Wednesday 17 December 2014

Spreading the joy

Tanya Sweeney talks to Unilever's Jill Ross and Paul O'Donnell about the firm's running group as the flora mini marathon sponsor aims to lead by example

Unilever running club training at in Citywest. Twenty staff members are due to take part in the Fit City Series run in the Phoenix Park on March 9. El Keegan
Unilever MD Jill Ross and business operations manager Paul O’Donnell. El Keegan

As the folks who sponsor the Flora Women's Mini Marathon, it stands to reason that as a company, Unilever would place staff health and mental wellbeing at a premium.

"We believe it's essential for continued success – healthy employees mean a healthy company, after all," asserts Unilever managing director Jill Ross.

"We have a number of different initiatives, from offering health checks to yoga classes in the office. These initiatives spark conversations and friendships in the workplace which have a positive impact on business performance."

Yet out of 140 Unilever staffers, a relatively small number had in fact taken the plunge and done the Flora Mini Marathon itself. It was something that business operations manager (and longtime running fan) Paul O'Donnell wanted to redress.

"We're very proud of that association with the Flora Women's Mini Marathon, and it would be a real shame if only a handful of our staff took part in an event that we sponsor," he notes.

"At my own running club (in Dunboyne) we take some senior runners out on a run. They get a real buzz out of it and to see them progress within a couple of months, their feel-good factor inspires a real sense of accomplishment within me."

With that, the Unilever running club was born in a kind of perfect storm: using FIT Magazine's Walk To Run In 8 Weeks programme (published here in January), and in the spirit of the new year, Paul decided to bring some of that feel-good factor to his own workplace in the first week of January.

"A lot of the office is quite active, be it through gym memberships or doing individual sport, but there's often a drop-out factor in January, something that's driven by the lack of action when you go to the gym yourself," notes Paul.

"When I tried to get a group interested in running, a few of them came to me and never thought they could ever be runners," he adds. "Some were lapsed runners, or had no time to exercise owing to family commitments. Of the 30 staff members that signed up, about 10 to 15 had never run before."

In a wider sense, the inception of this running group comes at a fortuitous time: nowadays, all workplaces are stressful and high-pressure environments. Unilever's running club offers staff the opportunity to shrug off the anxieties of the working day and regroup.

"It's true, the workplace is getting tougher, and the market is challenging for all businesses," acknowledges Jill. "That's why staff health is essential for business. Of my own personal experience, I started running years ago when I was in a job that was quite stressful. It really helped to build up a mental resilience."

Inspired by the walk to run programme (which advocates running for 30 seconds and resting for 90 on the first run and gradually building stamina from there), the group of 30 runners got cracking in the dead of winter.

"I think the reason a lot of people fail when it comes to running is that they run for 10 minutes on their first try and don't built it up, so the programme was perfect for that," he explains.

"But if you can get running and stick at it in the wind and the rain, you can certainly keep going. Recently, the temperatures have risen and it's not so stormy or windy, which makes things easier."

With a decade of running experience on his own belt, Paul is providing ad hoc advice on tempo work, nutrition and pre-race training.

"At Unilever there is free fruit provided every day, and I've definitely noticed that less chocolate and more fruit is around the office," he smiles.

Predictably, it wasn't long before morale among all of the participants, seasoned or otherwise, was running at an all-time high.

Irish Independent

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