Partnership working – how John Lewis puts health and wellbeing centre-stage

John Lewis' Oxford Street store.

Like most of the UK high street, the John Lewis Partnership was forced into hibernation during the coronavirus pandemic. But when “normal service” is resumed, the department store chain’s long-standing focus on health and wellbeing sets it apart, as Ashleigh Webber heard at a recent conference.

Widely regarded as an organisation that “looks after” its employees, the John Lewis Partnership’s focus on health and wellbeing is paying dividends in terms of productivity, staff engagement and absence rates.

Prior to the coronavirus lockdown that saw its John Lewis stores close and the Waitrose food chain pushed to the limit to supply essential goods, head of health services, leisure benefits and hotels Nick Davison told delegates to the Health and Wellbeing @ Work conference in Birmingham how its ability to “do things a little differently” was empowering employees to take responsibility of their own health and wellbeing.

“Our ultimate purpose is the happiness of our members through worthwhile and satisfying work, and a successful business,” he said at the conference in March. “This isn’t about happiness for happiness’ sake – this is about recognising that work is good for us and that we all have a responsibility as well as the opportunity to share in the rewards and success.”

The company’s emphasis on health and wellbeing began with its founder, John Spedan Lewis, when he launched the partnership 91 years ago. After suffering a fall from his horse that took him out of work for two years, Spedan Lewis had time to think about his experience working for his family business – which was then simply called John Lewis – and became concerned about the level of reward the family received compared with its workforce.

“The first thing he did when he inherited the business in 1929 was give it all away – he gave it in trusts to the workforce. He created a unique three-way governance structure with elected representatives from the workforce – ‘partners’, as we became known,” said Davison.

One of the most commonly recognised benefits is its employee shareholder scheme, whereby all “partners” receive a share of its annual profits. However, while the scheme has paid out in all but one year (1953), staff were recently disappointed to hear that in 2020 they will receive just 2% of their salary, amid falling profits.

Castle off the Dorset coast

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Davison did not draw attention to the lower than expected annual bonus, but noted that the profit share scheme is applied at the same level to all staff regardless of their tenure or seniority.

“We have 80,000 co-owning partners now; we’re the largest employee-owned business in the UK and, in fact, one of the largest in the world,” said Davison.

“We can choose to do things differently because we don’t have a share price. In fact, it allows us to invest for the long term, go and make long-term decisions for the benefit of the partnership and our partners.”

One example of where it “does things differently” is the fact that the John Lewis Partnership owns and operates five luxury hotels exclusively for the use of its partners and their families – one of which is a castle on its own island off the Dorset coast.

Davison said the social opportunities the company provides is an important aspect of John Lewis Partnership’s health and wellbeing offering. Other benefits include dining out vouchers, golf courses, sailing clubs and ticket subsidies for concerts and comedy nights. And these opportunities do not stop once a partner retires from the organisation – its 18,000 retired partners are also invited to its summer and Christmas events.

Focus on ‘democracy’

Davison said: “We do things a little bit differently; the social experiment that started in 1929 continues today. The democracy that was created back in those days continues to thrive; we’ve got over 3,000 of our partners that represent each other through forums and councils. The partnership council has 58 elected partners, who hold the chairman and the board of directors to account twice a year.”

Democracy is felt across the entire organisation, and every partner is able to submit a question to the leadership team with the commitment that it would be answered within 10 days.

We focus on signposting and partners being able to find the right resources. It’s no good providing the right resources if nobody knows where they are.

John Lewis Partnership was also one of the first organisations to offer an employee healthcare programme. In 1929, 19 years prior to the introduction of the NHS, Spedan Lewis launched the company’s first health and wellbeing policies.

“Spedan Lewis recognised that if you want partners to provide excellent customer service, they need to be fit to do so – there wasn’t an NHS to rely on at that point,” said Davison.

The company’s health and wellbeing policy looks and feels a lot different to how it did 90 years ago. It went through a major refresh in 2013, shortly after Davison joined the organisation, and now better reflects the diversity of its workforce and their health needs – both mental and physical.

