It is time to humanise the workplace

It is after midnight. Waves of sleep roll in as peace descends.

A throbbing sound from the phone nearby. Another email message from the boss. An individual’s peace disturbed. An all too familiar scene in working lives where even the bedroom is no longer a proper place of refuge.

Many HR consultants and management gurus, these days, express concern about the ‘long hours without boundaries’ culture that has infected so many workplaces, particularly those populated by younger, smartphone users who lack career security and are open to exploitation.

During the Summer of Love a half century ago, an earlier younger generation were tossing away suits and schedules.

A future of leisure and self-empowerment beckoned.

It is all worked out rather differently.

Technologies have emerged that enable greater surveillance of employees and ensure that jobs are more fast paced and by extension, more pressured.

Despite all the talk about better work-life balance, many employers pay little regard to the longer-term needs of employees, many either with young families, or keen to start one. Indeed, leader bonuses are often linked to levels of success in squeezing costs out of the business.

One result has been high levels of burnout leading to long-term certified sickness absence, often culminating in premature retirement and a permanent loss of skills.

Last week, HR managers gathered for the annual conference of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), their professional body, in Croke Park.

CIPD director Mary Connaughton spoke of concerns expressed by her members about how line managers were getting in the way of effective performance of the functions of HR executives.

She also spoke of how “weak management is contributing to poor performance and to an increase in employee turnover”. But as was made clear, line managers themselves can feel poorly supported.

HR managers have often considered themselves to be the “meat in the sandwich” when it comes to relations between profit maximising top management — with the interests of the shareholders to consider — and the body of workers reporting to them in various guises.

Peter Cheese, CEO of CIPD UK, emphasised the need to “design jobs that are good for people” in an environment of rapid technological change.

As he pointed out, in many cases, the introduction of new technologies has served to reduce peoples’ autonomy, in effect, de-skilling them.

He instanced the case of people operating in large, empty logistics warehouses, perhaps 50 metres away from the nearest worker.

Survey evidence suggests that around one in five people are dissatisfied with their job. Many more are in posts where their capacities are not properly utilised.

However, Irish broadcaster turned international trainer, John Ryan, who is CEO of Healthy Place to Work, warns of the negative impact on wellbeing of today’s pressured work culture.

In particular, he points to the need for autonomy or what he refers to as “self efficacy”. A name that crops up frequently these days is that of the American Professor of Organisational Behaviour, Jeffrey Pfeffer.

The Stanford Business School professor recently published a best seller called Dying for a Pay Check in which he poses the question — is your workplace killing you?

Ms Pfeffer and his team have drawn together much of the research carried out into the impact of workplace-related stress to produce a series of aggregate findings.

They have concluded that work related stress and excessive working hours have contributed to an excess of 12,000 deaths per annum in the US at a cumulative annual cost of close to $200bn.

The Stanford professor cites a number of key culprits — economic insecurity, shift work, a lack of workplace health insurance (the biggest ultimate cause of mortality, in his view).

He concludes that employers ignoring their responsibilities to their workforce are passing on a big cost to the wider society and are responsible for a form of social pollution every bit as noxious as the environmental pollution that was so prevalent a generation ago in many industrial sectors.

Says Mr Pfeffer: “You don’t have to do a dangerous job in a mine, or on a commercial fishing boat to endure a life-threatening or health-destroying workplace.”

He cites the case of an overworked finance manager who develops a drug or alcohol addiction; the news producer who gains 60lb because they have no time in which to eat or exercise properly; or the marketing professional who ends up being prescribed anti-depressants.

The CIPD would appear to endorse much of Mr Pfeffer’s critique.

Its latest membership survey focuses on the role played by line managers in organisations and the difficulties in relations between this key grade and HR managers.

Close to one half of respondents concluded that there is a lack of support for line managers coming from the top and that this in turn, is acting as a hindrance to HR as its seeks to develop people policies and practices.

Over one quarter of respondents mentioned a lack of senior manager commitment to learning and development.

According to the CIPD, the following question must be asked: Why are the business leaders not supporting line manager so as to enable them to deliver on the people management agenda in the organisation?

In its view, ‘line managers’ role as people managers has to be a recognised strategic part of the business?’ But how can this be achieved at a time when the current trend to squeeze the numbers of line or middle managers? 

There is plenty of evidence that in mature organisations you tend to get a surplus of managers engaged often in routine tasks.

However, rounds of restructuring implemented without careful thought being put into a re-imagining of roles can produce an end result of poor morale and high levels of stress.

We are currently in that sweet spot in the economic cycle where demand for people with skills is strong and when the people at the top fret about the welfare of their staff, concerned that they may lose them to another organisation with a more compelling offering.

We have been here before during the Noughties, but there are subtle differences.

Fewer organisations are in unassailable business niches. The pace of technological change means that almost everyone must now look over their shoulder so many, if not most, of the commercial insecurities of the long economic bust persist.

At the same time, younger employees — the so called ‘Millennials’ — are less loyal, and far more inclined towards mobility than was the case 15 or 20 years ago. 

This presents a conundrum for senior management, many of whom are engaging in firefighting as traditional customer bases experience erosion.


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