The Gatehouse Blog

All-inclusive employee wellbeing

Heineken started life as a microbrewery in the centre of Amsterdam in 1873. Its creator, Gerald Heineken, was on a mission to perfect a recipe that would go on to be considered Holland’s first ‘premium’ lager beer. Now, the company’s 90,000 colleagues around the globe ensure that 25 million Heinekens are served each day across 192 countries.

For the purposes of this case study, we focus on the 2,500 employees within the UK company.

Heineken is clearly a well-loved beer by many, but does its external story reflect its internal story? In short, is it a well-loved employer?

Walking the EVP talk

Heineken is somewhat ahead of its time. While many companies are struggling right now to articulate their Employer Value Proposition (EVP) — in other words, how they want to be seen by their employees and the world outside their door — Heineken began work on this around five years ago.

It wanted to address recruitment issues, explains Merry Barrow, Senior Colleague Engagement Manager, who joined the Heineken Corporate Affairs team 10 years ago.

“Heineken in the UK wasn’t really considered an employer of choice. And we particularly struggled to recruit colleagues in Edinburgh, where our head office is, and also in Manchester, in which one of our breweries is located.

“So that led to a bigger piece of work around just looking at, well, what do we stand for as a business? What are our unique selling points? Working with HR and Marketing, we did a lot of research with colleagues to understand what they loved about working for Heineken. From that research, we distilled our EVP into five pillars — people, brands, enjoyment, growth and pride.”

The team has an integrated approach to communicating Heineken’s EVP. “The core themes we always talk about internally include our sustainability agenda, colleague wellbeing, inclusion and diversity, and our brands. We’re also now telling the story a lot wider externally on our own social channels. So, when we recruit people, we want them to come in, look around and say: ‘Yeah, this is exactly what I thought Heineken would be like to work for.”

Working with HR and Marketing, we did a lot of research with colleagues to understand what they loved about working for Heineken.

Wellbeing and inclusion hand in hand

In line with Heineken’s global strategic objectives around wellbeing, inclusion & diversity (I&D), the UK division designed and implemented its own wellbeing strategy in 2016, identifying three pillars: be resilient; be active; be social.

The primary goal at the time was to package and communicate a lot of the things already available to colleagues, with a view to helping individuals make informed decisions about their wellbeing.

Last year, the wellbeing strategy was revisited and relaunched in line with the work the company is doing on I&D. Jane Brydon, Heineken’s HR Director explains: “By creating an I&D culture and environment, you can actually help with your wellbeing agenda as well.”

This piece of work was also informed by various outcome measures, including: absence data; information tracked by the company’s occupational health partners; and insights from the Britain’s Healthiest Workplace survey.

“To help embed our wellbeing and I&D strategies, we have around 80 mental health champions and 50 I&D ambassadors across the business.

“Our mental health champions act as a first port of call for somebody if they don’t want to speak to their manager or to occupational health; while our I&D ambassadors help to embed new ways of working in their business areas, such as smarter working. We give our champions and ambassadors the tools they need to be able to talk to colleagues about the wellbeing and I&D services on offer to them.”

Of course, that necessitates training and support for the champions and ambassadors themselves, which includes:

  • Monthly briefings – These are delivery-focused, looking at what’s coming up and where and how local support is needed.
  • Dedicated groups in Teams and Workplace by Facebook – For informal sharing best practice and ideas.
  • Face to face – To provide training on the roles and responsibilities of champions and ambassadors.
  • Support from wellbeing managers – To ensure the role is manageable and not negatively affecting their mental health. Many of the champions volunteered because they’ve had problems themselves.


The champions and ambassadors identify themselves via: a list of who’s who on the central HR portal; short bios shared at local sites; special high-vis jackets worn at brewing sites; and lanyards in the offices.

Smarter working

Jane adds: “Smarter working is a key part of our l&D agenda. It’s about flexing our ways of working to meet the needs of individuals and the business. For some colleagues, this might be an informal arrangement of working from home when required, or a more formal arrangement where hours of work are compressed or colleagues job share.

“To make it work, we have to ensure colleagues have the right support for their role. What works for our sales colleagues may not work for those in the breweries or our offices. Our I&D ambassadors have an important role to play in this, making sure colleagues in their business area understand what smarter working means for them. This is how we really try to embed I&D and wellbeing through our culture — owned, lived and breathed by colleagues.”

Leadership development

Over the last couple of years, there’s been a keen focus on developing Heineken’s leadership group to ensure they’re present and inclusive leaders, understand what unconscious bias is, and how that can impact recruitment and teams. Resilience training for people managers is also being piloted at some of the company’s breweries.

Community involvement

Heineken also has a partnership with a charity called The Human Library. “The concept is very simple,” explains Merry. “You borrow real people out of a library and ‘read’ them. You sit down, have a conversation with them, and ask them any questions you want. These are people who have perhaps been marginalised in society, suffered prejudice or just have a really interesting story to tell.”

Jane adds: “We’ve just helped fund the first Human Library book depot in Edinburgh. They also come into the business to hold ‘reading sessions’ with our colleagues. The feedback we’ve had is that it really helps people. We’ve all got biases, whether we admit them or not. Some of them are conscious and some of them aren’t. The sessions are a safe place and you’re encouraged to ask awkward and challenging questions, because the idea is to break down barriers and stereotypes.”

Meanwhile, taking its responsibility as a drinks producer seriously, alcohol awareness education also represents a key building block of the company’s wellbeing strategy.

“A big part of that is making sure our colleagues are advocates of responsible consumption. That they understand the pros and cons of alcohol in terms of over- indulgence or how many units are in their chosen drink. That’s going to be quite a big focus for us this year,” says Merry.

HEINEKEN Race to the Castle

Finally, a highlight on Heineken’s wellbeing calendar is its annual challenge event, which aims to inspire people to improve their physical, mental and social wellbeing. Around a third of all UK colleagues take part each year, either walking or running 25km, 50km or 100km. The event is also open to friends and family, and members of the public. The route for the first three years was along the Cotswold Way and is notoriously challenging. “I’m not the fittest of people and I did the 25km in six hours. It’s cross country, you’re up and down hills. It’s pretty physically challenging,” says Merry.

This year’s event may be cancelled due to the ongoing COVID-19 situation, but we’re thinking of taking it to Northumbria next. “The route for HEINEKEN Race to the Castle is a lot less hilly, so hopefully more accessible for people, plus it’s closer to home for many colleagues.

“In the run-up to it, we’ll have smaller, local and incentive-led challenges. Incremental things that all colleagues can do to improve their wellbeing, from taking the stairs instead of the lift to having a walking meeting. Every kilometre will be logged. So, hopefully that will be a bit more inclusive than just an event for people who are prepared to really go for it.”


Biography: Merry Barrow

Merry Barrow joined Heineken in 2010 as Internal Communications Manager. Since then the team has grown from two to six, and she is now Senior Colleague Engagement Manager, primarily working with HR to drive Heineken’s people strategy, and providing the communications support on major change projects. Prior to joining Heineken, Merry worked in the Communications team at Lloyds Banking Group for eight years.

Biography: Jane Brydon

Jane Brydon joined Heineken as HR Director in March 2014, bringing with her an invaluable background in HR, change management, programme management, colleague engagement and communications. Prior to Heineken, she worked at Sainsbury’s Bank  as it’s People and Communications Director and as HR and Communications Director for Scottish Widows. She was Group Functions HR Director for HBOS between 2004 and 2009.