· 6 min read · Features

Wellbeing policy helps Astellas Pharma deal with work pressure, says senior VP HR EMEA


Astellas Pharma is in the business of keeping people healthy. Put simply, it makes pharmaceutical products that aim to improve public health.

As a company, the European arm is healthy enough in itself, having enjoyed growth every year for the past nine, thriving in challenging conditions, and doubling in size over the past decade.

So, how does an organisation whose million-euro sales turnover in Europe (around €1,759 million at last count) depends so much on consumer health, look after the health and wellbeing of its staff? The fact the CEO of Astellas' European business, Ken Jones and Arjen Vermazen, senior VP HR EMEA, are on hand to answer that question suggests it's taken very seriously indeed. In fact, as part of the organisation's Vision 2015 business strategy, HR development is ranked as the single most important issue for the company, which it plans to tackle with "competitive investment". This means that staff wellbeing is tied inextricably to engagement and development.

"For us, it comes down to: how do you engage with staff and create an environment in which people feel motivated?" says Jones. "Great companies need great employees, and great employees need great companies. We're trying to create an environment where people feel they can be as productive as possible."

Astellas' impressive new UK HQ in Chertsey, Surrey reflects that, superficially at least. A Norman Foster-designed glass building, it has a cavernous lobby with a log fire, wooden features and chairs that look like they've been upholstered using grass. It's an environment that has been designed to be conducive to motivation, wellbeing and engagement. And that's something that has involved staff input from the start.

"When we moved here, we involved people from each team in the office design and how the space was going to be used," says Jones. "We wanted a more agile work environment, and our people designed how that would work in practice. We have 'neighbourhoods' and people are free to sit wherever they like. The whole concept of the building was employee-led. That makes people feel like they are part of something, and not just a cog in the wheel. There's a strong sense of ownership; it's partly their home." As a result, 82% of staff say they feel the facilities contribute to a good working environment.

Having this 'home' where employees feel motivated and inspired to give their very best is key to helping Astellas compete in a tough market. But this brings additional challenges in keeping staff healthy. "Whereas in our production sites our biggest issue is health and safety, in our offices, the biggest wellbeing challenge we face is work pressure," explains Vermazen. "We are a creative company and people are under pressure. There's intense competition in the sector, and we need to be constantly inventing new things. It's striking the balance between putting a little bit of pressure on so people go the extra mile and relieving the pressure at the right time so they can recharge again."

This means offering access to employee assistance programmes and coaching in resilience and dealing with heavy workloads. "Of course, the organisation needs to be proactive [in its approach]", Vermazen continues. "But if something happens, and something always happens, employees need techniques to deal with that."

"One of our core values is respect for people," adds Jones. "We try to be very open, and if people have problems, they can communicate them. We're very transparent in that respect. If people are going through a bad patch, they can come to us sooner rather than later and we'll be there to try to help. There's no stigma.

"Mental health is the most important thing in today's environment," he continues. "If people are mentally healthy, that triggers everything. Our business is about driving growth and profit to invest in research - but only about five to 10% of ideas make it to the end. In that kind of environment, you have to keep people motivated. It all comes back to wellbeing. Otherwise, you see absenteeism is up, people aren't motivated, they just come in and do the 9-5 - and that drives the business down." Vermazen adds that absenteeism and turnover are very low" across Europe ("almost too low," he jokes about staff turnover figures, which fell to 4% in 2012, down from 17% in 2007).

With 90% of employees agreeing Astellas is a friendly company and 80% saying it has a family atmosphere despite its size, the sense of work as being somewhere employees under pressure in their personal lives can escape to sits centrally in Jones and Vermazens' strategy for looking after their staff's mental health and resilience. "The external environment and austerity measures mean people feel very uneasy about the future," says Jones. "A lot of our staff have family members who have lost their jobs. We need to maintain a positive environment, because sometimes people go home and it's very difficult. We can provide a release valve within a professional context. Some people come here and get their batteries recharged, and that helps them deal with difficult things going on at home."

This is further supported with a progressive approach to flexible working. "We offer 'time and place independent' work relations," says Vermazen. "It doesn't matter where you work. Look at myself and Ken, we spend much of our time outside the office, and the same should apply for people who might have caring roles at home. You have to trust your staff." And this trust extends to being somewhat relaxed about the odd duvet day. "A percentage of staff might take advantage [of flexible working]," admits Jones. "But the overall benefit for the rest of the organisation is so much larger."

Aside from being on hand to boost employee mental health and wellbeing, Astellas also plays a hand in promoting physical wellbeing, something Vermazen says makes clear business sense. "It's that old saying, a healthy mind in a healthy body. If people are physically healthy, they are able to think more creatively, which helps the company." On a simple level, that means investing in the right furniture to minimise the risk of musculoskeletal disorders, providing regular Bupa health checks and subsidising healthy options in the staff canteen more than unhealthy food to encourage positive behaviours. As a result of initiatives like this, 76% of employees agree that the company takes an active interest in their health and wellbeing.

For the past three years, Astellas staff across 15 countries have also participated in the Global Corporate Challenge, where teams of employees compete against each other to get more active, taking more steps and using pedometers to measure progress. Last year, 80% of employees got involved, running up enough activity to circle the global 23 times and losing 451kg between them. According to Vermazen, getting involved with such schemes can help stimulate healthier behaviour all year round. "It gives a stimulus to be healthier," he says. "People have now taken the initiative to start their own sports clubs or go walking and running in a group once a week."

While both Vermazen and Jones are keen to emphasise the value that comes with having a culture where grassroots, employee-led ideas and schemes can thrive, they also both know that in order for a culture of wellbeing and engagement to grow, tone must come from the top. "If you don't do it yourself, why should others follow?" asks Jones, describing how he recently spent a day at a local school running a workshop on cooking healthy meals for children. However, although Jones is a CEO enlightened in his approach to investing in people, he realises not all HR directors may be as lucky when it comes to selling the importance of wellbeing schemes to the board.

"Personally, I think people are your biggest investment, and if your single biggest expenditure is people, why wouldn't you take care of that?" he says. "HR should explain the importance of people, what they do and how it's relevant. Highlight that it's your largest expenditure, so why aren't you treating that more importantly than the rest of your lines?"

He advises going to management in general rather than straight to the top with any ideas. "Get the management team involved, and they can help sell it to the CEO," he explains. "Then it becomes a business issue, not an HR issue. Unfortunately, when you say HR issue, people think: law, policy, obligation… Here, HR is business-driven, and it helps drives the business plans."

Vermazen agrees: "HR shouldn't be just coming up with HR 'toys'. Go back to the business and see what it wants to achieve, what the strategic objectives are and how can HR support that journey. Without business, you wouldn't even need people, so everything has to start with the business." When it comes to health and wellbeing, that means tying everything back to business performance and strategy, whether that's lowering high levels of absenteeism to cut costs, making sure people are feeling well enough to innovate, or encouraging high performance in tough times."

"The business case is so crucial," says Jones. "I have to deliver something to my various stakeholders, and if the business needs are serviced by HR appropriately, it's a win-win for everyone. HR needs to think how it can impact on the return on investment. Go in with numbers if you can, and tie it to performance - if you can tie it to a performance opportunity, they'll listen."

For Astellas, that performance opportunity is the innovation that comes with engaged employees who are in mentally and physically peak condition, helping the organisation to punch above its weight in terms of R&D. "It's the most important thing we are doing right now," says Jones of the company's strategy towards staff wellbeing and engagement. And as Vermazen adds: "It's definitely not fluffy."