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Enabling a strategic approach to wellbeing – case study

Interested in how you build coherence into wellbeing approaches across a large business with many subsidiaries, without preventing learning and innovation? Read this in-depth case study from Harbour, a property management, development and regeneration company.

In-depth Case Study


*This is a pseudonym: The company in question did not wish to be named.

Company Overview

HARBOUR is a large property business with a social purpose. With a workforce of 13,000, assets in excess of £3 billion and management of over 182,500 homes, it is one of the largest property management, development and regeneration companies in the UK.

Initially founded as a housing association in 1965, an acquisitive growth strategy led to the formation of the group structure in 2000. Today the HARBOUR group comprises over 20 subsidiary businesses covering diverse interests under the banner of a social purpose to bring lasting social benefits, including the provision and management of housing, community and leisure spaces, care and support. Subsidiaries include HARBOUR Homes, which is responsible for property management for 48,000 of the Group’s homes across England and Wales. HARBOUR Developments undertake long-term regeneration projects, while HARBOUR Neighbourhoods aims to bring lasting social benefits by focussing on key areas of economic development, green spaces and financial inclusion. HARBOUR’s care and support specialists provide housing and support to the vulnerable, while HARBOUR Leisure runs community leisure centres. Mortgages and affordable budget advice are provided by HARBOUR’s Financial Services business.

Wellbeing Risk Factors

HARBOUR’s diverse portfolio of subsidiary businesses mean that wellbeing risk factors vary in breadth and strength from subsidiary to subsidiary. HARBOUR are particularly attuned to key wellbeing risk factors that relate to the a) challenging and unpredictable working environment in dealing with the vulnerable, often under conditions that require physical and mental stamina; b) lone-working and/or agile working travelling between sites and offices; c) physically demanding nature of maintenance and construction activities, which often entail exposure to unpredictable environments and weather extremes; and the, d) prevalence of shift working, part-time working and irregular working hours.

Overall Approach to Wellbeing

Given the nature of the work environment, and a large group structure with devolved decision-making at subsidiary level, HARBOUR’s wellbeing approach is to build coherence in the approaches to wellbeing across the group. At the heart of HARBOUR’s approach is a wellbeing ethos that is firmly anchored in its established organisational cultural values of social value and people care to customers and employees alike. HARBOUR’s approach is to generate a robust joined-up wellbeing strategy, delivery and governance structure, whilst also accommodating subsidiary-led and tailored wellbeing initiatives, and facilitating cross-group learning. As well as overseeing larger investments such as wellbeing-friendly office spaces for a fixed and transient workforce and ensuring value for money from external wellbeing service providers, HARBOUR guide their subsidiaries with consistent messages and support for local approaches to wellbeing including pilot initiatives such as Fitbit challenges and yoga. Local wellbeing presence is provided through the establishment and training of mental health first aiders / champions as well as encouraging local H&S practitioners to take on wellbeing messages and feedback through decision-making fora. Aligned with a strategic approach, HARBOUR have a strong evidence based approach, which includes partnering with wellbeing service providers to ensure there is a body of evidence to make informed decisions about wellbeing priorities and assessment of initiatives.


Here we shine a light on the detail surrounding the introduction and roll-out of one particular strand of HARBOUR’s wellbeing programme. Because of their large group structure and the challenges around putting in place a wellbeing programme across a large number of diverse companies, we focus on how HARBOUR is building cohesion and consistency of wellbeing across the group, through a strategic approach to wellbeing.

How HARBOUR is building cohesion and consistency across the group

Rationale: Gathering a body of evidence. An employee survey highlighted that although employees value the work-life balance and flexible working practices at HARBOUR, staff engagement was not consistent across the group. Allied to this, although there was a substantial health and wellbeing provision in subsidiary businesses, there was a lack of consistency from subsidiary to subsidiary. HARBOUR realised that, although a successful acquisition-based strategy had seen the group grow, the company found itself with disparate approaches to wellbeing and a lack of a strategic approach to HR in particular, and wellbeing in general. Furthermore, a combination of a continued growth and a productivity drive led HARBOUR to look at ways to future-proof their business through attracting, retaining, and sustaining employees through wellbeing-centricity. Fundamental to this was the need to take a strategic approach to wellbeing that consistently aligned the group commercial offering of care and respect with the internal people offering.

‘There are real labour constraints here and they’re only going to get worse in all likelihood.  And the millennials are a very, very demanding generation.  They have very, very high expectations, they’re much more thoughtful around what’s in it for me and whether I’m managing to balance my health and wellbeing generally and my life, whereas generation X like me, we just work until we drop pretty much.  It’s a very, very different dynamic, and good for them.  But that means that employers such as us of 13,000 people and more, particularly wanting to have growth on the agenda, which we do long term, have to get with the programme really. We need to start thinking about it now for our workforce we’ve already currently got here to drive productivity but also to help future proof us for tomorrow.’

Clustering structures around a common purpose. HARBOUR’s large group structure, with devolved decision-making in the subsidiaries meant that over-prescription of wellbeing initiatives was to be avoided. However, the need to bring wellbeing to the fore required a clear direction of travel in order to encourage cohesion and consistency. HARBOUR’s approach was to set in place direction-setting and decision-making structures that enabled a strategic approach to wellbeing, whilst also providing the means for co-creation and learning across the group. HARBOUR instigated their approach by bringing together in collaboration three functional areas that they saw as essential to the wellbeing agenda. Human Resources (HR) coordinate the wellbeing approach as well as integrating wellbeing into its strategy for engagement and productivity. Health and Safety (H&S) lead the wellbeing agenda, provide regulatory and subject matter expertise as well as learning from a mature safety climate at HARBOUR that could be leveraged in the wellbeing approach. In line with the work environment, HARBOUR viewed physical spaces and locations led by its Corporate Estates function as a key wellbeing area to address flexible and transient working patterns, provide social and quiet areas as well as exercise spaces.

