My Journey So Far…

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Welcome to my second ever blog. I wrote my first blog two weeks ago after becoming a Communications Intern for United Welsh and as part of my internship, I have been given the task to promote the United Welsh Academy.

The academy is currently in its second year, offering apprenticeships and internships in a variety of departments.

To share news about the academy and what my fellow interns are up to, I’m going to write about their experiences of their first month in their new roles, but first I thought I’d begin with my story.

I’m Emma Thomas, aged 22 from Neath. I’ve come from an educational background, completing a foundation degree in Art and Design before studying a BA Education Studies degree, with the University of Wales, Trinity Saint David.

With a background in art and academic writing developed through my BA, I thought my skill set would fit well with the communications sector.

Ian Duggan, HR Officer for United Welsh, took the lead in developing and implementing the United Welsh Academy.

He said: “Our main aim through the scheme is to help and support the next generation. As an organisation we think it’s important to do our share.

“The United Welsh Academy is beneficial to all who participate, with employees of United Welsh benefiting from gaining experience as a mentor in addition to the interns gaining invaluable knowledge about the world of work.”

Personally I really recommend doing an internship.

I’ve already done a variety of things I’ve never done before such as writing articles, event organisation, interviewing staff and tenants and social media campaigning for housing sector issues – all in the first month of my internship!

I’m also developing my own personal portfolio so I can keep a track record of my learning, helping me to be ‘interview-ready’ once my internship is over.

Already after a month I am feeling more confident and this is by far one of the best and most valuable opportunities I’ve had.

United Welsh has a really welcoming working environment – it’s comfortable, friendly and free. People actually seem happy to be at work which is something you don’t always imagine when you’re still in university!

This year’s United Welsh internships are running for six months between September and February and the apprenticeship is a year-long programme from September.

The academy was a remarkable success last year, with all the interns moving into a full-time job straight after their internship finished or just before.

For more information about the United Welsh Academy, call the HR team on 0800 294 0195 or email


Health Week A Great Success

“We want to ensure we provide a happy and healthy environment for staff”

Last week at United Welsh, we hosted our own Health Week with a variety of specialists in various fields coming in to provide group and one to one sessions.

Organised by the HR team we all could experience:

  • Mindfulness and resilience with Jacqui Rafferty from the Journey’s project at Gofal
  • Bowen therapy, Reflexology and Indian head massage therapy with Margaret Gallacher from A Gentle Touch Holistic Therapies of Raglan
  • Chiropractor treatment with Rachael Hughes from Precision Chiropractic Clinic, Caerphilly
  • Health checks with nurse Karan Hone to check blood pressure, diabetes, cholesterol and give advice
  • One to one sessions with sports therapist Sian Patterson from Peak Performance Sports Therapy, Caerphilly

Staff were able to check general health, receive information on how to look after their body or just simply relax and unwind.

Emily from the HR team said “We provide health week because it allows staff time for themselves, which is important and it also provides an opportunity to address any health concerns people may have.”

“The turnout for health week has been great, with a good mixture of people getting involved and with every session being booked out.”

“The feedback from staff in recent years has been really good. We want to ensure we provide a happy and healthy environment for staff, promoting a positive work-life balance.”


“I found the therapy really surprising and not what I expected”

One of our staff members let us in on her Indian head massage therapy, in this week’s health week. Olga Fowler in our finance team took part in the session to try something new and also had heard it was a good type of relaxation.

Indian head massage therapy is a technique of manipulating soft tissues in the shoulders and scalp, by using a range of different massage pressures and rhythms.

Olga has never experienced this type of therapy before, “This year I thought I’d give it a go, and try something new.” After her experience Olga would highly recommend the therapy for anyone who needs to relax and de-stress.


Olga experiencing Indian Head Massage Therapy
Olga experiencing Indian Head Massage Therapy


“It’s so convenient, it’s only a quick five minutes in work”

One of the sessions we held for health week was with a nurse who checked blood pressure, diabetes, cholesterol and give lifestyle advice.

Emily, from our HR team visited the nurse, “I like to see the nurse every year during our health week because it’s not something I would usually do in my personal time. It’s worthwhile as seeing the nurse has prompted some to follow up on advice received and visit the doctor.”


