The Big Interview with Sarah Eglin

Sarah Eglin is Head of People for Co-op Operations at Co-op and supports a team of people coaches that support around 60,000 frontline colleagues across the organisation's stores, logistics, funeral care as well as business services.

Sarah has worked at Co-op for four years and spoke to Rosie Jenkins about her career and what the organisation is doing around employee wellbeing.

Could you tell us about your current projects around employee wellbeing and mental health?

At the Co-op, one of the key elements of our colleague experience that we are really passionate about is around ensuring that colleague wellbeing is at the front of everything we do and that has become especially prevalent around the recent pandemic period. 

We try to connect in a lot of our wellbeing initiatives with our frontline colleagues to ensure they have the full suite of opportunities. 

It is very much about meeting our colleagues where they are at in terms of that content as well. 

However, one of the things I noticed pre-pandemic was that in terms of our depot-based colleagues – logistics and supply chain – there was a gap emerging with us lacking really relevant and focused interventions in terms of their particular wellbeing challenges. 

I went out to talk to depot colleagues and what was really apparent was that our shift working colleagues, and particularly our night workers, were talking about being the ‘forgotten shift’ at the Co-op, which really struck a chord with me. 

So with our focus on wellbeing, I started to ask the question of what was missing for them? 

After doing some research what was really clear was that a lot of our wellbeing content and training is very much day-based not in the night or for night workers.

From a general wellbeing perspective, one of the key areas that was a gap for us is an awareness and education around sleep health and the impact night and shift working has on your mental state. 

So, we set about undertaking a rollout across the UK, in conjunction with an organisation called Liminal Space, a creative agency, The Welcome Trust – key policy funders in the UK and Oxford University – to implement a sleep education installation up and down the UK, which in effect is a converted shipping container that is a very tactile learning experience inside for our colleagues. 

We took that to our depots and the night shift with our colleagues. They were able to understand the impact that night working has on their body, their social networks, their health and general wellbeing and particularly their mental health. 

It is a 40-minute experience and from there what we wanted to do was sustain that with our sleep champions, which we now have a network of and a permanent locker box with all of the materials around sleep health in each depot.

What was the outcome of that?

A key thing for us is that from a colleague perspective we want to help to educate so that they can make their own informed decisions. 

One of the core foundations of Cooperative principles is around education and self-help, from our perspective we wanted to give resources but also an educational and interactive experience for our colleagues so they could then take away resources and subsequently hopefully talk to their friends and family to explain the challenges they face associated with night work. 

We surveyed all our colleagues who took part and more than 70% said they learnt something about night working that they didn’t know before. 

And a really significant amount of those colleagues said that they would change something in their lifestyle, be it the way that they sleep, in the way that they have their environment, in the way that they are eating, because eating is huge for night workers as well. 

We did see some reduction in our absence levels, but more importantly, we were opening up a conversation about mental health. 

If you ask someone how they are they often say ‘yeah I am fine’ but if you ask someone how they slept last night it often opens up a myriad of conversations that often lead to helping social and mental wellbeing. 

Then the final thing for us at the Co-op is that we want to make sure that this isn’t the best-kept secret that actually it is something that organisations around the UK can also use and many are starting to take up the resources. 

We have also been campaigning really hard with MPs and at Westminster and last year launched our manifesto for change for night workers on the back of more research we carried out during Covid across other sectors. 

It was really important for us to show that the impact we saw through the conversations we were having around the impact that night working has on colleagues was not just a logistics issue it was actually for all of those people that during Covid were keeping the UK going, so for us getting more people to be part of the initiative and involved in the campaign and awakening the UK to the fact that 1 in 8 people are night workers the impact of night-working is purveyed much further than those individuals, it is into their families and their community beyond that. 

They are critical to keeping the UK going.

We have made sure that each depot has a wellbeing area that has all the materials but is also a place where individuals can go and talk as well. 

We have a vast number of resources we use across the Co-op which talk about the impact of sleep health.

