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Front and centre

Wellington City Council has adopted a strategy which has made the health and wellbeing of its staff a central part of its identity. PETER BATEMAN reports.

Kevin is the embodiment of someone who brings their whole self to work – the very thing Wellington City Council’s health and wellbeing strategy aims to support.

I wander into the atrium off Wakefield St and find him in front of the welcome desk adjusting the TV monitor. Within 30 seconds he has told me his dad joke of the day, prompting me to return serve with a couple of my own. It’s been 90 seconds and Kevin is my new best friend.

While I wait he engages similarly with others – staff and visitors – as they move to and fro within this open area. Everyone leaves happy.

Later, Bella Wilton explains Kevin used to be a local host, a uniformed ambassador for the city with a roving role to support people they encounter, be they tourist or homeless. “He really does set the tone and he remembers you by name. He’s very welcoming.”

Wilton, health, safety and wellbeing advisor, directs us over the road and around the corner to a café so Wellington an insecure chap might feel in want of a hipster beard. Before we discuss the council’s health and wellbeing strategy – for which it won the wellbeing category at this year’s NZ Workplace Health & Safety Awards – she wants to credit her predecessor, Trish Knight, who created a strategy template, identified the four factors of a person’s health, and established the council’s Wellbeing Group.

The essence of the council’s approach is modelled on the holistic view of people expressed in WorkSafe’s HealthyWork strategy released in 2016: to look at the effect of work on health, and the effect of people’s health on their work. It also believes this reflects the more holistic view of people taken in the HSW Act 2015.

“That was our focus,” says Wilton. “How can we bring health and wellbeing front and centre at the council and make it part of our way of being?”

Launched in February 2017 in the wake of the Kaikoura earthquake, the new strategy acknowledged the health risks that its diverse staff bring to work – including diabetes, obesity, ageing workforce, fatigue, mental distress, and impairment from drugs and alcohol – and consolidated a new formal approach under the banner Tō Tātou Mana Tangata – Our People Are Our Strengths.


The council’s 29 hazards have been analysed to come up with nine critical risks to which staff are exposed. Earlier this year these risks were ranked for the first time, placing health & impairment second only to personal confrontation.

“We’re looking at the person themselves and what is affecting them – physical discomfort, emotional discomfort, stress, anxiety,” explains Wilton.

This is a significant re-imagining of wellbeing, away from the fruit bowls and other piecemeal initiatives which place the focus on the work; instead, it shifts the emphasis to the person. “We are looking at what is going on for the person: how do they present, what are the risks they bring to the workplace, how can we help minimise those?”

Wellington was left badly shaken post-earthquake and many staff needed support. The council brought in the Ignite Group to create a bespoke resilience programme for all staff, and another for managers. Staff attend a one-day workshop (run seven times a year), then a month later attend a two-hour workshop to embed the lessons.

I have to challenge Wilton on this. I’m a resilience sceptic because such programmes tend to focus on trying to fix the worker not the work. She’s up for the challenge. Managers attend their own “leader-led” resilience workshop so they understand what the course is about and what they are expected to do to support their teams by creating more resilient work environments. Importantly, staff who do the workshop each identify areas within their team where they feel they need more support, devise possible strategies to achieve this, and put the two together to create an action plan which they discuss with their manager.

If a theme emerges from a team’s individual action plans the manager can identify it and look to address wider issues, such as stress arising from unrealistic deadlines. Managers are also taken through the GROW coaching model (Goal, Reality, Options, Way forward), but with an S for Support added to the end: how is the manager going to support the individual and the team to move forward?

“They are working on their plan with their manager,” says Wilton, “and then in the wider team to address, for example, what the wider causes of stress are. So it’s robust. We’re finding it to be a really good strategy.”


It’s all very well having a health and wellbeing strategy but if staff don’t engage with it then nothing much changes. Wellington City Council’s strategy recognizes two key intersection points where a staff member can grapple with the policy: first at induction/ onboarding, and later during regular MAP (My Accountability Plan) meetings with his or her manager. The induction session introduces the new staff member to the strategy, while the MAP meetings are regular opportunities for managers to talk to each of their people about their health and wellbeing needs, to the extent the staff member is comfortable doing so. A template to guide these discussions is provided to everyone.

