Finding our way to wellbeing in the workplace

How Spark has transformed its wellbeing approach

November 27, 2023
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When Covid-19 came to Aotearoa, and we were all forced to work from home, it came with a whole new set of challenges for most people. From dealing with sickness or the loss of income, social isolation, juggling childcare with working from home, or missing out on key moments with loved ones – nearly everyone was faced with a sense of anxiety amidst all the uncertainty.  

For us at Spark, wellbeing had always been a part of the way we did things. In fact, 15 years ago, when we were planning our new Auckland headquarters, we were mindful to ensure there was a ‘wellness room’ for our people. But although our intention was good, the pandemic shone a spotlight on wellbeing and our small room in a corner on the ground floor almost became a kind of symbol of how wellness has been traditionally regarded in corporate environments - not quite a ‘tick box’ exercise, but not exactly front and centre either.

Covid-19 made us realise that wellbeing wasn’t an idea that we could consign to a small room or be measured in ‘net promotor score’ type surveys, and Employment Assistance Programmes (EAP), which less than 10% of our workforce were accessing. So, we used it as an opportunity to completely redesign our approach to wellbeing.

We take a data-led approach to everything we do at Spark, and so during the long lockdown that began in August 2021, we began conducting regular surveys with our people to check in with their mental wellbeing. Our results told us that while many of our people were experiencing heightened anxiety and stress, 9.4% of our people were in acute distress. The data also told us that some of our people who were experiencing acute distress found the long wait times to access appointments with EAP specialists a deterrent, and that the support they received only offered a temporary respite from their symptoms.

These surveys also highlighted that many of our people weren’t sure where to go for some of the really hard stuff they were experiencing, and they also told us that more direct, assured, and timely support for when things are really starting to get tough would help. So the message was clear – when it comes to support, one size doesn’t fit all and more options to seek out support (than the support we were already providing with EAP) would help. So, we needed to find a solution that addressed these pressing needs for our people, and one that provided long-term and holistic mental health support.

We wanted to design a solution in partnership with our people, so we also asked them to tell us more about what they wanted and needed in the wellbeing space to find out more about what was going well and what needed to be enhanced. The engagement and insights that our people gave us were then used to further build and evolve the way we support our people through our wellbeing programme.

We were also aware of a growing body of science-based research which shows wellbeing not only boosts an individual’s progress, but also directly contributes to an organisation’s success. In a review of local and international literature on the correlation between productivity and wellbeing, NZIER cited one survey which found that people who reported depression, anxiety, or emotional disorders had a 36.4% decrease in productivity at work. So, supporting our people’s wellbeing wasn’t just the right thing to do but it also made good business sense to invest in our people's wellbeing.

A fresh way to wellbeing

The team started work on our wellbeing initiative in mid-2020, but it was officially launched to our people in September 2021 during Mental Health Awareness Week (MHAW), when Auckland was still in the middle of its longest lockdown.

Its framework was co-created in partnership with our people and developed using the insights from our surveys and engagement with our teams alongside the principles of ‘Te Whare Tapa Wha’, which are the four cornerstones of Māori health – physical, spiritual, family and mental.

The result of this collaboration was the development of Mahi Tahi (te reo Māori for ‘partnership’), Spark’s wellbeing strategy, which recognises that we need to work in partnership with our people to support how we achieve their goals at work and in life, and focuses on building four key realms of wellbeing:  

  1. Healthy Work Environment – providing our people with a place to work that looks after more than just physical safety but also mental and social wellbeing.  
  2. Connection, Collaboration and Community – ensuring we have meaningful activities in place so our people can foster strong connections with those they work with.  
  3. Mind Health – supporting strong mental health capacity and confidence and fostering growth mindset muscle.  
  4. Energy – building a culture where we help our people keep their batteries charged, so they can perform at their best.  

In line with this approach, we created a range of support services for our people, starting with our Mahi Tahi coaches. These are Spark people who are trained as certified wellbeing coaches and whose services can be booked through our online wellbeing hub. To date we have over 55 Mahi Tahi coaches available to listen, and offer advice, in a highly confidential environment.

This programme is augmented by professional services, such as specialist clinical support from two psychotherapists who know and understand our Spark environment, having worked with us for several years. Our people can book free sessions with these specialists via our wellbeing portal on our Intranet when they need.

We have also provided our people with access to ‘Take a Breath’ – a breathing app designed to reduce stress and anxiety. To date around 40% of our people have used this app, reporting that it has helped them to combat anxiety and improve their sleep. In addition, 30% of our people have gifted the app to their friends and whānau, which is wonderful to see.

