Wellbeing coaches spark work change

Being vulnerable at work ok say senior Spark leaders.

A wellbeing strategy based on the four cornerstones of Māori health earns Spark the Wayfinder New Horizon Award. This award is in recognition of an innovative wellbeing support programme that has made a tangible difference within a business.

In 2021, Spark had a wellbeing challenge. The Covid-19 pandemic had led to months of uncertainty. Their people were exhausted, worried about their own health and that of their loved ones, and stressed with trying to do it all while at home in lockdown.

Leaders were finding it a challenge to support and connect with their teams while feeling vulnerable themselves.

Heather Polglase, who had just started a new role as Spark’s People and Culture Director, was facing her own personal crisis on top of the pandemic.

She was still coming to terms with the recent death of her father and juggling being a great mum to her two-year-old daughter while looking after Spark’s 5000 staff. Then she faced further and more significant family challenges which she didn’t tell anyone at work about for months. “I was in survival mode.”

Polglase, riddled with anxiety and insomnia, started therapy. “I found it was a safe place where you can have conversations about what you're feeling and connect with yourself. I thought: ‘Wow this is really different to a counseling session - this could really make a difference to people.”

Uplifted by her own experience (her therapy was self-funded), she wanted Spark people who were struggling the most (internal surveys at the time revealed about 10 per cent suffered acute mental distress) to access the same professional help she was privileged enough to afford.

She wanted people to realise that no matter how resilient you believe you are, adversity and trauma in your personal life is a really big part of how you show up at work and a more sustainable holistic approach to wellbeing is what she and so many others seemed to need.

Polglase knew getting an appointment with a psychologist in the public health system could take months. So, she partnered with two psychologists to be on-hand for any employee facing a crisis or significant hardship - one of the measures Polglase implemented as part of Spark’s new wellbeing strategy, Mahi Tahi, which is built on the four cornerstones of Māori health – physical, spiritual, family, mental.

Driving change in such a big company, with staff spread across the country and working in roles as diverse as customer frontline team, supply chain workers, mobile tower riggers, specialist digital talent and corporate executives was challenging, Polglase says. “There is no ‘one-size-fits-all' approach for this – and which the pandemic further highlighted.”

Through surveys, Spark asked its people how they were doing and what their needs were. Following the feedback, the company provided training for 20 to become wellbeing coaches so they could better support their colleagues.

Each Mahi Tahi coach has been trained and supervised by the Spark psychologists and has a minimum of three hours per week to help colleagues and teams. This positions them well to refer those who may need more specialist support to the in-house psychologists.

Following this success, the company has further invested and now has 55 coaches who have dealt with challenges big and small. Recently, a team member felt comfortable enough with one of the coaches to share their suicidal thoughts and concerns, Polglase says. The coach turned the situation around and referred the person to appropriate services.

Registered psychologist, Moira Howson from Worklife Psychology says:

In organisations, people may be reluctant to talk to managers or colleagues regarding mental health issues like depression and anxiety, due to fear of judgement, lack of confidentiality and potential negative job-related consequences. But having trained and accessible coaches at work encourages help-seeking and referrals, and destigmatised mental health concerns.


  • Ongoing training and support for the Mahi Tahi coaches ensures they also have time to debrief as needed
  • Reinforcing and communicating to employees that confidentiality between psychologist and client is a vital part of psychologist’s code of ethics


“We are all at risk every day in life of walking past someone who is in that state of mind. The coaching gave our team the power to notice and know what to do,” she says. “When you combine people who deeply care and have the tools on hand with two psychologists, you can circuit-break a distressing situation.”

Tragically, Spark has lost team members to suspected suicide. While they couldn’t prevent these, the company works to provide highly personalised and immediate wrap-around support to its team members who feel the impact of such tragedy and loss.

“It pushed us to think deeply about how we can remove mental health stigma and also weave the right levels of care and knowledge into interactions with our people” Polglase says.

To normalise mental health and show that resilience is a constant work on for all of us, the leadership team have been sharing their own personal challenges and the tools they have used to overcome them. This has fostered a culture where it is progressively clearer to many that it’s more than OK to be vulnerable at work – it’s a place where you can get support and compassion.

Staff surveys revealed that many were also experiencing anxiety, so Mahi Tahi introduced the Take a Breath breathing app designed to help reduce stress and anxiety. Around 40 per cent of Spark people have used it so far and a third of these have also gifted it to their whanau and friends.

Senior leaders incorporated wellbeing objectives and key performance indicators into their quarterly planning. This led to Spark’s hybrid principles and practices to incorporate the key wellbeing indicators of connection and support.

As a result of the changes, Spark’s most recent culture survey showed 89 per cent of people felt well supported by their leader when it comes to wellbeing.

Professor of Public Health Grant Schofield, an award judge, said he was impressed with the company’s entry.

“Spark’s engagement statistics are comprehensive. I liked the questions they asked at the beginning – ‘do you feel connected?’ That's a good question to ask people and shows a deeper understanding.”

This article was first published in New Zealand Herald.

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Southern Cross Health Insurance Wayfinder Awards