Wilton acknowledges these can be awkward conversations, and that there was some initial push-back from managers. For example, some felt it would be difficult to prevent a wellbeing-based conversation from being confused with a performance-based conversation, where staff might fear they would be judged on, for example, how many times a week they were exercising.

“We advise managers that the MAP meetings are an opportunity to show each staff member that their health and wellbeing is taken seriously, and that it has an importance within the organisation.”

More broadly, the aim is to make it normal – safe – to talk about your goals in the wellbeing space, or issues that are affecting your ability to work. At its simplest, she says, it might be a computer workstation setup that is causing back discomfort. But there have been plenty of more serious interventions that the MAP conversations have enabled. Wilton cites a staff member who felt able to disclose a recent depressive episode and that during the next little while when they were gradually coming off medication they were likely to feel more fatigued and irritable than usual.

The pair discussed flexible working arrangements, including starting earlier and leaving earlier, and worked out a plan which included acknowledgment that some days the person would not have slept well and would have to leave early.

“The manager came to me to discuss the plan so I was on board with it, but actually I was very hands-off and the manager and staff member dealt with it beautifully.”


Aside from the MAP conversations there are other supports available. Each business unit has health and safety representatives who can be approached over wellbeing issues, and the members of the Wellbeing Group are well known as champions who can also be approached. Wilton’s own health and wellbeing team is regularly approached by staff and by managers.

“The manager might come to HR and say they are having difficulty with this person, but if they talk to me I might find it’s a wellbeing issue and can separate it. We want people to be comfortable that it’s a conversation about wellbeing and not performance improvement.”

The key, she says, is to understand what is going on for that person. “Something might have happened at work but it might be only the tip of the iceberg because there could be a lot of stuff going on in their personal space which has manifested at work. That’s why getting in early and having those broader wellbeing discussions is so beneficial.”

The council has an EAP programme and sometimes staff are directed to it as an independent sounding board. “It’s a complimentary approach based on what the best path is for that person.”


At a more specific level the council’s strategy identifies four action areas, namely:

  • • 
    Heart Health (physical activity, nutrition);
  • • 
    Mental Wellbeing (work purpose, security, relationships, connectedness, resilience);
  • • 
    Musculoskeletal (muscles and bones);
  • • 
    Smoke-free, drug and alcohol (education, rehabilitation, lifestyle changes).

Taken together they provide a holistic view of a person’s health and wellbeing and provide a framework to guide the creation of regular initiatives during the year.

Each staff member also has access to a self-assessment tool to measure their own wellbeing against the four areas, which can be used as a starting point for MAP discussions.

As for the specifics of initiatives, they range from mindfulness audio clips to a climb-a-mountain challenge using stairs; and from nutritious morning teas to an intranet quiz.

Wilton says the focus is on devising activities people can do as teams in their own work areas – and, being a council, these are highly diverse: parks and reserves, cemeteries, swimming pools, libraries and so on. Helping to get staff engaged involves a range of people, including reps, the champions and the Wellbeing Group. But a key move was to persuade Kane Patana, the council’s director of strategy and governance, to come on board as wellbeing sponsor. He is involved with the Wellbeing Group, and he sends a message to all staff in support of each campaign.

One change since last year is a move from a monthly campaign focus to a schedule based on the four seasons, which provides greater opportunity to work in with initiatives that are already happening at national level, such as Mental Health Awareness Week in October.


Not all businesses have the resources of an organisation the size of Wellington City Council. What can they take from the council’s approach to health and wellbeing? Wilton advises everyone, big or small, to make the time to read WorkSafe’s HealthyWork strategy. Then, work on those conversations.

“That’s got to be the starting point: to create a culture where it’s OK to have those conversations and for leaders to normalise this behaviour.”

Next, find your wellbeing champions from anywhere in your organisation, because that small core group will drive the programme.

Finally, start small, discover the areas of need, and build from there.

Wilton is excited to be a member of a council working group developing a diversity and inclusion strategy, which she says sits well alongside the health and wellbeing strategy.

“It’s about creating safety for people to feel they can bring their whole selves to work and contribute as their whole self.”


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