Darren Evans (Air New Zealand)

Nominee/entrant details

Darren Evans, General Manager People Safety and Aviation Medicine

Employer details

Air New Zealand

Size: 5,000-9,999 staff

Industry: Transport, Postal and Warehousing

Background on entrant/nominee's employer

Air New Zealand operates a global passenger, domestic ground handling and cargo service to more than 17 million passengers annually. Employees are spread across 20 domestic Airports, cargo facilities, call centres, sales hubs, engineering and maintenance workshops, and internationally across the Pacific Rim. We have a diverse workforce which closely reflects the general population of New Zealand, with more than 132 known ethnicities. The airline is publicly listed under governance from an Executive and Senior Leadership team with over 500 years of experience.

Executive summary

The impact of COVID on the airline was devastating, causing a significant, rapid reduction of our workforce, operations, and flight schedules globally, with almost 4000 employees losing their job. Darren’s passion for people was always evident, but when the Covid-19 pandemic hit his genuine care for people enabled the Airline to pivot quickly and scale up our mental wellbeing support globally. Strong relationships enabled quick stakeholder collaboration to ensure crucial support was available, regardless of an employee’s situation. Darren’s influence and mana was reflected in the trust and support of the Executive, ensuring our people’s wellbeing remained a key priority.

Authenticity and vulnerability

As GM of People Safety and Medical, Darren has oversight of safety, wellbeing and health across the organisation, including the health of travelling aircrew, COVID testing and isolation requirements. This huge responsibility saw an enormous demand on his time to attend critical meetings for decisions and information that would inform day-to-day business operations. Constant updates to Government health regulations and 24/7 operations saw his own and team’s workload double. The weight of the responsibility was clearly visible, but Darren was unrelenting in his persistence. His concern for his team under him working long and hard hours was his priority, at his own personal expense. Darren spoke openly about this load and it’s effects, showing true vulnerability. As an example of genuine wellbeing leadership, he took some time off when possible to recover and reconnect with his family, and then insisted every one of his team do the same. Despite the relentless demand from the business and the need for attendance at crucial meetings, Darren made the decision to put the team’s wellbeing first. As a senior leadership team member Darren often proactively checks in on the leadership team and the Executive when he notices that their wellbeing may be at risk. His proactivity is always much appreciated and has helped encourage vulnerability and reduce the impact of stigma around mental health at a senior leadership level. With Darren’s extended family located outside of NZ, Darren was able to empathise with other employee’s concerns about family overseas, and his communications out to the business showed real heart and authenticity for employees to relate to. He is never shy to step forward and take the opportunity to speak in front of any audience to share his concern for other’s wellbeing and insist that family and wellbeing is the priority.

Courage and leadership

Air New Zealand’s financial situation reached crisis point during Covid-19 with tough decisions made to pause all non-operationally critical programmes. Darren’s influence and mana was reflected in the trust and support he gained from the Executive, ensuring mental wellbeing remained a key priority. Darren was unrelenting to secure non-negotiable funding from the Executive for programmes that supported mental wellbeing, including EAP and the establishment of the Peer Support Network, and the Thrive app. His influence saw the quick reallocation of resources to develop crucial support tools such as the Wellbeing Check-in tool, which connected with all 12,500 employees and initiated 443 wellbeing check-in calls to vulnerable employees, supporting them during the heart of the pandemic. This tool is still utilised today. Over the last two years, Darren has backed the Wellbeing team to travel overseas to become QPR Suicide Prevention trainers to raise awareness and provide training and support to Air New Zealanders. His courage to front-foot this conversation as a leader has further enabled the normalising of speaking up about mental health crisis and has assisted leaders and employees to negotiate their way through workplace mental health needs. As a result of this, the business was better prepared to cope with employees in crisis during the pandemic. When we moved into the ‘revive’ phase of the COVID recovery, Darren backed the team to address the emerging burnout phenomenon, and encouraged crucial work focusing on psychosocial risk factors with the potential to cause employee distress. These confronting topics could easily have been ignored but addressing them early has helped with mitigation and organisational change. Darren’s concern for his team’s wellbeing is the priority during 1:1 conversations. His leadership in this space has provided important guidelines in our leadership training across the organisation, helping to foster a culture of manaaki.

Engagement and communication

Darren’s position in the Airline Leadership Team gave him a voice to the Executive concerning emerging issues and foresight into emerging risks regarding people’s health, safety and wellbeing. Darren’s constant presence in the operation and checking in with our wider People Safety team enabled him to be the vital conduit between the Executive and the operations to adapt the plan, priorities and resources as and when needed. Despite the demands on his time to attend business critical meetings with all stakeholders including Unions, employee groups, Regulators and the Executive, Darren continued to prioritise his time in the operation to ensure that the information escalating was always a clear picture of the situation. As well as face-to-face, he communicated directly with the business regularly through livestreams, video messages and emails, always providing expertise and unconditional support in the mental health and wellbeing space. Darren’s leadership in steering the SHEPSC committee (Safety, Health Engagement and Participation Steering Committee) made up of People Safety Leaders, Union leaders and senior business leaders, was invaluable in bridging the communication gap between all stakeholders with an interest in employee Health, Safety and Wellbeing. This committee was established in 2017 and during COVID met regularly to discuss options around difficult issues (e.g. testing and isolation protocols), maintain relationships, convey information and collaboratively problem solve for better outcomes for our people. Air New Zealand holds this committee in high regard as an example of high-performance engagement within the organisation. Darren’s support of the Health and Safety Rep (HSR) programme has also empowered employees to step up, have a voice and improve capability to support mental wellbeing across their teams. Darren continues to elevate the HSR voice into the leadership space and across government (Worksafe) and is industry leading.