Emily checking in with the nurse on health week
Emily checking in with the nurse on health week


 “It’s not about putting a stop to stress; it’s about dealing with it in a different way”

Sessions on mindfulness and resilience was one of the activities on offer within health week this year. Hosted by Jacqui Rafferty, training officer for the Journey’s Project by Gofal, Jacqui said that mindfulness is all about “quietening your mind and to stop and breathe.” Mindfulness has been around for a long time and is being used by the NHS to combat depression, anxiety and stress.

We followed our HR implementation officer, Sam Church and her experience of the session. Sam had previously done some stuff related to mindfulness in the past called Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP), so had some experience and was quite open to the session.

When asked whether she would take anything away from the session, Sam said “I would definitely take away the negative thoughts exercise and also try to apply and use the eight ways to wellbeing in my day to day life.” Mindfulness is a huge subject with a range of benefits to many people, such as school children and in pain management.


A group activity in the mindfulness session
A group activity in the mindfulness session


“I loved it, better than I thought”

The sports therapist provided one to one session and proved to be another hit. Dionne, from the communications team was one of the people who signed up.  She said, “I’ve always wanted to try sports therapy, and when better to experience it than in health week?”

The sports therapist provides an assessment and a remedial massage to restore movement and normal body function. For Dionne who has pain in the shoulders and the top of the back, “it seemed like the perfect opportunity to see if something would help.”

After her session, Dionne highly recommends seeing a sports therapist. “It is so beneficial for anyone with an injury or is feeling sore like myself; I will definitely be booking an appointment to see her again.”

Dionne enjoying a one to one session with the sports therapist
Dionne enjoying a one to one session with the sports therapist

“Offering a lifeline”

Last year, the Supporting People programme supported almost 60,000 people to live as independently as possible in Wales.

As well as providing a lifeline for vulnerable people experiencing a range of issues, from those at risk of homelessness to substance misuse, domestic violence or mental health needs, SP services also help to reduce demand on other statutory services such as health and social care.

One of our schemes Ty Annog, which recently opened in Blaenau Gwent, was made possible due to funding from the scheme.

Ty Annog provides vital accommodation to young people aged between 16 and 24 years old who are at risk of homelessness.

Owned by United Welsh, managed by the Pobl group and delivered in partnership with Blaenau Gwent Council, support is provided 24 hours a day, seven days a week to residents.

Claire Phillips, Partnership Management & Compliance Officer for United Welsh said: “Ty Annog is providing more than a home to vulnerable young people in Blaenau Gwent. It is also offering a lifeline for them to learn and develop new life skills to improve their employment prospects; rebuilding their confidence so they’re ready to live independently in the near future”.

Ty Annog is made up of five self-contained apartments which Celtic Horizons, United Welsh’s wholly owned subsidiary refurbished and reconfigured before the new tenants moved in.

Sophie Thornburrow, a resident from Ty Annog said: “It’s a lovely place to live.”

Throughout September, organisations across Wales are shining a light on the life-changing impact of Supporting People services to show just why we need to protect this funding. Let’s Keep on Supporting People.



Future Workplace – already here?

As an organisation we currently have three large interlinking pieces of work – Customer Journey Mapping, Digital Transformation and Future Workplace.

Like many in the sector we are trying to make sure our businesses are not only up to date but looking at and preparing for what is coming next. We need a user-friendly service in whatever method is preferred; not only for tenants but for staff, stakeholders and the wider community too.


Future Workplace

For the Future Workplace project we wanted volunteers who really wanted to find new ideas or innovations we could use to shape the United Welsh of the future.

Rather than having a project group who were nominated by force, we were lucky to have 25 volunteers that covered every department and gave a broad spectrum of roles, experience and opinions.

The first meeting started with tea, coffee, biscuits and sitting around in a circle in a very un-futuristic village hall on the outskirts of Caerphilly. Our Director of Corporate Services Gareth, who is leading the work, split us into groups consisting of four – five people.

