed to convince leadership that mental health risks require action.

It is also important for health and safety professionals to emphasise the business case for mental health risk prevention. By demonstrating that addressing mental health risks can improve productivity, reduce absenteeism, and lower healthcare costs, health and safety professionals can make a compelling argument for why senior leadership should prioritise mental health in the workplace.

CG: Why did you speak at the EHS Congress this year? What were you hoping to achieve?

BV: What I want is an upheaval of our profession. If we, health & safety people, don’t stand up on this matter, no-one will do it for us. HR have abandoned the field, they’ve left social and shopfloor behind and they have moved on to societal and inclusion.

I want to say ‘wake up guys’, because if we don’t tackle this topic, no-one else will do it for us. And then in time the people who fund us will say ‘sorry guys, safety is ok now, you have done a good job at reducing accidents, but by the way, we have almost nobody left on the production line – robots have replaced our operators. We have a real issue with psychosocial risk, but you failed to see the huge elephant in the room and address it, bye bye.’

We need to embrace this. We can’t dismiss wellbeing as HR stuff or psychology. I’m not saying we can do this alone. It’s multi-disciplinary, that’s clear. But we are the ones who can lead the crusade.

Bruno Vercken presented in May 2023 at the EHS Congress in Berlin. His talk covered the following:  Mental health at work: are we, the H&S professionals, going to remain silent and contribute to bury the subject?

What makes us susceptible to burnout?

In this episode  of the Safety & Health Podcast, ‘Burnout, stress and being human’, Heather Beach is joined by Stacy Thomson to discuss burnout, perfectionism and how to deal with burnout as an individual, as management and as an organisation.

We provide an insight on how to tackle burnout and why mental health is such a taboo subject, particularly in the workplace.


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