COO Rogier Nelissen of Bergman Clinics Netherlands about active listening and the role of ‘humble leadership’ within employee well-being 

Rogier Nelissen Bergman Clinics interview Inuka Coaching

Rogier, you are COO at Bergman Clinics Netherlands, could you introduce yourself and Bergman Clinics in a nutshell?

Bergman Clinics is the largest network of focused clinics for plannable medical care in the Netherlands, with an international footprint in both Germany and Scandinavia. We have been active in specialised medical care for 30 years now.

Although we employ more than 2,000 people, the work environment for most of our people is a small, focused clinic where we offer as much freedom and independence in their role as possible, where we keep the reporting lines short and the organisation flat.

Here in the Netherlands, we have several divisions with focused clinics where we specialise in a specific area of care. This enables us to provide high-quality care in an efficient way. To this end, we have created a ‘Co-COO ship’ where my colleague Jos Holland and I, lead the operations of all Dutch divisions. In this role I am responsible for the divisions orthopedics, neurosurgery, women’s care and internal care, spread out over 25 locations with approximately 900 employees. Supported by the the HR Department, I am also responsible for employee well-being.

What challenges you are facing regarding well-being in the workplace?

In general, we see that our employees are satisfied with the team dynamics in our focus clinics. However, there are also challenges. The biggest challenge is a societal one, the increasing demand for healthcare in relation to the shortage of employees in this sector. It is a huge challenge for healthcare providers nationwide to recruit employees. We are no exception. It is hard getting the timesheets done, implying increases in workload, which ultimately impacts the well-being of our people. We are talking about healthcare professionals with a very high sense of responsibility towards their patients, they always go the extra mile. We must be very aware of the consequences for their health, both mentally and physically.

What I have also realised over the years is that there is something else that puts pressure on employee well-being. People often sense they have limited influence on decision making. This, combined with the sense of having limited autonomy in their own work, seems to have significant impact on an individuals’ mental well-being. Once I realised this, I have been very keen to encourage and support the autonomy of employees in their daily work.

That's an interesting insight, how do you keep an eye on the mental health of your employees?

We monitor employee well-being twice a year, with a tool called ‘heartbeat’ which is an anonymous survey, measuring how employees feel. We measure both how they feel in general and specifically about their workplace and the company. The ‘heartbeat’ is followed by team sessions where we discuss the results and create targeted actions together. In addition, we implement regular discussions with our managers about well-being and team building.

I see the “heartbeat” as an important tool, because it measures well-being for a critical mass of ~900 employees in my case. The fact that this is data-driven is important for us because it provides us with very good insights, including the differences between locations and teams. The ‘heartbeat’ scores have become a very important starting point for the definition of our well-being strategy.

In addition, we keep a finger on the pulse by learning what is going on daily, not only through team and location managers. I also visit the locations regularly myself. Since I want to understand the normal every day for our team and customers, from time to time I dress in uniform and walk along in the daily work process for a few hours. During these visits I have genuine conversations with people about what are they struggling with, what their daily challenges are and what ideas they have.

What trends do you identify in employee well-being at Bergman Clinics?

I observe a few things. First, I see that our employees are happy in their local teams. They appreciate the flat organisation in their clinic, and the short lines of communication. Nevertheless, they are also often tired both mentally and physically, this is still the aftermath of COVID. We have not yet fully recovered from this intense period in which people had to work extremely hard and adapt to a new way of life. The recovery period from the pandemic is a long one and is something we should not underestimate. Another observation is that our employees are struggling with societal changes, with what is happening in the world; like inflation, cost increases, global competition, how do I make it all work in combination with my job, my family? These things heavily impact mental well-being and influence how people feel when they come to work. This is a trend we need to address in our well-being strategy.

You focus specifically on mental well-being. Do you see this as a priority?

