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How Bupa empowers employee climate action

Healthcare provider Bupa has acted on its sustainability agenda by matching staff with entrepreneurs to create new products that tackle the climate crisis.

Bupa's accelerator competition sees 18 of its teams, across five countries, collaborate with eco-friendly start-ups.

The start-ups receive access to people, resources and skills to help develop their idea, and compete against each other to win a £200,000 grant from Bupa.

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Nigel Sullivan, chief sustainability and people officer at Bupa said the competition, now in its third year, gives employees a chance to participate in the company’s sustainability efforts.

Speaking to HR magazine, he said: “Our purpose is helping people live longer, healthier, happier lives and making a better world.  

“In that context, one of the key tenets of our strategy is sustainability.  

“This initiative gives people the chance to roll up their sleeves, take individual action on climate change and, ultimately, feel much more connected at a time when people feel really helpless about the impact they can make on the planet.” 

Bupa is a multinational company of more than 80,000 employees. By lending their time to the start-ups, employees have learned to pick up the agile mindset typical in young businesses and bring new skills back to the organisation, according to Sullivan..

He added: “We have seen [the scheme] help to really develop people’s agility by doing something completely different as well as their day job. 

“You can see in real time how that helps with their career; 20% of employees that have participated in the programme have been promoted, expanded their responsibilities in the business or have been seconded to new roles in Bupa.” 

All Bupa staff can apply to take part in the competition, and 120 participants in total are selected across the UK, Spain, Hong Kong, New Zealand and Australia. 

More than 1,000 start-ups applied to take part in 2023's programme.

Last year’s winner, Cassava Bags Australia, used starch from the abundantly growing Cassava root to create 100% biodegradable and compostable bags that closely resemble plastic. 

The bags can withstand weights of up to 25kg while remaining sturdy and reliable but are also able to dissolve completely in water, leaving behind no harmful residue.

Bupa has continued to work with the company, signing a supply agreement that will see it replace bin liners with cassava bags across Bupa’s Australian offices. 

SageTech Medical, likewise, recycles anaesthetic gases, which can be highly damaging to the environment if released. Bupa’s Cromwell Hospital was the first private hospital in the UK to trial SageTech's technology. 

Sullivan said the feedback from staff has been positive: “People absolutely love it."

“They’re invited to do something good for the planet and also learn new things and work in startups, which they just don't usually get to do in their normal line of work. 

“We've even had a few people actually change careers internally into sustainability roles because they’ve “got the bug” if you like.

“By the end of the process, the teams really fall in love with the startup and build relationships with the people, which is great to see as well.” 

However, Sullivan said there can be challenges with the culture clash between start up teams and Bupa professionals. 

He said: “This is very deliberate in the design of it, but if you think about our workforce, which is mainly clinical or financial roles, they tend to be very highly trained, highly regulated, very risk averse. 

“So when you introduce them to these innovators with ideas that have quite unknown results you do have to encourage them to just go with it, or ‘go with the flow’.  

“It’s what you learn from the process that’s the most important thing.” 

Sullivan was particularly proud of the tangible impact the scheme was making in helping these exciting new companies get off the ground.

He said: “The climate crisis was created by innovation 150 years ago. And now, it's innovation that's gonna get us out of it."