 They are really important to get out to our wider workforce as well, as everyone knows the impact of a bad night’s sleep! 

Could you tell us your perspective on different ways of working?

Yes, I guess this references some of the learnings that we have had during Covid as an organisation.

We were all thrown up in the air in terms of our ways of working during the pandemic, and I think one of the things that we really quickly recognised and had been talking about for a long time at the Co-op was how can we start to empower our front-line colleagues much more? 

As like many other major retailers, we have a fantastic support centre (other organisations may call that a Head Office) who are working day and night to make sure that they support our stores. 

Often  decisions are taken in the support centres and then imported into our stores and our funeral homes. 

What we noticed during Covid was that the balance had tipped and it was about ensuring that the people who worked closest to the customer were making some of those decisions that during Covid needed to be made on a daily basis. 

I guess we recognised for the first time that real shift in leadership. 

It was about moving much more into an enabling leadership space with care and compassion rather than authority being critical. Many of our colleagues really recognised this shift in their responses to our Talkback employee survey. Just as important was that colleagues said that they want to have is those freedoms and empowerment that they had been gifted during Covid.

One of the additional things that we have done in the last year has been to introduce a new people operating model. This is very much about facilitating and,  role model new and different ways of working. 

The operating model enables us to work much more fluidly and without hierarchy,  building on the learnings and writings of people such as Frederic Laloux who talks about very different ways of constructing an organisation and its ways of working, and some of the principles that Holocracy has around working around problem statements and in circles rather than working in an overly governed and hierarchical manner.   

We started that journey last August and we are still very much on that journey, learning every day about our approach and what works and what does not work. 

As a leader of one of those hubs, it has been quite challenging moving into a self-managing construct as you have to learn – unlearn and relearn many of the things you have learnt about leadership. The dynamic of what you are there to do and serve as part of a team really shifts when you are moving towards self-management.

Do you know of any other retailers working in a similar way?

I don’t actually, but I would love to hear from anybody who is. I know there are others in other sectors who are very much thinking and working in this way, I am very much a fan of the corporate rebel research they have several test organisations they are working with and they are always looking for case studies. 

While I would say we are trialling and experimenting, we are very much on a journey at the Co-op and we are not there yet. 

I would love to hear from any other organisations who are trying to make this move forward as well so we can move together and learn from it.

What do you think the key HR trends will be for the rest of this year?

The first one for me is about adaptability as a mindset shift, and that is at all levels of the organisation, for many years we have talked about change, haven’t we? 

And change-readiness and never is that more true than now and even if we look at recent weeks in the dynamic of the world and how that shifted with some of the challenges we are now facing in Europe, we have to be adaptable as humans too. 

It is definitely one of the things that we are going to see more of and showing up in different ways and I see it as our role in HR to be able to support that journey of learning.

Secondly, I do think there is going to be a big challenge around financial wellbeing and mental wellbeing again, I am a mum of children and I think the impact of Covid on their mental health is significant. 

We have talked about night working earlier, and the impact that that has, but I do think that post-pandemic there is going to be a tsunami around mental health and wellbeing that we will need to face as employers, but I also think financial wellbeing is really going to hit hard with rising energy prices and the cost of living inflating.

Many of our colleagues work around the real living wage but we all know that their income is going to be significantly challenged, so for anyone who is supporting key worker colleagues like I am, what I hear most frequently at the moment is how are you as an organisation going to help us. 

I think finally, again alluding to new ways of working, that we are moving into an era where future capabilities and what is the future design of work? This needs to be a real conversation that we are having as an HR population. Moving our thinking from traditional talent planning approaches into a much more fluid organic way of self-growth and development and experiences is going to be critical.

I would love to see a world where roles don’t have to have a role profile with 20 things against them. That they have merely purpose and then you fill that space with where you think you can add value and have passions to deliver against in the organisation. Then we will truly be into an era of self-managing and purpose-led growth.