December 18th, 2019

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Often the most inspiring employee experience programmes are borne out of a very simple, very real human problem. This was the case for Ballance Agri-Nutrients, this year’s winner of the Humankind Employee Experience Initiative of the Year Award for its safety and wellbeing programme, COWS.

With 800 employees and more than 1000 contractors, Ballance Agri-Nutrients is a New Zealand farmer-owned co-operative that helps its customers to farm more productively, profitably and sustainably.

With diverse and expert roles such as nutrient specialists, loader drivers, pilots, forklift operators, manufacturing plant operators, engineers, and scientists, the company’s Kapuni urea plant is home to one of New Zealand’s largest Major Hazard facilities.

Health and safety form a key part of the business so during the 2017/2018 financial year when the Ballance team saw a sharp increase in injury rates, alarms were raised.

Their people were at risk and a company-wide investigation and solution was needed. What followed was an initiative driven by the people, for the people, with remarkable results.

To shed light on the in-house process that turned Ballance’s health, safety and culture around, we sat down with Rochelle Spillane, the company’s Acting General Manager for People & Capability.

“When we looked into the incidents that caused these injuries we soon realised our company culture had a key role to play in keeping our people safe,” said Rochelle.

“We discovered that our current health and safety culture was disconnected and overly policy driven. We had created standards and processes, but not a cultural framework on how and why we did things safely.”

Alongside these investigations, Rochelle said her team were mindful of the prevalence of mental health concerns in the workplace affecting many New Zealanders, including their own employees.

“This informed our view that we had an obligation to create an environment that was conducive to overall wellbeing to help keep our people well and safe across all elements of health and safety.”

The Investigation

Rochelle’s team was given a mandate to create a programme for safety leadership that would reduce the number of people being injured.

“During our investigations, we saw that many other businesses were tackling safety just as we had been, by focusing on process, policies and driving people and leaders to understand and implement these more.”

“We knew we had to do more than just educate people about safety regulations and reporting requirements – we needed to explore the mindsets, beliefs and attitudes which drive our people,” she said.

Inspiration struck when the transformational safety story of Shell’s oil-and-gas platform URSA was discovered. It involved a newly commissioned billion-dollar oil rig within an organisation and an industry that had a concerning safety record. The workers on rigs never showed any vulnerability, making the environment even more perilous because no one asked for help.

The Ballance crew saw similarities in the “show no weakness” attitude in their industry and a reluctance to ask for help among their own people. They learned that to address this, the URSA employees spent a day focused just on connecting with each other, and this programme was credited with helping reduce safety incidents across the company by 84%.

“Just like URSA, we wanted to create an environment where people knew that their wellbeing and safety was important, and where they took ownership of not just their own health, safety and wellbeing but also of those around them because they felt connected as people, not just workers, and truly cared about their teammates.”

This discovery was the catalyst for creating a company-wide employee programme called COWS – the acronym representing key principles of care, ownership, wellbeing and safety.

Homegrown COWS

From previous experiences and feedback, the Ballance team knew that self-design and self-facilitation needed to be a key part of this programme for it to be successful.

“If we could create a programme that could bring the care and connection our people shared at home, and within their communities, into our workplaces, then we might just be able to shift our culture, and as such, keep more of our people safe, more often.”

A two-day programme was developed for the company’s 160 plus leaders and was based on the understanding that with personal connection, care follows.

“We started rolling it out to all of our leaders and very quickly they said we need all of our people to go through this,” she said.

“It was an amazing endorsement from our leadership team because it is a big investment. We had to close the business and bring people in from different parts of the country.”

The company then approached potential facilitators and champions across the business who were influential, credible and willing to help refine, deliver and lead the new programme.

“Across the workshops we iterated and adjusted to ensure we pushed our people out of their comfort zone, and into the stretch zone. Over the week, our facilitators became passionate proponents of the programme and continued contributing to the content online as the organisation-wide rollout took place.

“The workshops were intentionally run with groups from across our different functions and teams, to help generate connections right across the business, increase our understanding of each other and the ‘humanness’ that we bring to work, yet each try to mask,” said Rochelle.

As one participant phrased it, “I came here thinking I’d have nothing in common with anyone, but now I see that we’re all just people, ay”.

What’s involved in the programme?

On the first day of the workshop, participants introduce themselves and talk about their three most important relationships and why they are important to them.

