Friday 19 January 2018

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 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

Tanya Sweeney

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."

Now, the Unilever running group meets twice a week after work and tackle the City West Business Park's trails and walkways.

The runners are split into three tiers: novices; those who have completed a 5k run in the past, and those who are regular race runners hoping to improve personal bests.

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.

"Four or five weeks ago, I kept hearing from people, 'there's no way I can do this'," notes Paul.

"But running has definitely given some people in the group more confidence in life, in and out of work. I took up running myself for that reason alone, you feel you can do anything.

"We know each other a lot better now, whereas before we might not know each other so well outside work," adds Paul.

"Nowadays, even the beginners are running for five minutes at a time, with a one-minute recovery time. And this team spirit is encouraged at work ... it helps us be more productive in meetings and understand where others are coming from a bit better."

The running group's ultimate goal is to cross the line en masse at the Flora Women's Mini Marathon on June 2. Yet smaller races – like the FIT City Series 5k in the Phoenix Park (on March 9) and the Dunboyne 4-Mile Road Race (on March 24) – provide invaluable 'milestone' goals along the way, helping to build confidence and drive among the runners.

Naturally, both Paul and Jill hope that the running group will stick together after the celebrations have died down following their Flora Mini Marathon success . . . and tackle race and marathon goals anew, year on year.

Proving indeed that there is strength in numbers, Jill asserts that businesses should use events like the City Series 5k run and Flora Mini Marathon to build a healthier workforce.

What we want to do is use our experience of starting the running group as a catalyst for others," she says.

"I get to run and chat with people who I wouldn't naturally spend lots of time with, which is a really positive thing for me. The thing is, there's nothing that we do that other businesses can't replicate."

For more information entering a group or business in the City Series run in Dublin's Phoenix Park on March 9, email customerservice To register visit See Flora Women's Mini Marathon

Irish Independent

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