Interview with Jan Heyvaert
AG has been a Top Employer in Belgium for 10 years in a row. A nod of appreciation for our HR policy and open corporate culture. Wellbeing is also a key component in our HR policy. What initiatives have been taken in this area?
"I see wellbeing as part of a comprehensive action plan. Isolated initiatives simply won’t cut it. After all, there's a lot more to wellbeing than simply organising Zumba lessons and handing out fruit baskets (brief laughter). A decent salary, good managers who coach and care about their team... those are also important aspects of wellbeing. In the end, an HR policy should provide people with an ideal work environment where they can make the most of their talent, a great place to grow. That's not just lip service, it permeates everything we do. And as the war for talent intensifies, it's even critical for survival as a company. At AG, we're now reaping the benefits of the approach we’ve had for years: our employee turnover rate is far below the market average. That has to do with culture, wellbeing, our values and our essence that resonate with our staff members... and also our customers."
So can we say that wellbeing is the overarching theme across HR policies and is incorporated in all HR initiatives?
"Yes, exactly. A carefully designed wellbeing policy builds resilience, and that alone is very important. The world is constantly changing, with no end in sight. We go from one crisis to another, with no breaks in between. Were things easier in the past? I don’t know. But I do think crises are happening more frequently, so we need to help our employees become more resilient and guide them along the way. To get there, it's clear that our managers have a leading role to play. After all, HR is the second line of defence; the first line is the people in the field, the managers. Of course, resilience isn't a magic cure-all, and we have to accept that some things are beyond our control. You never know when you might come down with an illness that has you stuck at home or in the hospital for months. It can happen to anyone."
"The feeling that you can share what's happening
to you does a lot of good. And that's also the purpose of RECONNECT, to help managers provide the right
For example, most of us know someone in our network of friends and family who's off on extended sick leave.
"Indeed, at a big company like AG, that's certainly the case. We are fortunate enough to have our own in-house medical department, with four doctors and three nurses to look after us. In the past, they mainly did traditional screening and testing, but now they also provide counselling for people on long-term sick leave.
At AG, all staff members who have been on sick leave for three weeks will automatically get a call from our medical department. We ask how they're doing and that's how we usually find out what's going on. We also call their manager, and 90% of the time they already know the details and have been in contact with the staff member in question."
RECONNECT, an initiative developed by Foundation Against Cancer, helps managers support their staff members after cancer or while undergoing treatment. What exactly does this entail?
"When a staff member gets a cancer diagnosis, as a company you should first and foremost listen and consider the impact of the disease on their physical as well as psychological wellbeing. The RECONNECT platform provides a variety of tips and tricks for managers. What's the best way to handle such a conversation? What questions should you ask? What questions should you avoid? These tips are also applied by our own in-house medical staff. It's important to show a lot of empathy during this first phase, because it's such a shock for the staff member. (brief pause) Actually, I can relate. Last year, I was diagnosed with colon cancer."
So personal contact is hugely important from the beginning?
"The feeling that you can share what's happening to you does a lot of good. And that's also the purpose of RECONNECT, to help managers provide the right support." Cancer has an impact on family life, on mental wellbeing... while undergoing treatment, there's a lot of uncertainty. And the question of "How will I manage to go back to work?" also comes up. When chemotherapy makes you lose all your hair, it's not that simple. Some people are perfectly comfortable coming to work bald or with a headscarf while for others it's a huge obstacle. So it's very individual and as an employer you have to understand and accept that. I like to refer to the RECONNECT platform for such issues, because it provides a lot of advice for an individually-tailored approach."
Do you recommend RECONNECT for small to medium-sized businesses?
"Absolutely, because not everyone has access to care and guidance the way we do. In smaller companies or where people have to juggle multiple roles, they don't necessarily have someone in-house who has a lot of experience with employees with cancer. This is where the RECONNECT platform can fill in the gaps with practical tips, do's and don'ts, information, etc. It also provides access to a network of specialists and can match companies up with the right external resources."
Are there any other issues that companies should keep in mind when staff members are off on long-term sick leave?
"Of course, financial security is also important when people are unable to work for an extended period of time. The loss of income, the steady stream of medical expenses... providing insurance coverage to protect employees from financial strain is a necessity, not a luxury.
In addition, regular contact with the direct line manager and keeping each other informed is very important. And if all goes well with the treatment and recovery, we can start the return-to-work process. At AG, this happens in phases. Our Welcome Back programme helps get people back to work gradually. For staff members with cancer, we use the resources on the RECONNECT platform. When it comes to psychosocial problems, such as burnout syndrome, the Return To Work programme included in our Income Care insurance offers custom-designed solutions. To deliver this specialised assistance, we work with qualified care partners. At AG, we typically have around 60 staff members in the Welcome Back programme. After three to six months of assistance, we can generally get them back to work safely and successfully."
At AG, we definitely do what we can to help our people on long-term sick leave. Do you think this actively helps attract and retain talented employees?
"On the list of ‘top ten reasons to apply for a job’, you won't find our return-to-work and prevention policies among them (big laugh). But when one of your favourite colleagues is off sick for an extended period of time and you see how the company handles it with care and respect, it definitely has an impact. It's something that you value and remember. At times like these, you see that AG truly is a caring employer, a great place to grow. Sometimes that growth needs to be put on hold, for personal reasons. Only then can you show that you're there for your people, as an employer. It's a bit like an insurance policy. You only find out what your insurance is worth after you've had a loss event. So there's no doubt in my mind that it has a positive effect on retention."
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on long-term sick leave?