Building coherence through a values-based framework. Through a collaborative approach, HARBOUR devised a wellbeing strategy that bases itself on two key elements. The group’s social values of ‘Spirit’ (Support, Positive, Innovation, Respect, Integrity and Togetherness), are well established and so provided a common frame of reference and guide for wellbeing approaches throughout the group. Aligned to these values, the health and wellbeing strategy has been split into five ‘pillars’ which can each stand alone as a commitment: Employee Physical Wellbeing, Employee Mental Wellbeing, Employee Safety, Place-making and Customer Wellbeing. The pillars provide a holistic wellbeing framework for action planning, building a common understanding of HARBOUR’s wellbeing priorities and plans, as well as a checkpoint for decision-making and wellbeing initiative development.

“We’re that kind of organisation I think it’s just it always feels like there’s a very strong sort of internal community and a very definite buy-in to the values that we have. And that is very mature within the organisation and everybody would be able to recite them, everybody knows what they are and by and large everybody lives those values.  So because they’re all bound up in the sort of softer side of business I guess, the concept of wellbeing and, perhaps not much investing in wellbeing but very much being aligned to the idea of it, it’s not a difficult sell.”

Bridging interests across a large group. Gaining traction for a coordinated approach to wellbeing was relatively straightforward at HARBOUR, as employees lived by the SPIRIT values and there was a strong internal sense of community. An extensive listening exercise with the group management team showed that the case for wellbeing was already sold. The wellbeing strategy evolved through constant communication, detailing and championing over-arching ideas that fit the ethos of HARBOUR as a whole. Decision-making bodies provide formal linkages between the group and subsidiaries. For example, the wellbeing strategy development was undertaken through the Group People Leadership Team, which includes functional leads as well as business partners from the larger subsidiaries. Meanwhile, the Group People Strategy Steering Group comprises representatives from all of the subsidiary businesses, who work together to co-create wellbeing products for the greater good of the group and to drive strategy through the wider group. The effect of this two-pronged  approach is that the subsidiary businesses feel supported in their wellbeing approaches, benefit from shared learning so are not having to constantly reinvent the wheel, showcase their best practice to benefit the group and champion new wellbeing initiatives. In line with the Innovative SPIRIT value, ideas for wellbeing initiatives are encouraged and often run through the low risk approach of piloting, which encourages innovation. Subsidiaries are supported in championing initiatives to plug gaps in wellbeing provision. For example, a free mental health support service run through the UK government Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) for employees who would not otherwise qualify for early intervention provision, is being adopted group-wide. Group led external service provision also provides consistency and this drives coherence through a range of wellbeing services offered to subsidiaries. For example, the group-wide use of an external service provider’s early intervention programme helps provide tools for managers and detailed work plans to support work adjustment plans and phase return to work plans.

Aligned with their proactive approach to ideas and innovations, HARBOUR also adopts an evaluative approach to its external wellbeing service providers, reviewing provision to ensure it fits HARBOUR’s wellbeing ethos whilst also providing value for money. This involves switching providers where needed and co-developing service provision and metrics to assess progress in support of HARBOUR’s strategy.

“I think that’s probably one of the fundamental things that we’ve found that to make sure that we are talking and regularly talking because people’s needs and thoughts are changing quite rapidly as the environment changes and technology changes around us.”

Impact and Looking Forwards

Impact indicators. Although it is early days in the launch of the wellbeing strategy, HARBOUR have already reaped benefits from a concerted focus on wellbeing. In line with their aim to reduce loss due to absenteeism or health related problems, HARBOUR’s sickness absence and service provision review led to £4m saving over 4 years. The current target is to reduce absence due to stress, depression or anxiety from 20.75% to less than 18% of the total days lost to absence. Mental health awareness is adopted as a key metric because it encourages open discussion and disclosure that is more likely to lead to individuals accessing wellbeing support and assistance in good time, and so mitigates longer-term problems. HARBOUR’s wellbeing-centric approach has reaped benefits in this respect, having seen a 25% increase in reported mental ill health as a reason for absence or sickness in the workplace in the 12 months to January 2019. This is a rise the organisation sees as a much more accurate reflection of the prevalence of mental health when benchmarked against the UK population in general, and is an important outcome, as it enables employee support to be tailored to the root causes of sickness and absence.

Governance and monitoring. HARBOUR’S strategy is designed to set out a blueprint for the group’s commitment to wellbeing in the next three years and beyond.

“Part of the wellbeing strategy is to start to ensure that when policies that exist in other parts of the organisation come up for review and when business plans are being generated then wellbeing has to be a mandatory part of those 2 processes.  So when we’re looking at any policy at all it doesn’t matter what it is, wellbeing has to, should be looked at as part of that policy review and that could be customer wellbeing’s course or it could be internal that’s wellbeing as far as working hours are concerned or resourcing whatever.”

As well as progressing the strategy, HARBOUR’s immediate priority is developing wellbeing targets, metrics and measures, in order to assess progress and pull out learning from their approach. The strategy and any measurements against set targets will then be subject to the Audit and Risk Committee and the Group Board, integrated into the regular Health and Safety report. This strategic oversight of wellbeing has been an important tool in setting the direction for action, prioritizing action and in enabling organisational learning through the monitoring of what, how and why actions are working or not working.


Note: This case study is based on interviews with nine people with roles in general management, HR, health and safety and business support functions.

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