The groups were each given a different list of 10 companies to research and the choice to pick one to visit, with each list based on the Great Place to Work survey ‘Top Tens’ for different categories. We didn’t want to only look at housing and we didn’t want to just look at companies in Wales…. Luckily the group I was in had the top ten companies worldwide –with the remit to visit anywhere in Europe!


Culture, Environment and Technology

We wanted to dig deeper than putting a slide in the office and having a beer fridge in the kitchen. The focus was not only on the environment but also the technology to support it and (most importantly) the culture. I must admit that as soon as I saw the list, Google was top of the places to visit. As we researched the other companies on the list, Google still stood out as the ‘must see’ and we looked at potentially visiting the office in Dublin. Unfortunately, arranging a visit to Google isn’t as easy as googling something so we decided to go back to the drawing board. After a bit of research we came across a Finnish company called Futurice, who previously won the Great Place to Work in the Best Workplace in Europe category.



Futurice are a digital software company founded in 2000. Their head office is in Helsinki and they have 400 staff across eight main offices throughout Europe. There were several things that immediately drew us to visiting Futurice:


  • Transparency and Trust: They have contact details for every member of their staff openly available on their website
  • Culture: They have a section purely on culture on their website
  • Blogs: We got lost for hours reading through all the blogs and getting inspired

Our visit

We visited the Futurice office in Helsinki on Tuesday 14th March and met with Hanno, their Director of Culture (what a great job title!)

Our three hours there included learning some background on the company; a chance to ask our massive list of questions and a tour of the offices. Even though there is a lot of information on the website, we learnt so much more from visiting and chatting to Hanno. As part of the visit we had to feedback our top two ideas for each of the categories – Culture, Environment and Technology.  As hard as it was to narrow this down, here are our favourite ideas that we thought could be implemented at United Welsh.


Transparency and trust






Every employee is given a credit card when they start working for Futurice. There have occasionally been bad decisions but never a breach of trust. Trust is given, not earned. Everyone has the trust to make decisions. The above picture illustrates the 3 x 2 decision making process.

“When moving towards a decision, a new project or an outsourcing task, there are three (3) times two (2) aspects to consider about its immediate and future impact: how does the decision affect your colleagues, the customer and the numbers, now and in the future.”

We really liked this way of thinking and it really allows anyone across the organisation to make decisions, not just the top. In fact, they have an upside down leadership model. People out in the field really help shape the business.


They focus on the right people for the organisation, not just technical skills, and their first interview is purely culture-based.


A variety of spaces

 Quiet, loud, creative and functional as well as funky. (yes, they do really have a sauna!)












For us, this really felt like the heart of the office. Staff can send a message round on an internal app to let people know they have cooked something and want to share it. I don’t think we will be implementing a beer fridge but for a city centre design company that hosts events, it made sense for them.



Provide people with the technology they need

There’s no one solution for this – Futurice simply give people the tools they need to do their job. Visibility and accessibility are the over-riding factors and complement, rather than drive, cultural needs. This includes:

o easy reference meeting room diaries using android tablets outside the rooms
o a phone booth for quiet or private telephone conversations
o a travel point with easy access to taxis and travel information
o the concept that low-tech is as important as high – good old paper and pens all around

Charging points

The tables had all the cables you could possibly need in the middle. Simple, yet how many times have we run around the office trying to find the right charger this month?










From visiting Futurice and hearing the feedback from visits to other organisations it is clear that the future workplace isn’t in the future and changes need to be made now. Technology and Environment are a small part of the bigger picture and culture change is vital to grow and build a sustainable business. One of the best learnings from the trip is that new experiences bring people together.










If you are interested in finding out more and having a chat about our visit and the Future Workplace project then please contact me on 02920 855675 or email

To read more about Futurice go to

Some more pics of our visit below:

reward station – give your colleagues a reward for awesome work
tablets outside all meeting rooms that link to calendars
A ‘mood board’ to measure weekly happiness. It’s not compulsory; people only do it if they see the value in it. It’s a nice visual way to promote everyone talking about wellbeing.
good old fashioned paper
pool table – captures 1 minute so you can show everyone your good shots
silent areas also available
culture is key
Virtual reception including easy way to call a taxi and get local transport info
Silent booth for private conversations

Opening doors

Since becoming a Connect Volunteer in May last year, 57-year-old Debbie Smith from Caerphilly has benefited from digital skills training.