In my view, a strong focus on the well-being of our people is essential, especially in people-oriented organisations such as in healthcare. The impact of employee well-being on the organisation is huge. Let’s take the analogy of a production company, a factory for example, with an automated production line. The maintenance of the machines ultimately leads for a major part to the ‘well-being’ of these companies. In our company, where people basically do everything, we must make sure they feel good, feel empowered and enjoy what they do. That is vital for success, for growth, and ultimately business results. I believe that employee well-being – and I don’t just mean mental health, but well-being in general – is vital, next to satisfied clients or patients in our case. I think these are the two most important things for success. If these are managed well, the rest will come naturally.

Well-being is on the agenda, what about the willingness to deploy more resources?

Once you identify good mental health of your employees as one of the pillars of success, you should also invest. That much is clear. This is still fairly new in employee well-being, but we need to start making solid decisions, investing in the right place, with the right focus, and our business involves a lot of people. So, in my opinion, we need to consider employee well-being programs in alignment with the business case, which means we need the right metrics to define ROI and that allow us to make informed choices about investing in well-being interventions.

A business case for employee well-being is rather new. What data do you expect to determine your ROI?

Yes, that’s an interesting question, this is something we are still refining, because it’s not very easy to describe people and well-being in this way. Obviously, we follow the standard KPIs, like absenteeism, turnover, etc. However, we are working on more specific KPIs related to employee well-being and well-being interventions. I see costs of recruitment as a KPI in this perspective. If you have a strong reputation as an employer for your employee well-being program, this helps to attract new employees and talents especially for the younger generations. Without a strong well-being strategy, recruitment might cost more, employees might decide to leave so replacement is necessary and agency hires might be required which is more expensive. These are elements that you can quantify and calculate which provides you with indication of costs that you would not have had with a solid well-being strategy. We are currently defining these elements in order to calculate ROI.

How do you get employee well-being on the radar in the boardroom?

Well, like many people of Gen X, I wasn’t raised or educated with compassionate leadership. The Board of large organizations often consists of leaders of my generation who have become successful, mainly by being goal-oriented, ambitious and fast, and by taking risks. Empathy often did not come first. We are now in a different era, and I have experienced over the years that being humble is a skill that helps. So, what I often do when we discuss new plans is ask my colleagues questions like, “Good idea, but did we ask the people themselves?”, “Your proposal makes sense financially, it makes sense in this boardroom, but have we checked with the people who will work with it?”, and “Have we thought about the impact on our employees if we implement this? Will it improve their well-being or not?” These are very simple questions which are being asked more often, but not yet standard vocabulary in the Boardroom. In my experience, being empathetic, being humble, changes the whole story and encourages the focus on well-being.

Good idea, but did we ask the employees? 

More compassion in the boardroom, how do you envision compassionate leadership?

I already mentioned the word “humble,” that word resonates best with me when I think of compassion among leaders. Why? As a leader you might think you know it all. For me, it means the openness to dare to ask questions and, moreover, to dare to admit if you don’t know. For example, if I visit one of our clinics and I spend half an hour or half a day with the nursing ward, I don’t pretend to know things. I’m just asking a lot of questions. “So, why are you doing this?”, “How do you do that?” Or, “If you had a wish that I would change things at board or support level, what would you want to change?” So, it’s a very basic feeling of compassion for me; humility, curiosity, to being open as a human being to everyone in the workplace. In addition, because people often see leaders as very distant, I try to be approachable and speak the language that people understand, instead of management jargon. So, I see compassion mainly as being humble, curious and listening instead of talking.

Last question, would mental health coaching fit with a preventive well-being strategy?

Prevention is essential for a healthy organisation, and this applies both to the pursuit of sustainably healthy employees and to a healthy business result. This brings me back to the business case; the costs of curing employees are much higher than ensuring and maintaining a healthy working climate.

From a holistic view of well-being I believe it is important to give employees the opportunity to tackle private matters that affect work, with digital coaching for instance, in addition to the work-oriented matters usually supported by the manager. I am very interested in seeing the concrete results of this, measuring the effects on our ‘heartbeat’ or even working with data-driven coaching methods that provide information for management to make decisions and new initiatives on.

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