Spotlight Series: Wellbeing insights from Unilever on tackling the GBC Pledge

The Global Business Collaboration for Better Workplace Mental Health (GBC) is a business-led initiative with a mission to advocate for – and accelerate – positive change for mental health in the workplace on a global basis. ​

The initiative began in 2019, starting with a workshop hosted by Tim Munden, Chief Learning Officer and Global Head of Wellbeing at Unilever bringing together other multinationals and mental health sector experts to discuss workplace mental health. Since then, it has grown and alongside Unilever, Deloitte, HSBC, Salesforce, BHP, BP and Clifford Chance are now Founding Partners of the GBC with more to be onboarded to form a group of non-competing global multinationals who will resource, advocate, and drive the coalition.

The initiative launched at the end of January 2021 with a call to action for Business leaders around the world to sign the GBC’s Leadership Pledge, committing them to take action on workplace mental health within their own organisation.

Tim’s focus at Unilever is on building the leaders and teams needed for a purpose driven business, developing the skills and capabilities for a digital and disrupted world, and enabling people in Unilever to have the wellbeing needed for happiness and high performance.

We caught up with Tim to find out why this initiative is so important and why reducing the stigma of mental health in the workplace is so important to him.

How is workplace mental health core to Unilever’s wider purpose?

In 1930, our two founding companies (Unie & Lever Brothers) merged to create Unilever. Purpose was clearly at the heart from the very beginning. Whether it was to provide a more nutritious and affordable alternative to expensive butter or make a bar of soap to ‘make cleanliness commonplace’, this was done at a time when cooking and cleaning was a full-time job and preventable diseases were impacting life expectancy.

Purpose continues today, 90 years on, as we continue to put purpose at the heart of the company – our purpose is to make sustainable living commonplace. Meaning we want to democratize sustainability and cater to the millions, not only to the millionaires. We can do this through our brands that touch 3 billion people every single day with our presence in 190 countries.

Our overall company strategy is underpinned by three beliefs which are: companies with purpose last, brands with purpose grow, people with purpose thrive.  There is never a better time to live those beliefs.  Companies that lift their values, put their people first will stand out, will be the ones that people will want to be a part of and will be the ones that will drive greater change in the world. 

We believe everyone should have the social and emotional resources they need to cope with the normal stresses of life, to live, love and work purposefully and to contribute to their community

Of course, COVID-19 has tested us all in ways that we could scarcely have imagined at the start of 2020. For me personally, the restrictions and the unpredictability have felt really challenging, and yet at the same time I have felt fulfilled. Supporting both the individual and the collective needs of our people and supporting their wellbeing – mental, physical, emotional, and purposeful – has been front and centre in leadership conversation more than ever before.  But this pandemic will likely leave a much longer-lasting mental health crisis – a crisis of epidemic proportions in its wake. That’s why initiatives like this are so important.


What was your action plan?

To keep mental health on the agenda, you need to have a framework in place, obtain leadership buy-in, ensure the right support is available, and then work to constantly drive the mental health conversation messaging internally.  

It is amazing how much shame there is around experiencing mental health struggles. It varies in different countries and cultures and in different organisations, but it is something we really do have to deal with. 

A few years ago, I had a realisation. Having been involved in discussions and events around mental health, I had started to hear Post Traumatic Stress being referred to. Some of the symptoms being discussed were familiar, and I realised that things that I had been struggling with – frequent nightmares, emotional volatility – could have a name and could be treated. I had been in a car accident in my early 20s, which I had been lucky to come through alive. That realisation that the symptoms had a name meant there could be treatment. At first I was still reluctant – shame – but I did find help. It took time, and was a lot of work, but four years later I feel that I have recovered.

Building a workplace culture which is supportive of everyone’s mental health takes ongoing commitment. Senior leadership buy-in is a key unlock, which comes from helping senior leaders to understand the business and organisational impact of mental health. Then, to impact a culture change you need to embed these messages into all employee communications. Creating a common language to talk about mental health and wellbeing across the organisation can help leaders and their teams to get comfortable talking about something that they are not used to discussing. Then, helping leaders know how to support their people, and where to signpost them to the help and support they need. You cannot encourage employees to open-up about mental health issues if their line leader is not equipped to listen, so investing in mental health training is also very important.

Talking about mental health at work doesn’t mean that work is always the root cause. But whatever the cause, the way in which workplaces respond to employee mental health will make a difference to how people recover.

In summary – having these items on your action plan will be a good start:

  • Ensure that wellbeing is embedded in your business strategy to encourage a mental health positive approach 
  • Engage senior leaders on mental health and wellbeing so they can advocate, inspire, and sponsor mental health positive environments. 
  • Have a Wellbeing Steering Committee – invite senior leaders who actively build advocacy and track implementation of our Wellbeing plans to join.
  • Offer resources to support employees. 
  • Continue to build awareness on wellbeing at every opportunity and provide both the infrastructure and the environment for your teams to thrive.


How do you empower people to prioritise their wellbeing?

Back in 2012, we developed a ‘Thrive’ wellbeing workshop, which over 50,000 employees participated in. Thrive facilitators were employees who had shown an interest in the programme who signed up for training and soon became a large global community of passionate wellbeing colleagues, the core of a movement.

In addition, our one-day ‘Discover Your Purpose’ workshop, which has now been completed by over 58,000 Unilever employees, was shown in preliminary results of an LSE study to make people 33% happier with their lives, and 49% more motivated at work.  My purpose is to nurture deeply human possibilities.

We also have a network of nearly 3000 mental health champions across the organisation. These colleagues are trained to spot the signs of struggle, start the conversation, and signpost people to the support they need. This approach within Unilever has embedded a powerful capability. It is imperative to create clarity about what the role of a mental health champion is, colleagues that volunteer need to be trained with a key message that they’re not counsellors and they should never try to be, they just need to be there if a colleague needs someone to talk to.


Signposting people to support  

When we launched our global wellbeing framework, a critical part was to ensure that an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) was in place to support. The Employee Assistance Programme is a free, confidential telephone and web-based information and support service providing access to caring professional consultants and counsellors.  

If anyone is finding things difficult, whatever challenges they are facing, their local Employee Assistance Programme can provide support. The service is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.  At any time of the day or night, weekday or weekends, you will be able to speak to someone for free and confidential support. Wellbeing may be more than an EAP for some, but having the support and resources available to signpost employees to the help and advice they need goes a long way to reduce the stigma.   

It’s crucial to make sure that employees are aware of what is available through their EAP. Companies need to promote their offerings for employees and reiterate that help is there if it is needed. Work closely with your communications team to get the wellbeing messages out there in any communications channel available to promote the services you want your people to know they have access to.  


Find out more about signing the GBC Pledge