Danone Italy shows business benefits from the life skills developed by parents and other caregivers
Danone Italy is the Italian branch of €25.3bn global food company Danone, which employs more than 105,000 people worldwide. The company is known for its brands in dairy, plant-based products and specialised nutrition including Evian, Actimel and Alpro.
At Danone, the average age of employees is 43, and 64% of the population are caregivers, mostly to elderly relatives or children. With this demographic of employees, Danone has been searching for ways to manage the demands of caregiving while working full time. In 2011, it announced company commitments to developing individual fulfilment through greater ability to make the right choices between working and family life.
We are convinced that external experiences strengthen professionalism. There shouldn’t be a wall between who you are at home and who you are in the office, but rather a strong link between the different situations. By recognising and valuing them, we can bring the company better professionals that are enriched with skills.
The issue is a common stigma among businesses. The Caring Company report by Harvard Business School reveals that more than 50% of caregivers hide this role from their employer, seeing it as a stigma that brings negative consequences both on a personal and professional level. Meanwhile, there is a significant scientific research that life transitions, including those not closely linked to work, can become key training grounds for soft skills – that will actually make employees more valuable.
Sonia Malaspina, HR director, South Europe Danone, Specialized Nutrition, says: “We wanted to embrace all aspects of life that link directly to the everyday work we do for our clients. Caregiving is something that isn’t often talked about: there’s a lot of taboo surrounding death, ageing and illness. We want to be true pioneers on these topics. Our aim is to trust people so that they feel free to talk about and share their life experiences”.
What Danone Italy did
In 2017 Danone Italy introduced a programme for new parents to its Italian employees. It chose a programme from Lifeed, an EdTech company that offers digital soft skills-based training programmes that harness soft skills gained through life transitions such as parenthood into business capabilities. Lifeed was established by Riccarda Zezza following her second maternity leave and is based around a learning method she created called Life Based Learning.
The New Parents programme offered a greater awareness of the accumulation of roles and skills trained by parenthood, by seeing them as resources. Thanks to the exercises and real life missions, parents were able to build, manage and translate these transferable skills into family and working contexts. The programme took place on a dedicated web app, over a period of six months, with an advised 20 minutes per week. In particular, it focused on relational skills, organisational skills and innovation skills – the type of skills in demand from employers today and which are predicted to increase in importance for employees to develop as machines take over more job tasks.
After seeing the improvements that resulted from the New Parents Programme (see below), Danone Italy decided to go a step further and make another Lifeed programme available to employees – the Caregivers programme, specifically for those who look after elderly parents or disabled and dependent relatives.
The programme offers people a space to reflect and become aware of the growth path that they are on. They can draw strength from the community of caregivers, where they talk about the most challenging key themes and share practical advice each day. According to Lifeed, knowing about their own vulnerability and having it recognised is a relief that lowers their stress levels. Meanwhile, employers receive information about their workforce’s lifecycle and available resources as well as having opportunities to track participants’ professional development through their caring life experiences.
It's early days in the Caregivers programme so Danone has not had long enough to measure the results of this specific initiative. However, its New Parents programme has yielded significant quantitative and qualitative results. Malaspina explains: “Thanks to the programme for new parents, we have seen interesting and measurable growth. We’ve seen a number of improved skills, including prioritisation (+35%), decision making (+15%), delegation (+35%) and managing complex situations (+10%) as well as empathy (+35%) and mental agility (+20%).
“We have demonstrated that parenthood doesn’t penalise the company, but instead gives professionals improved skills that unleash creative abilities, organisational skills and lots of other skills that we have been able to recognise and measure with the Life Based Learning method.
“We are convinced that external experiences strengthen professionalism. There shouldn’t be a wall between who you are at home and who you are in the office, but rather a strong link between the different situations. By recognising and valuing them, we can bring the company better professionals that are enriched with skills.”
She adds: “After applying the parenthood policy for eight years, we’ve seen that 100% of new mothers return to work, and 40% of all promotions have been given to mothers who have previously taken maternity leave.”
This is especially interesting given the context that in Italy 73% of women resigning from their jobs are also mothers.
Having been strengthened by these numbers and experiences, discovering how this caring life transition has the ability to improve managerial skills, it has now introduced Caregivers and is confident it will see similar results.
Malaspina comments: “We believe that looking after a family member, whether that’s a child or elderly parent, can boost or build soft skills that are essential for working in an effective and productive way. We’ve seen and demonstrated it through parenthood, now we want to bust another taboo.
“We expect that looking after an elderly, disabled or dependent relative enhances empathy. But also, the ability to listen, quickly understand signals (even weak ones) and make intuitive decisions. We are sure that the Caregivers programme will increase learning agility and quicken reactions: negative and vulnerable moments will strengthen resilience and resistance. These are fundamental skills for companies that are going through this historic phase where we need to be agile to survive and evolve business itself.
“It’s in our company’s DNA to create policies and practices that speak to everyone. The company focuses on caregiving and there’s a feeling of reciprocal support between colleagues. Now we want these experiences to be valued, showing that difficult situations can be an opportunity to share and grow from both personal and professional perspectives.”