"Our sector is people": Placing a premium on staff

Posted on 24 Oct 2023

By Ben Vasiliou, CEO You Projects

Ben Vasiliou

In a speech delivered at the Benefolk Foundation's Reimagining Resilience breakfast in Melbourne, Youth Projects CEO Ben Vasiliou spoke about his personal journey from hardship to helping people, and the importance of investing in the health and wellbeing of those around him.

Hi folks, I’m Ben Vasiliou - the very proud CEO of Youth Projects.

We are one of Melbourne’s oldest, loudest, proudest, and most innovative charities and social enterprises.

We work across homelessness, unemployment, mental health, addiction, and poverty.

We were very excited – and humbled - to bring home the inaugural award for Outstanding Leadership in Wellbeing Governance at the Australian Scholarships Foundation (NFP) Leadership Awards, sponsored by Benefolk back in September.

I’m not here to tell you how to suck eggs.

But I am here to chat about wellbeing and why our employees – our people – are the most valuable asset in any organisation.

There are 1.68 million people employed by charities and social enterprises across Australia.

The people who contribute almost $150 billion to the Australian economy and engage over three million volunteers.

We may be strong, we may be innovative, but let’s be honest, our work is not done. Over three million people are living in poverty in Australia. More than 750,00 of those are children and young people.

Housing is unaffordable. Secure jobs are hard to come by. Interest rates and cost of living are soaring through the sky.

We, the third sector, for purpose, charities, whatever we define ourselves as, have a simply defined yet complex mission - get the help to those that need it most, and advocate for systemic change so no one is left behind.

Let’s get real. Leaders don’t do the hard yards at the front line. Our staff do.

Most people in the for-purpose sector spend 50-85% of their revenue on wages. People are our biggest investment.

Ben Vasiliou
Youth Projects CEO, Ben Vasiliou.

The importance of workplace wellbeing in the NFP sector

Our sector is people – we don’t make or sell things; we exist to support people. Therefore, we need to dig deep to understand the priorities, barriers and needs of our employees as "real people" to provide and foster a psychologically safe workplace.

It all starts by giving a shit. To be frank, if you don’t truly care, or invest in your people, your culture will rot, and your service quality will be poor. We are successful because we value our people, we see them as a whole person, not just the bit we employ.

This carries straight through to the frontline of supporting our clients and beneficiaries – and as leaders, it’s up to us to prioritise workplace wellbeing. Happy people, provide good services.

From a people perspective (at Youth Services) we always ask four questions in our supervision or 1:1s:

  • What do you enjoy most about your job right now?
  • What do you enjoy least about your job right now?
  • What can I do more of (as the leader) to help you with your job?

And most importantly,

  • What can I do less of to help you in your job?

We then hold ourselves and each other to account on the answers.

This leads to a greater sense of belonging and connection to our purpose, increased resilience, stronger employee engagement, and reduced absenteeism and ultimately creates better performance and productivity for an organisation or business.

From a governance perspective:

  • It’s equally as (if not more) important than the way we approach physical safety.
  • Understanding psychosocial hazards in the workplace – and using wellbeing to reduce or mitigate them – leads.
"If we don’t prioritise our people, we wouldn’t be able to do what we do best. Empowered people, empower people."

Why we prioritise our people

Our priority is our people – above clients or beneficiaries – They are our greatest asset.

Most organisations say they put their clients first. Great. But what about the people servicing your clients. That’s why we say, staff first, then we know they’ll take care of our clients.

We put people first, because if we don’t take care of them, they can’t take care of our clients.

If we didn't prioritise our people, we wouldn’t be able to do what we do best. Empowered people, empower people.

We pride ourselves on our workplace wellbeing philosophy that acknowledges work is just one part of someone’s life.

How we do that

We embrace and celebrate the benefits of lived and living experience – which include sharing our own stories.

All that stems from my leadership.

My strategy comes from the lens of lived experience.

Although old now, this includes a history of poverty, parental addiction, cancer and extraordinary health care costs, and poor education which would have easily led me down a path of entrenched poverty and eventually homelessness.

However, the support I got, from this sector, from our people, shaped me into the man I am today and put me on this very podium.

Now I speak directly to our clients and our staff. I stay connected to what’s actually happening on the ground.

We embrace lived experience in our workforce, recognising that diverse perspectives stemming from personal experiences enrich problem-solving, empathy, and service quality.

  • 85% of our people identify as having lived experience in our service domains.
  • 40% of our people proudly identify as LGBTQIA+
  • 45% of our people are living with a disability (either visible or hidden).

In doing so, our people start from a point of understanding the challenges our clients face.

We normalise conversations around wellbeing and mental health – seeing team members as real human beings.

All of which enables us to create an empathetic and understanding environment that caters to the diverse needs of our service users.

Full room Benefolk Breakfast
More than 170 representatives from across the not-for-profit, charity and philanthropic landscape were in the room to hear You Projects CEO, Ben Vasiliou talk about why his organisation put's people first.

Practical actions and tips

  • Use data. Don’t just do staff surveys for the compliance tick. Engage. Connect. Ask the tough questions and seek collective impact.
  • Use real-time insights like onboarding questionaries, exit surveys, staff surveys, hallway chats. Join the smoker’s room, who cares, find the data, find the information, and act on it.
  • Be willing to (genuinely) invest in your people.
  • Listen to hear. Not to respond.
  • Connect – on a human level. Be okay with sharing vulnerability.
    • 82% of our (Youth Projects) people feel like they can bring their true selves to work according to our Great Place to Work survey results.
  • Build trust by embedding the theories of self-determination and a strengths-based coaching model.
  • Partner with a good EAP (Employee Assistance Program) service – one that is engaged, not just an add on. Ours is real time, on demand, live virtual psychology. Matched 1:1 to suit your needs.
    • Our EAP engagement increased to 33% of workforce (industry average of 6%)
  • We have enough leave covering sick, family, carers, annual, family violence, study leave, and the list goes on, to give a person almost one day a week off for the entire year, paid. And we encourage people to use it.
    • 81% of our people feel encouraged to balance their work and personal life according to our Great Place to Work survey results.

Leave is important.

One key metric for our executives is how much leave our people are using. And not for the balance sheet, although that helps, but for the wellbeing of our people.

Stop having meetings at 9am and 4pm. It doesn’t work for parents, and it doesn’t work for most people’s energy cycles.

How we got the board and senior management ‘on board’ with the strategy

We learned a lot during the pandemic. And the first thing we did was put people first on every agenda - including the board meetings.

We set up a people and wellbeing framework and put the amazing Angela Gaylard in charge of workplace culture.

  • Angela’s innovative strategies have translated into a 143% growth in talent acquisition and 8% reduction in employee turnover since mid-2022.
  • And a remarkable 30% of advertised positions filled through internal talent redeployment in the past 12 months.

It needs to be seen as an investment – it shouldn’t be a "cost" to the business.

There needs to be clear outcome and impact measures that aligns back to the overarching strategic plan for the organisation.

And – it needs to be normalised and celebrated.

In summary… be human.

Be prepared to ask the tough questions and sit with the challenging responses.

Involve people in decision making, and evaluation.

They are the real front-line warriors - so treat them like it.

Ben Vasiliou is CEO of Youth Projects.

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