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Boosting employee wellbeing growth and engagement

[Y]OUR WELL-BEING MATTERS – How Woolworths’ strengthened employee well-being at scale



The COVID-19 pandemic has often been likened to a magnifying glass that revealed both the vulnerabilities and strengths within organisations. In this context, Woolworths emerges as an exemplar of care and commitment, emphasising the wellbeing of its employees even in the face of adversity. Despite the hurdles posed by the pandemic, Woolworths choose to prioritise their people by implementing Staying Strong, Free To Grow’s employee wellbeing and resilience programme.


Recognising the need


Sibongile Antoni, Head of HR: Learning & Development, reflects on the challenges faced by their

employees during the pandemic:


“Many of our people had to face unimaginable challenges and navigate disruptions and uncertainty while still showing up at work for our customers and colleagues. This had an impact on their physical, mental, psychological, and emotional wellbeing.”


This was an ideal opportunity for Woolworths HR to bring their purpose of ‘adding quality to life’ to fruition. They aimed to show employees that they are valued and cared for at a time when they needed to hear and feel this message again and again. Sibongile elaborates:

“We introduced Staying Strong to empower our people; including the launch of our employee support services where employees could reach out for support on a myriad of wellbeing matters including GBV, Trauma, Mental Health, and more. The programme recognises that in a world where we are all being increasingly called upon to support and show empathy for each other, it is equally important that we become conscious of the need to prioritise self-care and invest in developing personal resilience.”

SIBONGILE ANTONI, HUMAN RESOURCES  HEAD: LEARNING AND DEVELOPMENT, WOOLWORTHS
Sibongile Antoni, Head of HR: Learning & Development, Woolworths, with the Excellence award the HR team received at the 2022 IPM Convention for their implementation of Staying Strong

Implementing an extensive wellbeing programme at speed and on such a large scale was a challenge. Sibongile explains, “What we were trying to achieve – the scale and geographical distribution, (30,000 people across Africa) and the diversity of the people we were trying to reach – felt almost overwhelming.”


This sentiment is shared by Free To Grow CEO, Alinda Nortje, who commends Woolworths’ dedication to their values:


“Given the challenges and pandemic related complications, many organisations would have hesitated to embark on such a journey. But the Woolworths HR team tackled each challenge with vision and grit."


Having worked with Free To Grow for 28 years to support them in the area of personal mastery, Woolworths had substantial experience of their programmes. The launch of Staying Strong, however, marked a pivotal expansion into the realm of employee wellbeing.


A multifaceted approach

The implementation of Staying Strong was underpinned by a three-pronged approach:

  • Strengthening people’s emotional roots (emotional fitness and wellbeing), enabling them to persevere during tough times.

  • Empowering leaders as custodians of “the people experience” and equipping them with the skills and tools to fulfill this role.

  • Increasing the availability of support services, allowing employees to access advice and support.



The journey started with managers, adopting a Leader-led approach to reach store employees through the Staying Strong toolkit. The toolkit, delivered in 15 weekly 30-minute segments, equipped leaders to have

The Staying Strong Leader's Guide, developed by Free To Grow and branded for Woolworths
The Staying Strong Leader's Guide, developed by Free To Grow and branded for Woolworths

weekly conversations with their teams around various aspects of wellbeing. Through this, Woolworths reached over 20,000 employees across 400 stores.


Before commencing with these conversations, leaders attended the Staying Strong programme.


Sibongile explains:

“It was critical for leaders to first ‘filled their cups,’ investing in their own emotional wellbeing and empowering themselves to hold the conversations.”

Participants proudly holding their workbooks during the Staying Strong intervention
Participants proudly holding their workbooks during the Staying Strong intervention

This took shape through a hybrid approach, including:

  • Virtual or face-to-face presentations of the 1-day programme to approximately 3 000 managers by Free To Grow facilitators.

  • Train-the-Trainer workshops to upskill Human Resources to present the programme to head office employees, managers in stores and at distribution centres.

As the managers started using the toolkit, they discovered that the videos and the step-by-step conversation guides made it easy to lead meaningful conversations around topics of hope, optimism, resilience, ownership and lifestyle.


“Their teams responded so positively that it gave them confidence and fuelled their enthusiasm to continue with the conversations. Managers, at all levels, bought in immediately and drove and led the process. It soon took on a life of its own as staff started sharing their experiences and stories on social media and our People App.”

Woolworths Frontline staff showing their excitement about the Staying Strong growth experience
Frontline staff showing their excitement about the Staying Strong growth experience

During this time, Woolworths also increased the availability of support services, enabling employees to access assistance through their People App or confidential personalised support for more pressing issues.


Positive impact

“The impact of the journey has been amazing. It has exceeded what we could have hoped for. There were so many unintended positive consequences.”


Alongside the evident emotional and mental support, Staying Strong yielded numerous benefits, including:

  • An overall increase in enthusiasm and hope amongst employees

  • Managers stepping up to have meaningful conversations with employees, resulting in much better engagement levels, and

  • Staff becoming much more open to others and less judgmental.


“Our leaders grew their leadership skills in leaps and bounds and their people showed huge appreciation for the extra support and care they received in a time that was generally tough for everyone,” Sibongile notes.


She further emphasised the sense of connection and mutual care that was strengthened in teams as they shared their stories and started to reach out to each other in a new way.


The results, as attested to by Sibongile, were an improvement in overall wellbeing and work performance:


“People, who had traditionally not opened up and spoken about their issues, came forward and sought help, resulting in a significant increase in the utilisation of our wellness services. Embarking on this journey was, for us, not an intervention but us showing up for our people when they needed us most. It was also a way to demonstrate Woolworths’ purpose and its values. We intended to make the values come alive and honour our greatest assets – our people.”

In closing, Free To Grow CEO, Alinda Nortje, shares her reflections:

“Woolworths passion for and commitment to their people’s wellbeing speaks volumes about their values. In times of uncertainty, their journey shows just how impactful it can be to put employee wellbeing front and center. When I speak to organisations, it’s clear that most are concerned about their employee’s wellbeing and are feeling the effects on morale and engagement. Many are looking for a cost-effective, yet meaningful way to equip their people to be more resilient and better cope with the challenges in their lives. Woolworths has found a way to not only achieve this objective but win two awards in the process. The way HR implemented the journey and the success they achieved in wellbeing, climate and leadership buy-in, is one of the most inspiring stories in people development I have ever heard. A big congratulations to Sibongile Antoni and the HR Team, Free To Grow is honoured to be a part of the journey.”

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