Creating a resilient workforce at Morrisons


Improving the coping abilities of staff can help both employees and employers through stressful economic times. Robert Manson, head of occupational health and wellbeing at Morrisons plc, explains how the retailer is implementing resilience programmes for its leaders.

The conditions that have the most adverse impact on employee health and engagement are mental, musculoskeletal and chronic health conditions, usually as a result of a combination of lifestyle risk factors. These conditions are usually interconnected, as experiencing stress often leads to poor diet, increased alcohol consumption and lack of exercise, resulting in obesity and a general deterioration of health and performance. However, what is changing is the variety of work demands and the effect on employees’ health, engagement and work performance.

The burning platform

With the current economic situation showing only small signs of recovery, many organisations that have survived are showing signs of fatigue due to the constant pressures of increased competition, reduced sales, improving productivity and constant reorganisation to stay afloat. This has had a dramatic adverse effect on employee engagement and discretionary effort. The phrase “the lights are on but there is no one at home” is being heard more and more.

This has had an impact on employee health, with increased levels of stress experienced at work resulting in increased sickness absence. This is due mainly to increased job demands, role ambiguity and the need to do more with less.

In the 2013 absence management annual survey by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), two-fifths of organisations saw an increase in reported mental health problems (such as anxiety and depression) among employees in the past 12 months. The survey found that organisations usually offer one or more initiatives to support employees with mental health problems, although these are generally reactive measures such as counselling services and employee assistance programmes (EAPs).

The challenge experienced in business and broader society is that some individuals lack resilience and therefore cannot cope with the challenges and tensions of everyday life. This is evidenced through not only sickness absence but a lack of engagement in all aspects of their lives, leading to reduced motivation, poor relationships and ultimately ill health if appropriate intervention is not undertaken. In business, when engagement starts to decline companies become vulnerable not only to a measurable drop in productivity, but also to poorer customer service and greater rates of absenteeism and turnover. Many businesses appear to be at a critical tipping point in their ability to maintain engagement over time (Towers Watson, 2012).

There is a sense that businesses need to escape a “burning platform” if they are to thrive and survive in a fast-paced, increasingly complex and ever-changing environment.

The retail sector is no different and this article focuses on the key steps undertaken by Morrisons to navigate off the burning platform. Next year’s sales targets and objectives will not decrease and unless support is provided to colleagues they will burn out and not shine bright. Morrisons has decided to prioritise the health and wellbeing agenda by developing the resilience of our senior leaders who in turn can then influence colleagues to develop a healthy high performance culture.

Gathering the right data

As with all effective programmes, the first phase on this journey was to gather the appropriate data. The main data that was reviewed was quantitative such as sickness absence, health screening results, accidents and illness trends and employee engagement scores. Qualitative data was gathered by spending time discussing with leaders and colleagues what they saw as their real issues and also the concerns that were keeping them awake at night.

It was clear that the most troubling issue for the business was the ability of managers to cope with the changes in the business and whether or not they were fit for the future. Would they be able to stay afloat and stay in their boats while the company takes a new journey, which some perceived as “white water rafting”?

According to Seville et al (2008), each organisation has their own possible “perfect storm”: a combination of events or circumstances that has the potential to bring adversity.  It is important, however, that organisations are not only aware of these risk factors but have a plan to mitigate them so that the existing resources are not stretched even further.

Embedding resilience

It has been shown that the most successful health and wellbeing programmes are those that have been integrated into the business and have become part of the culture or the DNA. In the case of experiences at Morrisons, it was important that whatever we did, it must not be seen as yet another corporate initiative. It was decided to embed the development of resilience into the engagement plan as this was being reviewed, and there was a need to build in management competencies into the agenda and to ensure that the change programme would be sustainable.

Towers Watson (2012) has described sustainable engagement as the intensity of employees’ connection to their organisation. They found that this is based on three core elements:

  • the extent of employees’ discretionary effort committed to achieving work goals (being engaged);
  • an environment that supports productivity in multiple ways (being enabled); and
  • a work experience that promotes wellbeing (feeling energised).

What is resilience?

The term resilience has been used widely and with conflicting descriptions and applications mainly from those within the health and wellbeing arena. Resilient people are generally those who display “the capacity to remain well, recover, or even thrive in face of adversity” (Hardy, Concato and Gill, 2004). Resilient people choose not to become victims or suffer, they rise to the occasion and think optimistically with a solution-focused mindset.

Resilience has been described by many researchers as a set of personal characteristics and life circumstances that an individual can use when faced with adversity in order to not only survive but thrive when faced with life’s challenges. It has been conceived by some as a set of traits, others as a process or even an outcome (Aherne et al, 2006). However, it could be argued that it is a combination of all of these: self-awareness and an understanding of how to utilise these resources embeds resilience (Enthoven et al, 2005).

What drives certain individuals to grow stronger through adversity and setbacks, while others simply cannot seem to bounce back? This question was posed to the respondents of a research study conducted by De Beer in 2002. The study found that resilient individuals had a positive optimism and felt in control of their attitudes and not dictated to by their circumstances. Other important qualities found were positive interpersonal relationships and a sense of humour especially in difficult times.

A resilient workforce has superior performance, higher productivity and creativity, better health, and more financial success (NRC, 2012). The key to resilience is the ability to recognise your own thoughts and structures of belief and harness the power of increased accuracy and flexibility of thinking to manage the emotional and behavioural consequences more effectively. This ability can be measured, taught and improved (Jackson R and Watkin C, 2004).

