The Echo’s Level Up campaign supports investment and jobs for our region. As well as constant coverage of successes and challenges, we have just held our third live event, with a panel discussing the importance of Health & Wellbeing. This is what happened when some of the North East’s most influential businesses got together at Hall Garth Hotel in Darlington


Our panel for the event, led by BUSINESSiQ Editor Mike Hughes, was:

Katherine Hogg, Senior HR Advisor at Womble Bond Dickinson; Karen Parr - HR Director at Cummins; Stuart Holliday, Head of Sales at YouFibre; Alan Smith, Executive Director of Investment, Growth and Performance at believe housing; Chris Beck, Group Director of Clean Growth and Innovation at Tees Valley Combined Authority; Nolan Gray, director of the Teesside Freeport and Gavin Foster, Group Editor for Newsquest in the North East.

Read more: All of our Level Up stories are here


“We’re currently in two different buildings, so our move into one building is incredibly important for us because we’ve been working at home, and then we’ve been back into the office, but you still don’t necessarily see people. So having us all in one big hub will be perfect for that.

“One of the big factors is mental health and connections with your work colleagues. Teams is not any substitution for that physical and human interaction.

The Northern Echo: Katherine HoggKatherine Hogg

“One of the things that we’ve done with the new building is that we have gone for the Fitwel standard which looks at design, and the health and wellbeing of people in the building. That covers how much natural light they’ve got, how close they are to open spaces outside, desk layouts, showers on site – that sort of thing.

“We’re trying to make sure that in the office, we are providing everything we possibly can to attract people back in, because we definitely think that is the way forward.”



“Cummins has done a huge amount and continues to do so. We’ve been through a horribly difficult period with the pandemic, but we’ve put things in place to support remote working. So we have a new way of working that we’ve rolled out, which is focusing on flexibility, and tailored to the individual and the team. So we’re not being prescriptive about having to be in the office ‘X’ number of days, we’re trying to be as flexible as we possibly can.

“We also have an ‘it’s okay’ campaign with monthly resources that we roll out. It’s a global initiative, but we try and bring it to the heart of the people at each site. So it’s about how to be happy, how to manage parenting, COVID and bereavement. We tailor that mechanism and how we reach people to make it meaningful.

The Northern Echo: Karen ParrKaren Parr

“We also pioneered this campaign about ‘moving’ so it was all about moving wherever you’re based in Europe, just do 30 minutes of something that you enjoy every day. Across Europe, with all of our employees, we collectively moved 70,000 kilometres and 80% of our respondents said it really made a difference and became a route to helping people feel better.

“We’ve got lots of stories from senior leaders, saying I’ve been through something tough, and showing vulnerability and being authentic. There’s a caring message that is at the core of everything we do about being real, and saying we struggled to help people break down those barriers and talk about difficult things.”



“I’ve got a very large national sales force, lots of managers, and lots of field sales and telesales agents – but everyone’s apart. So it is very important for me that my area sales managers once a month, have a breakfast meeting with their teams where they will pay for breakfast and have a chinwag about how the month has gone.

“Then once a quarter, I have a big meeting for everyone where we pull them down to the head office, and I take them off for a nice meal in the evening.

“Sales people are very up and down with emotions. It comes with the territory. So you need a big shoulder to cry on if you’re in a leadership position within sales, because one day they could be on top of the world and the next day at the bottom on the ground.

The Northern Echo: Stu HollidayStu Holliday

“Also, every single member of staff that starts with us gets shares given to them, so they are an investor in the business. So you may ask them to work an extra ten hours a week, but when they feel like it’s part of their business, they’ll go the extra mile.

“One of my own rules is that a manager should only have eight to 12 people to look after and once it gets to that level, you get another manager in, because then they can actually concentrate on the people they have got.

“The people in the North East are the most resilient - we can actually cope better than anywhere else in the country, but I think we’re coming back to working and we’re all frazzled. I think everybody’s tired and worn down – and then we hit the brick wall of a different challenge.”



“We’ve been experimenting with hybrid work and agile work and have done some pilot projects around that.

“The design of our new buildings was very much hooked around that collaborative working environment and generally we’ve used those experiences to learn wherever we can.

“What we’ve tried to do is encourage people to come together collaboratively, and produce a little bit of balance, recognising stress and how to deal with it. We also have this phrase of ‘log off and bog off’ - go and do something different, just take a break, have a walk, speak to somebody.

The Northern Echo: Alan SmithAlan Smith

“We were able to help people with debt advice, budgeting advice, signpost them to other organisations that can give them that wider support, fuel poverty advice, fuel vouchers.

“Very sort of reactionary in a way but there’s always something that is there for us to do in in communities - that’s part of our role, it is more than just a home, it’s a basic human right.”


“Like everybody else, we had to adapt immensely when Covid hit. We were starting to look at hot-desking because we had grown so much we were running out of space. And  then literally overnight, we became a call centre. We went from business grants to business grants at speed and impact at speed, to getting things out quickly.
“We really did notice that mental health is a big issue like everybody else, so we have wellbeing services and we really promote that. One thing that we have coming is a new office at the airport, and it will have a lot of natural light and we’re using the new surroundings try to stimulate the staff back.