Continuous learning and innovation

Over the last two years, the programme has naturally grown and evolved as we have continued to mature our approach to wellbeing at Spark.

In July, we embarked on our new three-year business strategy of which wellbeing is a key part of our 'innovation culture’ under the ‘healthy lives and safe environments’ pillar which will support growth for both our people and ultimately for Spark as a business. Because we know that if we want to build high performing teams, then we need to make sure that our people are supported with their well-being both at work and in their personal lives.

So, wellbeing is no longer just a nice-to-have at Spark but is built-in to our core business strategy.

As part of this natural evolution, we’ve also been exploring new partnerships and offerings to our people. In September this year, we launched Clearhead, Spark’sAssistance Programme, which gives our people and their whānau access to a confidential mental health and wellbeing platform, and which includes up to six fully funded therapy sessions per year.

Taking a holistic approach

While the support we offer has expanded to provide a more encompassing service for our people, we know that enabling wellbeing isn’t only about what services you provide, it’s how you operate as a business. Randstad’s 2022 Employer Brand Research found that the employers most attuned to work-life balances were those offering flexible work arrangements (43%), training and development (40%), wellness and mental health resources (38%) and other healthcare benefits (36%).

Our People and Culture partners work closely with our senior leaders to incorporate wellbeing objectives and KPIs into their quarterly planning. For example,Spark’s hybrid work policy, which was reset in FY23, is designed to incorporate key wellbeing indicators of connection and support.

As employers we recognise that the pace of work is only getting faster and therefore it’s important to find ways to avoid employee burn-out.

- Heather Polglase, Spark People and Culture Director

At Spark we work in an Agile environment, with our mahi arranged in ‘sprints’ – for example, we might look to achieve an outcome, such as build a new product, in a series of two-week sprints. Some of these sprints will be more intense than others, so we can potentially categorise them into a traffic light system – the pace of the red sprints are intense, the green more circumspect, the orange somewhere in between – and alternate between each rather than have several red sprints in a row.

We also place a much higher value on annual leave than we have in the past. It simply isn’t feasible for a person’s ongoing wellbeing that they only go on leave once a year during the Christmas break. We therefore encourage our people to take mini breaks throughout the year and ensure that they fully switch off from work while on leave.

Creating a wellbeing framework for your organisation

The Covid pandemic was the catalyst for our wellbeing reset but we know that it must always evolve if we are to continue to succeed as a business. Underpinning our Mahi Tahi framework are four key considerations:

  • Governance – wellbeing is overseen at the highest level of our organisation including our Board who receive regular wellbeing insights from our engagement surveys, our Leadership Squad who engage with these insights and take steps to ensure that their business units are meeting their KPIs, and our People Leaders who work regularly with our People andCulture team to incorporate wellbeing into their sprints.
  • Data and insights – conducting meaningful engagement surveys and finding out from our wellbeing providers the general themes of the conversations they are having with our people (without breaching confidentiality). This data is reported to our Board, who are ultimately responsible for our wellbeing outcomes, as it is considered a key aspect of health and safety in the workplace.
  • Collaboration – creating cross-functional groups that provide insights into how we can implement, enhance, and track the effectiveness of wellness initiatives across our organisation of around 5000people.
  • Continual learning – keeping our ‘finger on the pulse’ of what is new and emerging in local and global thinking around best practice when it comes to wellbeing in the workplace.

We’ve come a long way from that small wellbeing room, and it’s exciting to see the impact that our work is having already. Our recent survey showed employee engagement at 71% and 89% of our people felt well supported by their leader when it comes to wellbeing. We’re also making wellbeing a key consideration into our plans for Spark’s new Auckland headquarters, which we will move into in 2025. There will be a large kitchen and communal dining room with an outdoor area to encourage our people to come together outside of their individual teams and tribes.

As for that wellness room, it will be replaced by a mix of collaborative spaces and quiet zones recognising that our people’s different needs when it comes to wellbeing. For some, this might look like a prayer room, others might enjoy socialising with their colleagues in the sundrenched outdoor space, some team members might like to spend time in the disco room. Well maybe not a disco room, but if teams consider that mirror balls hanging from the ceiling contribute to a space in which to find joy, then why not?

Heather Polglase
Heather Polglase
Spark People and Culture Director
Listen to this insight:


Heather Polglase is People and Culture Director at Spark New Zealand. Heather joined Spark in 2013 and has over 20 years international experience as an HR professional, with a proven track record for business transformation, talent management, leadership development and succession planning across a range of industries. At Spark, Heather has held various senior HR positions and delivered a number of critical initiatives, including being a key architect of Spark’s Wellbeing strategy, and Leadership and Development programme to build high-performing teams and leaders.

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