Darren’s leadership and influence in the mental wellbeing space has provided a solid foundation to guide the development of our mental health strategy, and enabled uninterrupted delivery of essential services to the business during the last 18 months of ‘crisis’. His passion for people ensures all decisions, programmes and targeted strategy has been for the purpose of supporting and enabling the mental wellbeing of our people, and their whanau. Strong relationship building, engagement with our operations and stakeholders, and evidence-based and data driven conversations with our Executive has enabled the crucial funding, sponsorship and prioritisation of programmes supporting mental wellbeing within Air New Zealand, and his work in ensuring that mental ill-health was included as one of our top-10 critical risks has allowed mental health to be seen as a priority across the business. Darren’s drive for data has enhanced our programme to ensure we are collecting the right metrics about the wellbeing of our organisation to be able to make evidence-based decisions as we move forward, whilst his risk management approach has guided the focus on organisational factors influencing mental wellbeing. This has helped create sustainable, effective change that will support our people as we move through the revive phase of our airline recovery. By leading the way with 1:1 conversations that start with care rather than performance, other leaders have been inspired to improve their mental wellbeing literacy and capability to look after their teams in an equally meaningful way. Darren has created a solid foundation of belonging, care and support within his own team, which is reflected in the effective support and care they provide to the business. Darren’s philosophy of supercharging others has also been paramount in other organisations who have benefitted from our learnings and expertise, through his willingness to share our journey and ideas.


Darren is a champion of organisational equality, diversity and inclusivity. He has a deep interest in understanding other cultures, and over recent years has taken on a personal challenge to learn Te Reo as part of his personal development. Darren’s birthplace of Wales and previous work in Asia and the Middle East has helped develop his cultural awareness, and diverse background allows his to genuinely engage with our diverse employee communities with ease when doing safety walk-arounds, and have a deeper insight into what is truly important to each of their wellbeing, as well as being able to identify with those who are immigrants to New Zealand. His ability to weave Te Reo into a conversation has meant that he has been able to live the company values and emanate the koru and Mangopare symbol of our airline, which represent strong social relationships, courage, and leadership enveloping care. He is also a very public voice championing diversity and in particular our disability network (Enable) where he is a sponsor of the Enable Network. Darren’s willingness to front livestreams and forums (both internally and externally), attend training for Peer Support, Suicide Prevention and various network meetings means that he connects with employees who are out in the business supporting the mental health of others. His expression of gratitude and welcoming them into our wider wellbeing whanau inspires them to support others in the best way possible, and helps cultivate an environment where everyone can be themselves and thrive. Our People Safety team is a close-knit team due to Darren’s leadership, vulnerability, and genuine care. His priority on connection, fun and getting to know each of us personally means that he is approachable, relatable, and considered an extended family member who we can reach out to.

Innovation and creativity

Darren has previously established a Strategic Wellbeing team, dedicated to supporting the mental and physical health of our people. His industry experience in high-demand manufacturing and construction projects meant his leadership and support to pivot this team quickly to deploy resources during Covid-19 helped ensure employees received timely communication and critical business updates around control measures and expectations around ways of working. Our heavily regulated environment overlayed with Government Health regulations around Covid-19 testing and tracing of our aircrew left very little room for innovation and creativity. However, Darren’s experience and SME knowledge of Safety in Design fostered ‘in design’ thinking across the People Safety team that we were able to apply to health, safety and wellbeing in our interaction with other teams, including reviewing how we structured our ways of working to minimise impact to mental wellbeing (e.g. support and connection with remote or isolating teams or individuals). Darren’s expertise in risk management (previous Director of RIMS) helped form the Critical Risk Gap Analysis Tool to assess risk control effectiveness in Mental Ill-health. Whilst Darren has a strong safety and risk background, his leadership to develop this tool was strongly people-focussed to address personal mental wellbeing impact from organisational factors such as role demands, relationships, support, change management, and mental ill-health declaration and recovery. It was important to Darren that where possible the data that we were able to respectfully collect on the mental wellbeing of our employees (EAP, Wellbeing Check-in, Peer Support) was fed forward into our provision of services and offerings for targeted intervention. His insights were invaluable in the development of the People Safety Dashboard, reporting and metrics that are collected each month to track progress, analyse trends and influence Executive decisions to support our mental wellbeing strategy and programmes.

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Referee details

Rachel Moon, Senior Manager Strategic Wellbeing (Air New Zealand)

021 594985 • [email protected]

Key contact

Liam Scopes, Wellbeing Business Partner (Air New Zealand)

021 1711109 • [email protected]

3 Months
Since posted
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