The Northern Echo: Chris BeckChris Beck

"We have done a lot with our staff, and have taken a lot of care because they took a lot of stress they weren’t used to, they became a lot more sales and public engagement, which they didn’t used to have to do.
“Investments like Amazon are also so important as families come back and families need jobs. It’s not just engineering, and that’s why investment by the Treasury is so fundamentally different. These are big, important jobs and at last we’ve got an ambition for our residents and that is so important as we go forward. So we have to make sure our skills are lined up - and we do a lot of work on that.”

“I think having choice is really important. By creating jobs, we want to create opportunity. I’ve got three lovely children who might still decide to travel the world, but at least they will have the choice when they leave school. That’s what it’s about.
“And if you look at any of the management theories, you look at base needs around pay and around security. For a long time, we’ve not been able to offer that. So if you can’t offer at a base level, how are you ever going to get to the top of the pyramid – how are you ever going to feel good about yourself?

The Northern Echo: Nolan GrayNolan Gray

"If you’re always worried about if you’re going to have a job next week -  is your factory still going to be there? So what we’re trying to do is get that groundswell of opportunity.
“At the Freeport, there are miles and miles of opportunities, and I think that’s a great way of describing this region -  there is potential in every corner, we just have to make sure that we help to move it forward and keep people motivated. And the only way we can do that is working together.
“While we want to pull as many people from the region into those jobs, equally, we’re also bringing new people into the region as well and sustaining something that in the last two years has been incredibly hard-hit as well. So it needs that sustainability.”

“Like all companies we’ve got all these things in place - numbers they can contact for health and wellbeing and ambassadors within the company, everything is there, but I think you really have to drill down to be a little bit more granular with it and how we manage people really effectively, right from that basic thing to the ‘hello, how are you doing’ on a morning.
“That’s how I’ve always approached management because sometimes we can put too many barriers in place with company focusses and company talk. 

The Northern Echo: Gavin FosterGavin Foster

“We all use a lot of buzzwords now when we talk to people and even when you’re doing one-to-ones and appraisals. For me, it’s just about getting to know people from the off, walking through the door andspeaking to people. I’ve been in places where people haven’t been spoken to for months and certainly as we’ve been working through the pandemic people can become really isolated.
“I’ve been in offices where the cleaners work around people’s desk and nobody speaks to them. And that person is still a part of the company, still part of your workforce.  It’s about making everybody in that organisation feel that they’re part of something and you do that in a real granular level, by making them feel that they’ve got a contribution to make.
“It might be a simple pat on the back, an email, or even a chat when people are making coffee in the morning. Mental health and wellbeing is probably the single most important issue we need to address as businesses.
“The sad thing is mental health services are currently absolutely atrocious - access to them is a national disgrace. And if we can shine a light on that then there is even greater pressure on companies to make sure that they are doing absolutely the right thing.
“But ultimately, it comes down to us as individuals and how we treat people - with respect and dignity, the basic things that I suppose we’re naturally better at in the North East.”

The Northern Echo: Join the Level Up campaignJoin the Level Up campaign

As this fascinating and inspiring debate continued, one insight seemed to particularly move our audience, as Stu Holliday talked about the dreadful toll stress can have.
He told us: “You’re probably not ready for this type of honesty, but if you’re looking for someone who’s struggled massively in the past with mental health abuses….this guy here.
“I’ve been through some horrific times in my life, as lowly as a snake’s belly. But I’ve also been as high as the tops of mountains.
“I’ve been one of these people, that even if I’m at my lowest, I can drag myself through it. I’m not very good at asking for help, which has always been one of my downfalls.
“As managers, it can sometimes be the staff we lose – and the pressure that brings to them - that we don’t really think about. At one of my previous companies, where I was based for a lot of years, six of my former colleagues have committed suicide since the shutdown.
“So for me it’s also about the aftercare of the staff when the place shuts. So when I lose staff now I put a monthly call into them just to see if they’re all right, because I don’t want to be responsible for that.
“A very close friend of mine last year, committed suicide. It’s something I’ve had to deal with quite a lot in my life. But yes …. two girls and four boys.
“These people lost direction in their life. They had been there for years and were ingrained in the culture, then got a lovely pay-off at the end of it. That was it. They got forgotten.

“It’s great to look after the people who work for you.
“But the people who don’t work for you anymore, they’re still people and might have had problems and that’s why they don’t work for you any longer.”

Mike Hughes finished the discussion by saying:
“It’s really easy to not feel that you need to extend yourself very much, you’ve just got your little bit and you can look after yourself. I think what we’ve shown here is that if you have really highly skilled people working for you at that management level, looking after the clients and looking after the staff, it can make an enormous difference.
“It’s easy to ignore that, but if you put yourself out there and you get the right people - and this event has been the perfect representation of the sort of people that we’ve got leading the business and having those voices out there - it can make a difference. And that’s what we’re all here for.


To join Level Up, drop a line to or