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Award winners GEFCO discuss wellbeing success

SHD Logistics’ editor Kirsty Adams visits Coventry to interview GEFCO and find out how free haircuts, health checks and family festivals can engage a workforce and turn a profit.

When employment is at a record high, and employees could be wooed by competitor X across the industrial park at any moment, what can be done to keep them? To stop them even considering it? 

It’s 2020 and staff wellbeing has become a solid agenda item in UK business. We introduced it as a category for The Logistics Awards last year, and it was welcomed by the profession. Category finalists included Decathlon, Wincanton and FB Chain, but our worthy winner was GEFCO. 

SHD Logistics visited GEFCO at its warehouse headquarters in Coventry, following its win, to interview the team behind the Wellbeing programme. We found out not only how to keep said staff from heading to X competitor, but how looking after health and wellbeing will make a business more profitable.  

When we meet HR director Helen Grover, the driving force behind the Awards entry and GEFCO’s culture shift, one of the first points she makes is that GEFCO has a predominantly male workforce. This means it needs to be proactive in playing its part in supporting a growing awareness of mental health issues amongst adult males in the UK.  

“If you look after the health and wellbeing of your staff,” explains Helen, “absence goes down, people feel more cared for and will talk to their managers if they have a problem… we’re creating a culture here where we’re minimising the chances of them falling sick, or suffering from problems.” 

The Wellbeing programme was three years in the making, says Helen, and she’s already seen a reduction in absence and an increase in engagement and profitability. Even the small initiatives are making a significant difference. 

Helen has been at the business for four years and has seen it transform. We learn from Helen and Kevin - one of the operatives on the warehouse floor - that much of the success achieved through the programme would have been difficult to imagine four years ago under different management. 

When we talk about success with Helen it’s difficult to separate ‘happy people’ and ‘more profit.’ If it works, then there’s no real need to anyway, and the more we speak to Helen, the more we realise they can go hand in hand. 

Wellbeing strategy 

Helen’s team launched its Health and Wellbeing Strategy in October 2018, which included Public Health England (PHE) initiatives across its workforce, and the creation of various fitness and activity clubs.  

GEFCO’s partnership with mental health charity Time to Change has involved the senior management team pledging its commitment to breaking taboos, raising awareness and supporting individuals with mental health issues in the workplace.  

To coincide with Mental Health Awareness Week, GEFCO issued all its employees with ‘Wellbeing Wallets’, which included ten QR code-friendly contact cards for a range of organisations supporting people with their mental and physical health, including BUPA, Change4Life and Couch to 5K. 

The company has committed to mental health first aiders in the warehouse, and ultimately working to become a best practice example of how businesses in and beyond the logistics industry can take real action on mental health issues in the workplace.  

“Typically,” says Helen, “as many of us know, people don’t necessarily talk about how they’re feeling, so we introduced a number of initiatives to encourage it, which started with the directors pledging to support it. 

“Every Monday is ‘brew Monday’ where we put tea, coffee and biscuits on, and encourage people to stand and chat, ask each other how they are. Just taking time out to talk to people. The feedback for this has been remarkable.” 

Free fish and chips 

As we walk the floor it’s difficult to ignore the fact 50% of SHD readers are SMEs and may not have HR representatives or teams of leaders available to drive this type of change. We flag this up to Helen, who encourages action regardless, “even small wellbeing initiatives can reduce absences and improve engagement.”  

It was Kevin who flagged up some of our favourite small initiatives; free fish and chips, free hair cuts and free ice cream. Kevin has been at GEFCO for more than two decades, ‘a union man’ we’re told, and he’s eager to tell SHD Logistics how much better the workplace experience is now, to five years prior. 

Another initiative Helen considers easy to implement, is more flexibility, a trend we’re seeing in office workspaces. 

Helen explains, “Most organisations are trying to create a flexible environment for people to work in. We are too. We don’t care how long you are at your desk, we just care about what you deliver. In an operational environment you can’t do that though, because of shifts, but we apply the same logic to the warehouse. 

“When it is quiet, shift managers will encourage the operatives to have a break, to sit down and talk, which creates a great environment. In some warehouses you must be ‘on it’ all the time, you’re being watched. We don’t operate like that.” 

Thank you cards from directors and well-done mugs full of sweets may be considered by management as “just another fluffy HR thing to do,” says Helen, “but when they see benefits, like a reduction in absences and improved engagement, they see it’s worth every pound of investment.” 

A key initiative Helen shares proudly is free voluntary on-site health checks for all staff, which she credits for catching some serious conditions, and considers to be something which should be implemented indefinitely. 

Then there are the mental health first aiders, trained and qualified to listen to personal issues which may be causing a staff member stress. 

We also heard about Gef-Fest – a free festival for UK staff and their family and friends in the Cotsworlds. Music bands, prosecco vans and hay bale all feature at the yearly event which launched three years ago. “In the first year only 80 people came. In year two it was 200, but this year 350 people joined us.” 

Christmas parties for children and summer social events are a thing of the past for many UK workers, who saw them drift away in the recession, never to return, so it’s good to see a comeback at GEFCO. 

London to Paris 

On our walk-around with Helen, we met a second warehouse operative called Kevin, who told us about the pièce de résistance of wellbeing at his employer. Kevin was one of 50 staff who completed a Coventry to Paris bike ride, something which he told us relaxed everyone – at every level – and brought staff closer.  

The event brought together participants of every experience level for the four-day, 300-mile event, which saw the GEFCO UK team set off from where we stood, at its headquarters at Prologis Park, Coventry, before travelling across the Channel and through rural France before reaching Paris. 

In the lead-up to the event, it prepared its teams through a dedicated programme of group training sessions, including inter-office static bike competitions, a 24-hour “spinathon,” as well as the support of a dedicated nutritionist to help ensure the team had the right resources to prepare and complete the ride. 

To ensure the challenge was as inclusive as possible to different levels of fitness and experience across the company, participants were either given the option to take part individually or as part of a relay (each completing a leg of the journey per day).  

The challenge was a huge success, with over £50,000 raised for BBC Children in Need following the event. 

The London to Paris bike ride epitomises what Helen and her team are trying to do. To give staff the opportunity to do something “amazing and lifechanging which they will never forget.” If you ask anyone who has completed this type of challenge, they’ll likely say it’s one of the best things they’ve ever done, as Kevin did. If your employer is linked to the best thing you’ve ever done, they’re bound to earn your loyalty. 

Helen’s advice to fellow operators is to listen to your staff. The introduction of an employee forum enabled each worker to have a bigger voice within the company and share ongoing feedback, which has helped with the success of the programme. A 25-strong voluntary employee group works with the leadership team, representing their respective GEFCO UK sites and ensuring that any new policies are in the best interests of everyone involved.  

Helen’s final message on wellbeing is “keep going and believe in what you’re doing.” It takes three to five years to change a company culture, says Helen. GEFCO seem to have managed to do it quicker. 

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