Alarmingly, a Gallup poll of workers across 142 countries found that a mere 13% of people feel engaged at work (State of the Global Workforce, 2013). Even in advanced economies such as the US, the figure is only 30%.

A wealth of evidence points to the fact that the health and happiness — and, in turn, motivation — of a company’s workforce have a direct correlation with its performance. Harvard Business Review (“The Impact of Employee Engagement on Performance,” 2013) reported that companies with strong health and wellness programs regularly outperform others in the stock market. It all adds up to a compelling argument for safeguarding the physical, mental and emotional well-being of every employee.

This is a concept to which Unilever has long been committed. The holistic range of programs offered at Unilever were inspired by our company mission to help people look good, feel good and get more out of life. This sentiment applies to our employees as much as it does to our customers and consumers.

Shining a Light on Employee Well-Being

Healthy body, healthy mind may be a cliché, but for good reason: it’s true. That’s why I have been such a passionate advocate of the Unilever Lamplighter physical well-being program, which now exists in over 70 of our markets, with 91,000 employees participating globally. Lamplighter offers employees a combination of physiological and nutritional assessments as well as mental resilience tools and bespoke diet and exercise advice to help promote optimal health, well-being and performance. Through the Lamplighter program, Unilever became the first EU company to prove the relationship between health and productivity.

Of course, mental health is a complex condition and can be the source of many other health issues. The holistic program introduced last year in our UK business — which received the prestigious Business in the Community Bupa Employee Wellbeing Award this year — is now being adopted more widely across Unilever.

Last, but by no means least, a sense of purpose at work is increasingly sought after — the idea that we are connected to something deeper than ourselves, or indeed the company at large. This is the philosophy that underpins Unilever’s sustainable business model: by working differently, we can grow our business and be an agent for social change and environmental progress. More than 75% of our employees feel they contribute to our sustainability commitments in their roles. We are now the Number 1 FMCG[1] Employer of Choice amongst university students in 32 of the top 50 markets in which we operate, and the third most “in-demand” employer on LinkedIn, behind tech giants Google and Apple.

Simply put, a company with healthy and happy employees is more likely to benefit from positive work behaviors, reduced absence rates and healthcare costs, and increased productivity and engagement. In fact, we are now seeing a return of €4 for every €1 that we spend on well-being. The business case is clear: if you invest in others, they will invest in you.

Unilever Sustainable Living Plan: Brands as Ambassadors

However, as one of the world’s largest consumer goods companies, there is no doubt that the biggest impact we can make as a business on improving health is through our brands. With our products reaching 2 billion consumers worldwide every day, we have the responsibility and opportunity to be a force for good.


Global Handwashing Day 2013 Trinidad and Tobago

Lifebuoy “hand-washing day” in Trinidad and Tobago. Photo courtesy of Unilever.

So in 2010, we set out a new business model with a clear and audacious ambition to decouple growth from environmental impact, whilst having a positive social impact in the communities in which we operate. We call it the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan (USLP). Never done before by a company of our size, it is a total value chain approach — from field to fork — taking co-responsibility for everything that goes on in our name. And it’s based on a simple premise: that business should serve, not take from, society and the environment which gives it life in the first place.

The USLP is founded on three big goals. By 2020 we want to: halve the environmental footprint of the making and use of our products; enhance the livelihoods of millions of people across our supply chain; and help more than a billion people take action to improve their health and well-being.

Specifically, our hygiene brands — Lifebuoy, Domestos, Pureit and Signal — were developed with the aim of improving health through better hygiene and sanitation. Our everyday products (soaps, toothpastes and sanitation products) and
our innovative water purifiers can help prevent disease and improve people’s health and well-being. Through these brands we are delivering campaigns
at scale, promoting change in everyday behaviors that matter for health, and supporting UN Sustainable Development Goal 6, which ensures availability
and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.

Take infant mortality, for instance. It is morally repugnant that nearly 6 million children die before their fifth birthday, including 600,000 from easily preventable diseases like diarrhea (UNICEF 2014). That is the equivalent of a jumbo jet of children crashing every hour, every day. The most basic of health practices, hand washing, can significantly reduce this number. We have already achieved real positive change in improving health in many of the countries we operate in.

Lifebuoy soap, one of Unilever’s oldest and proudest brands, has made awareness and practice of hand washing a mission, and played a critical role in addressing this issue, reaching 257 million people across 24 countries over the last four years. We have seen a clear positive impact – in one of the poorest areas of India, the incidence of diarrhea among children has fallen from 36% to just 5%. What’s more, this deeply engrained purpose has been remarkable in driving the success of the Lifebuoy brand and business. This once dated, 100-year-old product is now one of the company’s fastest-growing brands.

Through our Unilever Sustainable Living brands, with purpose and investment in well-being, we will continue to connect with our customers, consumers and employees to effect positive change, supporting our commitment to improving the health and hygiene of more than one billion people by 2020.

After all, the world needs it now more than ever.

Paul Polman is CEO of Unilever and Chairman of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development. Unilever has been named as a leader in the 2015 Dow Jones Sustainability Index (DJSI) results.

[1] Fast-Moving Consumer Goods