“The Power of Personal Touch”: Jeroen Kluytmans’ Vision for Employee Well-being at dsm-firmenich

Jeroen Kluytmans, Manager Employability at dsm-firmenich, emphasizes the transformative journey of the company, his personal experiences that shaped his perspective on well-being, and the importance of genuine personal connections and listening in fostering employee well-being and sustainable employability.

Jeroen, a warm welcome to you. Happy to have you here. You are Manager Employability & Operational manager of DSM FIT. Can you introduce yourself, dsm-firmenich and your role there?

I work at dsm-firmeninch, where I began 20 years ago as a chemical technologist. I started in Resource Development and eventually moved into production. Through a few detours, eight years ago I became the ‘Manager Employability’.

Dsm-firmenich has undergone significant transformations. Once rooted in materials and plastics, the company has shifted its focus towards food and vitamins. In the Netherlands, it has become smaller, with a primary presence in Delft, where a lot of work is centered around our taste texture and health division, one of our business groups. We’re now primarily a company in the food sector, serving both animals and humans. Recently we mergedwith firmenich, a company mainly involved in fragrances and flavourings, marking a substantial transformation. So, from our earlier domains, we’ve ventured into a whole new field.

What is your personal interest in well-being?

I became interested in this topic when I started working at DSM. I was given the impression that I could make my own choices, but I noticed that it wasn’t always that straightforward. When our children were born and I wanted to work part-time, it raised a few eyebrows. At some point I was also asked to sign a letter saying I was willing to work abroad, which just didn’t align with my values. I have great respect for people who make that choice, but it wasn’t for me. My personal decisions were met with strange reactions.

Through these experiences I became interested in understanding how, despite the emphasis on sustainable employability, there still seems to be a culture where taking control of your own career or making ‘different’ choices are seen as unconventional and undesirable. Something simple such as leaving work at 4 PM is all too often frowned upon.

On top of that, I experienced a severe depression when I was fourteen. It taught me the importance of staying close to myself because that’s when I function at my best. Although we all know this, somehow, we all end up doing things that aren’t good for us. It could be due to company culture, societal pressure, or various factors. That’s where my interest in this topic originates – there’s a kind of scientific curiosity about how all of this works.

What are three sources of inspiration for you? It could be a podcast, individuals you follow on LinkedIn, or any other inspirational resources that you'd recommend to others who want to learn more about this topic.

I’ve been greatly inspired by a small article written by Guido Welter, who is currently the director of the National Platform for Sustainable Employability (NPDI). The article was titled “You’re looking too far ahead,” and it resonated with me. It delves into the idea of what sustainable employability truly means. Does it involve looking far into the future, or does it focus on the present? It’s essential to balance future planning with the current reality.

As for podcasts, I’ve enjoyed listening to Glenn van der Burg’s “People power”. They cover a wide range of topics related to innovation and renewal, and some of them are genuinely fascinating. However, it’s challenging to highlight a specific one because there are so many valuable episodes within that podcast series.

Another source that I find interesting is this anthropologist who shares videos about human behaviour and our essential needs. It may not directly relate to employability, but it explores our fundamental needs. I appreciate this because it delves into the intrinsic and straightforward aspects of life. For me, well-being begins there, not with complex policies or elaborate discussions, but with simple things like maintaining connections and acknowledging each other’s presence.

LinkedIn is also a platform where you come across many insights. I particularly like the exercise of listing five things you love doing and five things you currently do. It keeps coming back to the essentials. What’s holding us back from pursuing what we truly desire? Many people share such insights, and I find them valuable.

In larger organisations we easily overcomplicate things with elaborate programs, intricate systems, and highly sophisticated learning management systems that seem fantastic on the surface. We get caught up in these complexities whist forgetting the power of a simple question: “How are you doing?” And most importantly, we sometimes forget to truly listen to the answer.

What is your organisation's philosophy regarding well-being and sustainable employability?

We’ve written some bits and pieces, but we don’t have a policy document. For us it boils down to wanting to be good for our employees, which doesn’t mean we remove all their concerns, solve every issue, or cater to their every need. It’s about genuinely caring for your employees, building trust, and having their best interests at heart. I think that’s the philosophy—although I should tread lightly here because we’re still far from having everything figured out. It’s an ongoing process…

How do you put that into practice? How do you ensure that this foundation truly takes root within the organisation?

