Time for executives to prioritise employees’ needs

Our labour market has been tightening for some time and surprise, surprise, employers are starting to display considerable interest in the welfare of the people on their payroll, particularly those with portable skills.

During the boom times, there was much talk about family-friendly policies and the importance of successful integration strategies.

Naturally, during the Great Recession and away from the bubble-wrapped world of the technology sector, the talk was all about survival strategies and about making do with a slimmed-down workforce.

The mood has shifted once more and the country’s HR managers have picked up on this.

The recent conference of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development took as its theme employee engagement and wellbeing.

Chief executives and their CFO minders know it does not pay to let skilled people, some of whom they may have trained up, slip through their hands.

The direct cost of filling the resulting vacancy can run into many thousands of euro and that’s before one takes into account the indirect costs to the organisation resulting from a gap at the heart of the team.

High levels of stress, it seems, may be pushing many towards the exit door. The lengthy recession has resulted in an increase in the workloads borne by those who have survived culls of manpower in their companies.

According to the leading management expert, Professor Cary Cooper, over the period 2007 to 2012, stress levels in the workplace have risen resulting in a rise in the prevalence of physical and mental illness among employees.

Prof Cooper’s findings are drawn from a study of 39,000 UK workers. Among the key findings were:

The cost of mental ill health stands at £70 billion (€86.1bn), 4.5% of GDP, or just over £1,000 (€1,230) per employee.

Just over 15 million sick days are taken due to stress factors.

He considers the phenomenon of presenteeism, where insecurity drives people to work excessively long hours, to be of even greater concern than that of absenteeism.

Even more striking is the finding that the proportion of employees considering that senior managers were managing change well in their particular company has dropped from 45% to 30% since the onset of the recession.

Cooper is particularly scathing about the overuse of emails and social media by employers and the de facto colonisation or infiltration into employee leisure time of work related missives.

One startling finding is that 34% of those surveyed send emails through their smart phones the minute they wake up while the last thing 38% did at night was look at their emails.

The distinguished labour economist, Richard Layard, has put an even higher estimate on the cost of mental illness among Britons.

The London School of Economics professor puts the annual cost alone of physical healthcare for people suffering from mental health issues at £10bn (€12.3bn) , or £2,000 (€2,460) per person. He puts the overall cost of poor mental health in the population at 4% of gross domestic product.

A further 2% in lost production is, he suggests, attributable to crimes committed by the mentally ill.

For all that, mental heath services (particularly in Ireland) have suffered from neglect for years.

Too many voters just don’t want to know. In the words of the comedian Ruby Wax, a sufferer of depression, “we’re trying to hide the mentally ill elephant in the room”.

Layard, along with other leading economists such as Jeffrey Sachs has helped to produce a World Happiness Report. In 2013, Denmark finished top, with the UK in 22nd place. Both are critical of the current focus on national income and material wealth creation at the expense of consideration of the ongoing wellbeing of the citizenry.

He favours the allocation of more resources towards the provision of therapists — often in short supply in public health — and a reduction in reliance on medication.

Cary Cooper has his own suite of solutions which focus on an overhaul of life within the workplace.

Top of his list would be a cut in hours worked, allowing people to develop lives that are more in tune with their basic primal needs: companionship, the cherishing of family, development of personal skills, and so on.

He notes how productivity in Britain actually reached peak levels during the ‘Three Day’ week in 1973 when working time was curtailed due to shortages of energy. He cites approvingly the decision of Daimler Benz & Liverpool city council, among others, to restrict the use of emails either within the office and at weekends.

Put simply, he concludes, people with the highest level of wellbeing are also the most productive.

He even puts an estimate of £1,200 per person as the financial benefit of improved wellbeing.

He also expresses the strong view that we need to assess the ‘EQ’, or level of emotional awareness of each senior manager. Given that we also know sociopaths appear to fare well in many organisations, in terms of promotions secured, this could turn out to be an interesting exercise.

Some companies have already begun to experiment with emerging stress management techniques such as mindfulness and are now making greater use of psychotherapy and other mental health management resources.

Larger firms and companies in emerging areas of the economy have long recognised the need to provide their staff with pleasant, well designed physical environments complete with facilities such as gyms and state of the art restaurant and canteens.

There is perhaps a belated recognition that similar support for employees’ psyches is required.

However, many companies are struggling to survive, or by reason of their small scale, simply do not have the resources to pour into such areas. Prof Cooper accepts this is a real issue. He suggests that large companies be engaged to serve as mentors to SMEs seeking to boost their employees’ physical and mental wellbeing.

He also believes a sea change in attitudes among the most senior executives is required.

Having constantly said that employees are an organisation’s most valuable resource, the time has come for leaders to start walking the walking rather than just talking the talk, he suggests.


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