He said: “Our approach is split into two halves; proactive and reactive. The proactive side is all about building understanding of how to find [the occupational health and wellbeing service], of how to use the service, understanding expectations, and building understanding of things like mental health. We also focus on signposting and partners being able to find the right resources. It’s no good providing the right resources if nobody knows where they are.

“On the reactive side, we’ve focused on encouraging earlier intervention. We provide very focused support through our occupational health team, but also through specific, targeted therapies.

“We’ve done some work around developing this whole notion of self-ownership. If I go back 20 or 30 years the partnership was very maternalistic, did everything for you. But self-ownership is really important – we’re all people and we all have health. We all have physical and mental health and we have an in-built responsibility to do our part in making sure we look after it.”

Much of this emphasis on self-ownership looks at the issues of emotional and financial wellbeing. It recently rolled out workplace mental health platform Unmind to its partners, which Davison said is helping them take charge of developing their own “positive psychology”. Unmind provides employees with a number of resources to support and educate employees on areas such as sleep habits to meditation and mindfulness.

Davison said employees are able to track how they are feeling on the Unmind platform and insights are then fed back to the organisation, which in turn help to inform its policies.

“The most popular sentiment every month is tiredness. The four or five most popular tools are about addressing relaxation and sleep, so actually people are starting to do something themselves to try and manage this,” he told delegates.

“We should all be worrying about the lack of sleep because, what do we get from tired people, with no energy, low mood, poor concentration? How does that impact on somebody’s job, if they’re driving a lorry or working in a factory?

“This insight has allowed us to team up with some sleep experts and academics to introduce a pilot scheme for our nightshift workers at some of our distribution centres – particularly looking at education and how they sleep, but also what food they eat and when they eat; lighting; what things they can introduce into their daily routines that they might be effective.”

Wellbeig ‘champions’

A network of more than 700 “wellbeing champions” has also been recruited across the business to help shape initiatives to improve partners’ wellbeing and signpost support materials. One such initiative is “Wake Up, Shake Up”, a daily event where shop floor staff start the day with music and dancing before the store opens. The initiative began with two or three wellbeing champions at a John Lewis store in Leeds, but other stores have since got on board.

“The music goes up on the shop floor, everyone has a bit of a boogie and people have a bit of a laugh,” said Davison.

“There was a contagion within the business; Sheffield wanted to do it, then Newcastle wanted to know what was going on; it started to spread around the business. It doesn’t always continue today, because partners choose whether they feel it’s needed or not, but it’s a great way to get people feeling good about life at the start of the day.”

On the physical health side, the company has a “hub” in Bracknell, Berkshire, where in-house nurses respond employees’ health needs. Its services range from cognitive behavioural therapy, to travel advice and podiatry.

“People ask us why we do podiatry; we have tens of thousands of people who stand up on their feet every day. Their feet are part of our strategic assets. It sounds strange to say that, but it’s true,” said Davison.

Many queries are handled in-house, but often partners are referred to external specialists, especially on the mental health support side.

Where possible, support is offered to partners while they are able to continue working. Around 75% of partners who need treatment are able to do so while remaining in work. By being able to do this, Davison estimates the organisation has saved 190,000 working days from being lost to ill health.

He notes that while the external mental health support requires some investment, it is still five times less costly than seeking people go on long-term sickness absence.

Davison concluded by emphasising that, while not every organisation will be able to offer its staff the health and wellbeing services that the John Lewis Partnership can, there are many low-cost or free resources they can draw on that will have a significant impact on nurturing happy and healthy employees.

“What we’ve got in place may not be what you need, or you may not be able to put in it place. That shouldn’t deter you. I think the most important thing is you understand and have a view on what can have the biggest impact.

“Some of them might not cost any money at all. Things like the NHS’s Every Mind Matters may not be the same as Unmind but it’s freely available and very useful,” he said.

“Don’t forget the use of volunteers, wellbeing champions and the resources around you. But most importantly, don’t forget to link the social aspects, the fun aspects. All of us need to look after our own health and wellbeing,” Davison added.

John Lewis staff bonus lowest since 1953 (published March 2020). Available at:
NHS – Every Mind Matters. Available at:

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