Her new online skills even helped her husband, an experienced fabricator, to get a new job after Debbie helped him to update his CV and search for jobs online.

Debbie said: “I got involved with Connect because we nursed my mum with Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s and I wanted to carry on helping elderly people.

“I found out about the project through the tenants magazine Linkup. After getting in touch with Dominy at United Welsh I was introduced to Thelma and we hit it off straight away.”

The Connect project helps people to reconnect with what they enjoy, supporting them to build friendships and access activities in their community to reduce feelings of loneliness and isolation.

Now Debbie visits Thelma every week for a cuppa and a chat at Plas Hyfryd, United Welsh’s extra care scheme in Caerphilly, while Thelma’s husband goes to the men’s social group at the scheme.

Debbie continued: “When I started volunteering Dominy asked me if there were any courses that would help me. My seven-year-old daughter uses a tablet and I realised I could do with some digital training to improve my online skills. In future I would like to take up counselling so being able to do more online will definitely help.”

United Welsh’s Digital Inclusion Officer Louise taught Debbie email skills as well as giving details of local courses where she could learn more and get qualifications.

Debbie’s new digital skills paid dividends straight away. After working with Louise, Debbie helped her husband Peter to update his CV and apply for jobs online. Peter was offered an interview the next day and was successful!

United Welsh offers a range of free digital training to support volunteers. For more information contact Louise Taggart on 0800 294 0195 or email


Connect logo



Enjoying life again

57-year-old Allison Browne, a United Welsh tenant from Hengoed, was referred to the Connect project by our Money Advice team.

Connect is a volunteering project that helps people to reconnect with what they enjoy, supporting them to build friendships and access activities in their community to reduce feelings of loneliness and isolation.

Through the project, Allison started working with Leanne, a Connect Volunteer from Pontllanfraith.

Allison had suffered a relationship breakdown and severe health issues, causing her confidence to hit rock bottom. This made her feel nervous about going out alone or trying new things.

Leanne accompanied Allison to the local library to overcome her fear of quiet spaces and took time to find out the type of things Allison would like to try. They also both have a love of singing, so decided to join United Welsh’s Together choir.

Since becoming involved with Connect, Allison’s confidence has soared.

She said:

“I feel like my life has changed dramatically and I know that if it wasn’t for the Connect project I wouldn’t be feeling like I am. I have changed so much in such a short space of time and am starting to really enjoy life.

“There are so many key moments that have happened over the past couple of months that may seem small to everyone else but they are huge to me.

“I have driven on my own after 6pm, I have baked, but more importantly I am meeting some lovely people and finally doing things for me.

“My children and even my neighbour have commented on how much I’ve changed for the better.”

“Leanne is so kind and such a fantastic person. Thank you so much for helping me gain control of my life again.”

We are looking for new Connect Volunteers to support people in Caerphilly. If you are interested or would like to know more, please contact Senior Community Links Worker Dominy Palmer-Day on 0800 294 0195 or email


Connect logo

Bryn Aber community clean up

On Tuesday 6th December, we braved the cold for a community clean up at Bryn Aber in Caerphilly.

Bryn Aber tenant Diane Pring said: “It was great to see people across the community helping. Michael Kerr, Luke Fabian, Dean, Sammy and Natalie all pitched in and we’d like more people to get involved in future.”

Thank you to Caerphilly County Borough CouncilDS SmithThe Furniture Revival and our tenants for your support.


Bryn Aber clean up
Bryn Aber clean up

Francesca’s story

To mark Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday, we have been speaking to our tenants and staff about their family members on how war or serving in the armed forces has affected them.

Angela [left] and Francesca
Angela [left] and Francesca

Angela Zenati’s daughter, Francesca, joined the army as a Royal Army Medical Corps. Francesca spent 12 years in the army, finishing November 4th 2016 ranked as a sergeant. During her service she completed tours in both Iraq and Afghanistan, four of those years being served in Munster, Germany.

