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More than words: How language lessons can improve staff wellbeing

Have you ever had to explain a quirky New Zealand saying to someone that’s just moved here? For example, if you were to say, “sweet as” you might get the reply, “sweet as what?”

Language is often the gateway to culture. So moving to a country where you're not fluent in the native tongue can be isolating. Without communication, it’s difficult to build meaningful relationships with other people and participate in the community.

At Whittaker’s, we have a diverse workforce that speaks over 18 languages and dialects.

For many, English is a second language. Add a layer of delightful Kiwi slang or corporate speak on top of that and you can imagine life gets a bit complicated!

Whether it’s an invite to the Christmas party or a Health and Safety notice, we need to communicate in a way that’s accessible to all staff. So, we continuously look at how we’re using language and the role it plays in wellbeing.

As part of this, we partnered with Aspire2, New Zealand’s biggest provider of adult literacy and numeracy education. With their expertise on-board, we worked together to design a bespoke English Language Programme that met the needs of our people and business.

Removing barriers to learning

Launched in 2016, our programme is now in its fourth year and has become so popular we ran it twice in 2019! We believe its success is largely due to accessibility and finding the right teacher.

We remove practical and financial barriers by:

  • Hosting the programme on-site. Staff go straight from the factory floor to the classroom.
  • Offering it free to staff. Any permanent resident who speaks English-as-a-Second-Language can apply, regardless of role or responsibility level.
  • Giving staff one free hour off work to attend class. They then invest one hour of their own time on top of that.
  • Basing it around a realistic time commitment. Classes are two-hours and run over the course of 20-weeks.

Finding the right teacher

Lynley Ball is a Workplace Communication Facilitator and teaches our English Language Programme through Aspire2. She believes in building genuine relationships and meeting students whereever they’re at.

“For most adults, learning is a choice, and they want to be better. But they often come with baggage. They think if they haven’t succeeded in the past, they won’t in the future. There is a fear of failure and that can be a real limiting factor. So for me the biggest thing is developing a relationship where they trust me,” she says.

“To do this, I try to find out who they are and give them things they’re comfortable doing. So if they say, ‘How do you spell that?’, I’ll say ‘I don’t care! Just write it down. Say it slowly and see if you can pick out the letters’.

If I don’t understand what’s been written, I’ll come back and have a conversation. So it’s about building trust and removing judgement around things they think they can’t do”.

Lynley Ball (left, teacher), Ketty Sotana (middle, English Language student), James Ardern (Whittaker's CEO)

Lynley’s attitude towards teaching and her love of “having a bit of a giggle” make her a favourite among staff, and a great fit for the Whittaker’s culture. 

Using the real-world as inspiration

Each 20-week course is customised to the English-level of the people in the room. Over the years we’ve offered beginner through to intermediate-level English programmes.

The curriculum is based around real-world work situations. We check in with managers to see if there are communication tasks they’d like us to focus on; this information is then fed back to Lynley.

Communication tasks may involve:

  • Filling in food quality or Health & Safety forms
  • Understanding staff memos
  • Delegating tasks
  • Speaking up in meetings
  • Asking for more information if a task isn’t clear

Authentic context is important so students can take what they’ve learned in class and put it into practice right away. It’s useful English that they can immediately see the pay-off for, which helps boost confidence.

However, practical language skills are just one piece of the puzzle.

As Lynley describes, “Most people will get to a language level where their basic needs are met, but it’s so limiting. Staff may know the words for machines they operate or the tasks they have to do, but we must go beyond that.

To connect you need to be able to have a conversation, and that’s what we’re really working towards with Whittaker’s English Language Programme.”

Creating pathways for staff

Many English-as-a-Second-Language learners in New Zealand held highly skilled roles back in their home country or hold university qualifications. It’s simply a lack of English and confidence holding them back.

“Doubts are common”, Lynley mentions, “I have an exceptional student, whose commitment to learning is extraordinary. She’s worried about taking the next step because she thinks her English isn’t good enough. I ask, ‘When will it be good enough?’, and she says ‘I don’t know’. She’s putting limits on herself and we need to help her get through that and moving up the ladder.”

As a caring Kiwi company with a diverse workforce, it’s our responsibility to help all staff find a pathway to success.

Is the programme working?

Whittaker’s Human Resources Manager, Shanelle Yates, has championed this programme and is blown away by what it has achieved.

“We’ve had over 33 staff take part in the programme. Some staff have now gained the confidence to move into  leadership positions. They might now be the senior person in their team, responsible for organising overtime for staff or materials for their line,” she says.

“But seeing their change in confidence has been the most rewarding. Staff who have always been worried about wording something incorrectly now stop and say, “Hello, how was your weekend?,” she explains.  “This small change alone has helped in opening up the dialogue between people who normally wouldn’t converse, and helps build relationships right across the business.”

It’s made a difference outside of work too, particularly with tasks and situations we often take for granted, like:

  • Booking tickets
  • Phoning the doctor
  • Using an online banking app
  • Reading a menu
  • Attending teacher-parent meetings
  • Understanding notices from their children’s schools. For example, permission slips.

Phanit, a Whittaker’s Packer, is a huge fan of Lynley and the English Language Programme. She’s completed it three times!

“Lynley makes me enjoy learning and the lessons help me communicate. I have a computer at home, but I didn’t really use it. I just went on YouTube or Facebook. Now I’ve learned more ways to use it, like sending emails or doing courses with Pathways Awarua,” she says.

Success is a journey, not a destination

Our English Language Programme has made a big impact, but it doesn’t mean we can get complacent. We still need to be mindful when producing guides, emails and memos for staff. Are we creating content in a way everyone can understand? If not, how can we do better?

Take the phrase, ‘navigating digital literacy skills’. A more plain English option might be, ‘learning how to use a computer’.

“One level higher than being able to say something in a complicated way is being about to simplify it in a way anyone can understand it” Lynley says. Which is a good piece of advice for all of us!

English language support is just one part of a wider Wellness Programme at Whittaker’s.

Focusing on physical health and social-wellbeing, we look for initiatives that can benefit our staff and their families. From delivering fruit to the workplace, to free eye tests, to gym subsidies, to helping staff new to New Zealand feel more at home – we believe investing in our employees not only creates a healthy workplace but creates happy families, which is important to who we are as a business.