“It’s very much about connection, understanding each other as people and developing a connection, understanding what listening looks like,” said Rochelle.

Day two is focused on health and safety, looking at real life scenarios and developing an understanding of how easy it is for something to go wrong.

 “It’s about real ownership, taking responsibility and caring for each other in the workplace – knowing that they could be the person that could save your life.”

The initial two-day workshop continues to be rolled out as new team members join Ballance, signalling the importance of developing a safety culture.

Quarterly COWS follow, including an agenda covering topics like resilience, driving and fatigue, and slips, trips and falls, where groups can discuss stories that others can learn from.

“We now get managers saying, ‘when’s the next quarterly COWS coming out, I want to run it with my people’,” said Rochelle.

Always Learning

Through the delivery of COWS, Rochelle says the company has learned that by focusing and supporting each other as people first, and workers second, they realised they had more in common.

“This commonality makes it easier to care, to want to take ownership, to support each other’s wellbeing, and in turn, to work together more safely.” 

She says they have a greater appreciation and understanding that the traditional safety view of concentrating on legislation and policy or process first, risks sidelining the fact that humans are involved in the work.

“Those humans all bring with them a myriad of things which makes each situation, day, and task unique from one day to the next. This means that a policy or process, no matter how well designed, will never allow for all scenarios, and that empowerment and ownership have a much greater success of accommodating those variables, and in turn, keeping us safer, more often,” said Rochelle.


Rochelle says COWS has had a huge impact on company culture, just as they had hoped it would.

In a 2018 employee experience survey, COWS was explicitly mentioned by 57 team members, citing the impact this programme has had on how they feel about working at Ballance. For many, it was the one thing, above anything else, that they felt made Ballance a great employer.

In the words of one employee, “The adoption of COWS has been amazing – even in our team this has saved a team member in a time of distress and made us a tighter team.”

With the entire Ballance workforce having completed COWS and many contractors, Rochelle says there has been a cultural change in the approach to safety, including:

  • • An increase in reporting of lead indicators (near hits, safety concerns, at-risk behaviours)
  • • Significant lift in positive behaviours being reported
  • • The Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) usage has increased, with double the number of men accessing the service compared to a year ago
  • • A significant breakdown in silo behaviours and increase in collaboration
  • • People feel supported and there is a real sense of looking after each other, asking if colleagues are ok and making the time to connect.

The Ingredients of Success

The Humankind EX Initiative of the Year Award recognises the work, achievements, and employee-centric approach taken to the development of a single initiative designed to improve employee experience in New Zealand.

This involves having a positive influence on the thoughts, feelings, or interactions that employees have at work, helping them be at their best. 

The panel assessing the submissions for the 2019 award considered both the process and the results of nominated employee experience initiatives, with a focus on how people went about working with others to understand needs and design a programme.

The judging group included Meena Kadri, Strategic Advisor for Springload; Anna Campbell, a leadership coach and strategist; Laurent Sylvestre, Chief People and Culture Officer; and Mike Carden, HR tech entrepreneur who founded Joyous and Sonar 6.

Commenting on the Ballance Agri-Nutrients win, Meena Kadri said, “I loved that COWS dug way beyond policy and processes to explore beliefs, mindsets and attitudes – framing human connection as the foundation that would unlock impact.” 

“I was especially interested in initiatives which were being designed with, not for, employees. I’m a fan of core-out versus top-down approaches, and Ballance did a fab job of this by locating change agents across the business, busting through hierarchies and silos.”

While the panel had many points of convergence, Meena said they also had personal points of divergence, “Which was a great test of Humankind’s EX framework to then align us in confident decision making,” she said.

“I think that many organisations can take inspiration by zooming out from abstract health and safety processes and policies to consider the human connection that actually fuels authentic engagement with workplace wellbeing.”

Reflecting on her team’s win, Rochelle Spillane says she feels an enormous amount of pride in the Ballance Agri-Nutrients team. “They backed this, they supported it, it is our people that are making it endure – this is their award.”

Although the programme is still in its infancy, and with culture change needing sustained and long-term commitment, Rochelle says they have already seen early behavioural changes and expect a continued reduction in people being hurt to follow.

“If we care about each other, we won’t allow each other to get hurt. Our investment in this programme demonstrates how serious we are about looking after our people.”

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