During these tours, Francesca experienced extremely tough and emotional times. During her tour in Iraq she lost her close friend Ella, and in Afghanistan her close friend Channing. She had gone through her basic training with these friends and they all served in Germany together.

During an incident in Afghanistan, Francesca herself was involved in an explosion. It happened whilst Francesca and her colleagues were travelling in a truck. Some were instantly killed and others were fighting for their lives. Putting aside the fact she was severely injured herself, Francesca immediately assisted in saving the lives of her fellow servicemen, administering morphine and using their uniforms to create slings and reduce the pressure on wounds until assistance arrived. Francesca was fortunate enough to make a full recovery.

Angela said: “The day she was injured I remember word for word what the Welfare Officer said to me and exactly what time it was. It was the worst feeling in the world because she was so far away and there was nothing I could do but rely on updates from the Army. Then there was the task of informing family and friends. It’s hard to describe what it felt like; it’s a feeling of dread, fear and panic. When she was able to phone from the hospital, the most I could do was let her know how much we loved her and as a mum reassure her that it will be ok.”

In recognition of her lifesaving work, Francesca was awarded and recognised in despatches, as well as personally thanked by many families of those she had helped that day.

Francesca and her family were invited to Windsor Castle last year for a garden tea party with the royal family, one of many occasions and parades that she has participated in during her career.

Recently married to a former Army Officer, Francesca left the army earlier this month and is looking forward to a new chapter in her life. She has loved her time in the army and holds the friends she made during her career in her thoughts every day.

Beryl’s war memories

To mark Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday, we have been speaking to our tenants and staff about their family members on how war or serving in the armed forces has affected them.

Ms Beryl London
Ms Beryl London

Beryl was born in London in 1936 but at the start of the Second World War when she was only 3 years old she left the city with her family to live in the countryside. Her dad left them behind and went into the army to serve for his country.

Beryl enjoyed country life, discovering an interest in horses and for most of early childhood was sheltered by her mother from the terror that was going on around her. Beryl describes her mother as a worrier, always anxious of what was going on. She remembers her always listening to the radio, hung up on what was being said.

Beryl visited London during the war when she was six years old. She recalls walking through Upton Park with her mother and seeing flames bursting from the end of the road, where a bomb had been let off. At the time Beryl was oblivious to the fact that these bombs had killed many people. Her mother refused to tell her what was really happening, always trying to hide her from the reality.

One night, at the age of nine, her uncle went to fetch her, wrapped her in a blanket and brought her downstairs. He sat her on a man’s knee who Beryl did not know. This man was her father. Beryl had no memory of him and found it difficult to accept.

Beryl believes that her life would have been a lot better if her father had been in her life during her early childhood years; her mother would have spent less time worrying and she would have developed a better relationship with her father.

Sybill’s war memories

Sybill [left] working in the factory, 1940s
Sybill [left] working in the factory, 1940s
To mark Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday, we have been speaking to our tenants and staff about their family members on how war or serving in the armed forces has affected them.

Mrs Sybill Lovell is 93 years old and grew up in South Wales with her mother, father and five brothers and sisters.

The Second World War broke out when Sybill was 17 years old. Life was tough for her big family but they managed. She grew up in a very small village with only a few streets and everybody helped each other out. The farmer up the road would let everybody have a row of potatoes. People would swap the goods that they have such as sugar and soap to help each other out.

At school she remembered when the Americans would pass on their way up to Brecon. They’d throw sweets and chocolates off their trucks as gifts for the children.

Sybill didn’t want to join the army like her older sister had done and at the age of 18 she went to work for the RAF in Rhiwbina as a factory worker, making machine guns and anti-aircrafts that were used in the Second World War. Her oldest brother was a prisoner of war for four years. He worked in the merchant navy, but luckily for him he could speak German. This benefited him as he could converse with them.

Joining her big family were two evacuees from Liverpool. One morning they went to the train station where all the evacuees were gathered and they selected these two boys. One of them was extremely difficult to live with and was so demanding that her mother couldn’t cope, adding strain to their lives growing up.

Sybill went on to get married and have two daughters, three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.