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April 2, 2013

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Health care – Joy revision

Prof Cary Cooper considers the importance of protecting employees’ mental health and well-being and insists that greater focus on these issues complements rather than conflicts with efforts and initiatives aimed at improving growth and companies’ bottom lines.

One of the ironies of the great banking crash of 2008 is that out of the ashes of the recession and social upheaval has emerged the happiness and well-being movement.

For decades, the world economy – in particular, the UK, EU and the United States economies – enjoyed bullish markets, growth and relatively low unemployment. The good times ended with the collapse of Lehman Brothers’, a housing-price crash, unsecuritised mortgages defaulting, and the ensuing domino effect on the whole banking sector.1

Notwithstanding the continued pain that resulted from the economic turmoil, it gave us all food for thought about our lifestyles, the nature of work, work-life balance and our personal well-being. This new ‘well-being’ era is seeing us come full circle. Indeed, the words of social reformer, John Ruskin, during the time of the Industrial Revolution, seem more insightful than ever: “In order that people may be happy in their work, these three things are needed: they must be fit for it, they must not do too much of it, and they must have a sense of success in it.”

Gross National Well-being
This reflective period has been recognised by senior politicians, such as Nicolas Sarkozy of France and David Cameron in the UK, who have talked about gross national well-being (GNW) as a broader measure of a society’s success, within which GDP is subsumed.

Consequently, in the UK, the Office of National Statistics is now measuring well-being in the population as a whole, and expanding it to include well-being in communities, the workplace, the family, etc. Two surveys were launched last year, with government currently considering the findings with a view to the potential policy and intervention implications.

Commenting on these developments, Sir Jeremy Heywood, the Cabinet Secretary, said last year: “When the sniggering dies down, I think you will find the Government wants to move away from a pure economic approach to one based more on well-being. We’ve only just started work on this, but I think over a five, ten, or 15-year period we will be much more focused on well-being, rather than the pure economics of GDP.” Indeed, ‘Well-being and Mental Health’ is now one of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Councils.

Bottom-line benefits
Many organisations in the private and public sectors have also joined the happiness/well-being movement, but for very practical reasons. In most workplaces, there are now fewer people, but they are doing more work, working longer hours and feeling a greater sense of job insecurity, so retaining and getting the most out of its human resource has huge implications for an organisation’s bottom line.

The Chartered Management Institute recently questioned 10,000 managers as part of a Quality of Working Life survey.2 It was found that managers in struggling businesses were around twice as likely as their counterparts in growing organisations to report having experienced panic or anxiety attacks, difficulties in making decisions, and feeling unable to cope.

When businesses manage change well, and are more positive in how they treat their employees, there is higher motivation, morale and loyalty, whereas for those that concentrate on cutting staff and squeezing rather than investing in their human resource, the consequences are substantially negative in terms of morale and ill health. We understand that cutting costs in some contexts is necessary but the way in which this is managed can deplete or enhance well-being and performance.2

Many organisations cut too deep, too fast, and in a way that undermines individuals’ sense of job security – requiring people to reapply several times for their job, or engaging in ‘change for change’s sake’ without a clear-cut rationale or, indeed, in obtaining the ‘buy in’ of employees.

Management styles
Another important characteristic of a fully-functioning business or organisation is the right management style. In the CMI survey, it was found that the prevailing management styles in UK business/public sector were ‘bureaucratic’, ‘reactive’ and ‘authoritarian’.

What we need in order to build happier organisations are managers who are empowering, trusting, accessible and consensual, and who manage people through praise and reward and not by constantly fault-finding, or disseminating ‘fear messages’. These empowering management behaviours lead to environments in which motivation and teamwork are high, whereas disengaged staff result in higher levels of ill health, lower productivity and higher sickness absence, or labour turnover. The evidence is clear: organisations that invest in creating ‘well-being friendly’ cultures produce better bottom-line results.3

Measuring what is truly worthwhile
Any approach that seeks to strive for growth without engaging employees and meeting their needs as parents and citizens is probably likely to fail in the long term.

But this school of thinking is hardly new; in a speech made at the University of Kansas, while running for the Democratic nomination for the US presidency in 1968, Bobby Kennedy said: “Too much, and for too long, we seemed to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things.

“Our GNP now is over $800 billion a year, but that GNP. . . counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in the chaotic sprawl.”

He continued: “Yet, the GNP does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the job of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry, or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate, or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country. It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”

If our managers throughout the country, and in a variety of sectors, can understand the importance of better balance between work and home, in engaging people at work, and in creating happier places to work, we will begin to make real progress on achieving sustainable growth.

What is employee engagement?

According to the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS), employee engagement can’t be imposed from above. Rather, it’s about creating a cultural shift in the way organisations behave. For example:

  • Leadership: It’s up to leaders to set out their stall for the future – a vision that is good for the organisation and that means something to staff. The narrative must be ongoing and not just a one-off – keep communicating!
  • Line management: For organisations to thrive in the  future they need managers who can relate to their staff. What weight does your organisation give to ‘soft management skills’ like active listening, motivating  and empowering? Are managers equipped and  confident in the skills needed to effectively manage staff and get the best out of them?
  • Voice: Your employees know firsthand what works and what doesn’t. If you can harness that knowledge productively you will get better decision-making and more innovation.
  • Trust: Effective managers and commitment from the top of the organisation are some of the key ingredients in the recipe. But integrity is about making good your promises; policies on issues such as quality and diversity have to be seen to work. Are managers practising what they preach?

1    Bowles, D and Cooper, CL (2012): The High-engagement work culture: Balancing ME and WE, Palgrave Macmillan
2    Worrall, L and Cooper, CL (2012): Managers’ well-being, motivation and productivity, CMI/Simply Health Quality of working-life survey
3    Robertson, I and Cooper, CL (2011): Well-being: Productivity and happiness at work, Palgrave Macmillan

Cary L Cooper CBE is Professor of Organisational Psychology and Health at Lancaster University Management School and co-founder of business psychology spin-off company, Robertson Cooper Ltd

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