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Transformation: Tips from a CEO

By CCIWA Editor

Managing staff stress during times of change takes much more than offering free fruit and gym memberships, says the head of WA’s largest private health insurer.  

And walking the line of making an organisation sustainable while maintaining staff wellbeing is no easy matter but should always be a focus, not just in the tough times, explains HBF CEO John Van der Wielen. 

He’s been CEO of WA’s 78-year-old health insurer since 2017 year and is transforming the organisation.  

With the industry under pressure, HBF is feeling the pinch. The company has made headlines for cutting costs, redundancies and more recently it’s failed plan to merge with NSW-based HCF, which would have made it the third largest health insurer behind Bupa and Medibank.  

All of this causes staff stress on staff, Van der Wielen says.  

 “As a CEO, I am very cognisant of the impact we have on people. I know at HBF we’ve been doing things like cutting costs, we’ve closed some branches we made our hospital liaison officers redundant, so when I am handing out a free banana, it doesn’t resonate,” he says.  

“People say don’t put all your eggs in one basket but HBF have put one large egg in one basket and that actual basket represents 10 per cent of Australia; so, we are 54 per cent market share, we have billions of dollars’ worth of capital, a super strong company, but in fact this company used to have 75 per cent market share in this state.  

“My point around health and wellness is we needed a new strategy. We’ve talked about: a merger which hasn’t come off, what we need to do nationally, technology, and how we need to improve what we do. The first impact of any of that change is people, some redundancies, change to leadership and that’s been really, really difficult for staff.” 

The former Londoner recalled the night of the infamous Lehman Brothers collapse where he saw senior people crying on the tube with a cardboard box in front of them because they were locked out of the office at 11.30am, then went to the pub before going home late at night without their job. 

“Any company can celebrate the good times, they can put in health and wellness but if they don’t have a sustainable strategic direction, a sustainable company that continues with their employment then all of it is irrelevant,” he says.  

Four tips for organisational change  

1. Be transparent and know what staff are thinking 

Know the truth about employee engagement and exactly what people are feeling is paramount, he says. While HBF had a staff turnover of 25 per cent, staff surveys were incentivised for positive responses. 

Van der Wielen decided to ‘cut out the crap’ and find out what people really thought. The response was 1500 paragraphs of comments, of which he only deleted the ‘one about air conditioning in the toilets on the fifth floor and how the toasters didn’t brown the toast properly’. 

Most about management, processes and issues people had been raising for a long time. He’s taken action and will send out a second survey soon. 

“The next one will gauge success of what’s been done. It links into the point of how you manage change, how you lead people, how you keep their mental health and their engagement happy,” he says. 

“Staff turnover is starting to drop and more and more people are understanding the requirements of where we are changing the organisation and where we need to get to.” 

He says the point that came through loud and clear was ‘don’t buy me off with free fruit when you haven’t fixed what I need in technology systems or my phone is ringing off the hook with aggressive people and you don’t have enough staff in the contact centre’. 

2. Gauge staff stress by your own   

Van der Wielen says he uses his own stress levels to work out how his staff must be feeling. 

He says exhausting people instead of exhilarating them won’t lead to goals achieved or ultimately a sustainable business.  

“My personal measure as a strong and opinionated individual is … when I’m stressed I lose sleep, when I lose sleep I become grumpy, when become grumpy I don’t treat my family as well. When I start arguing with my family I become more emotional and I struggle and the stress becomes cyclical,” he says.  

“When I am stressed in an organisation that must mean people below me with far less control and ability to manage what is happening around them must be enormously stressed, so I think it is something I hold onto dearly and try to manage,” he says.   

He tries to get people to focus on things they can control and influence rather than things they can’t, such as changes to the political environment. 

3. Being open about ‘awful truth’ 

Van der Wielen says he’s been taking staff through ‘the awful truth’ – that work is a large part of life and we all have to do it.  

“It’s difficult, it can be stressful but whatever you do don’t stay in a job you don’t like. I’m really open about saying don’t spend your day trying to change your boss, leave the employment.”  

“You can explain to them the awful truth: ‘I still struggle to get up and go to work but I am certainly not going to head to work and work for a chairman, boss or brand that I do not like or enjoy’ and I’ll encourage all my employees to get up and enjoy their job or go and get one that they do.” 

He says the best thing you can do as a responsible employer is shake their hand, let them go within 24 hours and say ‘we’ll keep in touch’ because retaining people who don’t enjoy their jobs is not good for their mental health.  

“It doesn’t sound like something a CEO would say but the motivation behind that is you want people to enjoy as much as they can in their job ... and you need them to be there to be successful.” 

4. Put mental health front and centre 

Offering employers great conditions and perks is important but if people don’t understand the strategy and ‘aren’t on the bus with you to deliver all that change’ it won’t deliver staff or the company what they need.  

“You must do both,” says Van der Wielen.  














Managing staff stress during times of change takes much more than offering free fruit and gym memberships, says the head of WA’s largest private health insurer.  

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