Resilient leadership

At Morrisons, after consulting with key stakeholders across the business, it was decided to devise a one-day Resilient Leadership workshop that was lead by the head of occupational health and wellbeing. The focus of the facilitated workshop was to support the leaders to:

  • expand capacity to perform in high-pressure environments without compromising health  and performance;
  • expand capacity by making individual improvements and increasing energy levels; and
  • build a resilient culture and develop healthy high-performing teams.

The content was designed around the key principles of energy management covering physical, emotional, mental and spiritual needs. The tools and resources used were based on evidence-based practice underpinned with positive psychology principles. The workshop covered:

  • how resilience can be influenced by the workplace pressures;
  • the effect stress has on individuals;
  • the benefits resilience has towards self and team;
  • the importance of recovery for sustainable performance;
  • provision of materials and resources to expand capacity; and
  • opportunities to make personal changes within a safe environment.

As part of the preparation for the workshop, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) Management Competency Assessment was completed as well as a simple personal energy management audit. The purpose of these was to form a baseline and to review progress in six to 12 months’ time.

It was important to evaluate the pilot workshop and the feedback received was valuable in showing the personal impact it made, but the type of support wanted for the future.

One of the other aspects of evaluation that we felt could be improved was our engagement survey which is used twice yearly. Historically, the health and wellbeing question was not only misunderstood but also did not provide sufficient insight into key aspects of health and wellbeing to support resilience. We decided to replace the statement “Morrisons cares about my health and wellbeing” with three statements for people to rate and to more accurately provide us with a sense of engagement and to drill down into key areas of resilience. The statements used now are:

  • I am comfortable in meeting my current work demands;
  • I am able to adopt a healthy work-life balance; and
  • I am able to gain personal support in times of need.

Review and assessment

Other actions have been taken to enhance resilience as part of our revised health and wellbeing agenda led by a new health and wellbeing steering group consisting of board members and other senior leaders across the business. The action plan has been devised based on the needs of the business as well as meeting the pledges under the Department of Health’s Public Health Responsibility Deal.

Our benefits package was reviewed and the offering within the EAP was enhanced by closely working with the Retail Trust charity. We now offer cognitive behavioural therapy to all our colleagues following assessment and we have launched a “Health Risk Appraisal”, which enables colleagues to assess their own health, including emotional and mental wellbeing.

We have also started to work more closely with our Talent Academy which delivers best-in-class training and development to our colleagues. Resilient leadership will be embedded within our Future Leaders programme because developing resilience was felt to be a key competency for our new senior leader population. In April we launched a new academy at our head office in Bradford and there will be a health and wellbeing focus with courses being run on mindfulness, meditation, resilience and other programmes to support us to build a healthy high-performing culture.

Externally we are consulting with local fitness centres and health promotion agencies to provide cost-effective interventions.

Finally we have devised five pilot Health Action Teams across each of our businesses that have been coached and supported to develop dynamic action plans to continuously improve the health and engagement of our colleagues. With guidance, these teams are developing specific programmes such as healthy eating options, stress reduction tools, physical activity opportunities and ergonomic improvements to have safer and more comfortable workplaces.

In summary, although it has been just months since we started our new journey, there is a great appetite for creating a resilient workforce and it is seen as more than just running a course. A key lesson has been, firstly, to consult widely on identifying the needs of the business and then set a strategy that can be aligned and embedded into the culture of the company. In using a participatory model and involving colleagues the process has been more successful and therefore more sustainable for the future.


Aherne NR, Kiehl EM, Sole ML, Byers J. (2006). “A Review of Instruments measuring Resilience”. Issues in Comprehensive Paediatric Nursing, 29, pp.103-125.

CIPD (2013). Absence Management Report: annual survey.

De Beer A (2002). “A study of resilience: a personal and professional leadership perspective”. University Of  Johannesburg.

Enthoven MEM, Bouwer AC, van der Wolf JC, van Peet A (2005). “Recognizing Resilience: Development and Validation of an instrument to Recognize Resilience in Dutch Middle-adolescents”. Kenniskring Gedragsproblemen in der Onderwijspraktijk, KG publicatie nr 6.

Hardy SE, Concato J, Gill TM (2004). “Resilience of Community-Dwelling Older Persons”. JAGS, 52, pp.257-262.

Jackson R, Watkin C (2004). “The resilience inventory: Seven essential skills for overcoming life’s obstacles and determining happiness”. Selection & Development Review, vol.20, no.6, December 2004.

National Research Council (2012). “Building a resilient workforce: Opportunities for the Department of Homeland Security: Workshop Summary Washington, DC”. The National Academies Press.

Seville E, Brundson D, Dantas A, Le Masurier J, Wilkinson S and Vargo J (2008). “Organisational resilience: researching the reality of New Zealand organisations”. Journal of Business Continuity and Emergency Management; vol.2, no.2, pp.258-266.

Towers Watson (2012). Global workforce study. Engagement at risk: driving strong performance in a volatile global environment.


About Robert Manson

Robert Manson is head of occupational health and wellbeing at Morrisons plc.

One Response to Creating a resilient workforce at Morrisons

  1. Avatar
    Jackie 8 Apr 2015 at 12:19 pm #

    To be honest. This is not worth the paper it is written on. Or the money that has been spent to study/help employees. Because if you are suffering through work stress they still don’t care. My hubby has put in 60/70 hr working week an done extra night as short staffed. Been very tired an worn out due to work demands. They just push an push