One of the things we do, is to ensure that everything we do maintains a high level of personal contact. While much of our information is available online, we deliberately refrain from setting up a portal.

So, the key here is the attention we provide. It translates into accessibility, meaning that employees can reach out to us directly by phone. We aim to respond to contact within 24 to 48 hours. So, instead of just focusing on big programs, we look at the specific needs of departments and individuals. By consistently delivering this tailored approach, we make sure that employees feel seen and heard, creating a sense of belonging and support.

What is your biggest frustration regarding well-being?

Although it’s high on the strategic agenda within most HR departments, I find that operational implementation is slow and often superficially executed.

This also ties into some of the frustrations we experience at dsm-firmenich. For example, we have a rather old-fashioned performance appraisal system, which I find a bit outdated. However, this system is a corporate-wide approach, and we can’t influence it from our Netherlands-focused perspective.

Within our organisation, well-being is still not at the core of our policies. I find it takes way too long sometimes. We get caught up in so many other things, many of them quite complex, although being good to your people is in the core of our policies we still have difficulty in translating this in day to day operations. When doing so it ultimately leads to the highest productivity.

Do you also have KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) related to well-being, and if so, what are they?

Ideally, we want to measure engagement, and we do. However, when it comes to wellbeing it still often ends up focusing on absenteeism. So, we do try to measure some things, but it remains a challenging aspect.

We’re working on a project with TNO, Deloitte and Achmea, to develop a model for predicting well-being. Well-being is often tricky to measure; there are various ways to do it, but can we predict which interventions, for instance, contribute the most to improving the well-being of a team or organization? We’re now entering the final phase of this research project, a public-private partnership. I hope we can take the next step in that direction.

How is well-being strategically organized within your organization?

Up until now, we had an internal occupational health service. Seven years ago, we decided to integrate it with employability, and everything related to it. Our occupational health service is unique in the sense that it directly reports to our Country director. It doesn’t report to HR, and this decision was made a long time ago, which makes our occupational health service more independent.

One of the most significant advantages for employees is that they feel very comfortable approaching us for any questions or concerns, knowing that it always happens in a confidential and trusted environment since it’s within a medical setting. So, it’s success is partly due to the independence, confidentiality, and the trust that this environment provides.

What strategy or tactic have you implemented that worked really well?

In order to reach a larger group and still maintain that personal touch, we developed an employability monitor alongside the periodic medical examination. This employability monitor essentially covers the entire spectrum of sustainable employability, allowing individuals to undergo an employability assessment.

Additionally, the employability assessment is discussed with a sustainable employability advisor. They sit down with the individual and go through the results. It worked remarkably well and continues to do so. The key was to create an open atmosphere.

Do you have any evidence to show that it works really well?

Yes, by the number of participants. In some locations it’s around 50 percent. But for one of the first ones we did in Delft, there was around 60 to 70 percent participation.

Besides participation we collect data on the feedback we receive from employees and advisors. The positive energy and feedback we received during and after these conversations show that it’s highly appreciated.

What have you tried that didn't work?

Once we conducted a program which provided everyone with 500 euros to spend on employability, and while it might sound a bit blunt to say it didn’t work, I do have some reservations about these kinds of programs.

On one hand, it can indeed motivate and make people aware that they have a budget to invest in themselves. On the other hand, I find it very intervention focused. These interventions can be helpful, but the drawback is that different people have different needs. When you give everyone the same amount, you end up spending a lot of money, and you’re not guaranteed that it will have the desired effect for everyone. Especially if there’s no connection or discussion about how they plan to use the money and why. How does it contribute to their employability? So, I wouldn’t say it didn’t work, but I believe you need to think it through thoroughly before implementing such programs.

What concluding thoughts do you have for HR and well-being leaders?

We complicate things so much, and we forget the simplicity—the simplicity that can exist even online. It’s as simple as just asking, “How are you?” and truly listening to the answer. If we all did that, managers, employees, within teams, we’d create that vital and healthy culture.

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