In this piece, Professor Sir Cary Cooper CBE of the University of Manchester discusses three priority policy areas for improving mental capital and wellbeing in the workplace.
There is an enormous amount of research available on the link between stress at work and employee health and productivity. We also know what specific workplace stressors (eg, workload, hours of work, toxic & bullying line managers, lack of flexible working, role conflict, lack of autonomy and control at work, etc.) are most responsible for employee mental and physical ill health. Although there have been very successful interventions to prevent and deal with some of these workplace issues, a sizable number have eluded policy makers, having been put in the ‘too costly’ or ‘too difficult to do’ policy dust bin! There are three areas I would like to focus on here: (1) how do we help and support the SME sector in dealing with workplace stress and the mental wellbeing of their employees; (2) how do we improve the social and interpersonal skills of line managers; (3) how do we capture ‘employee voice’, as it relates to their mental wellbeing in developing more healthy workplace cultures.
First, the need to support the SME sector when it comes to the health and wellbeing of their staff. The big corporates and big government departments have HR and occupational health provision to support employee wellbeing, but the SMEs tend not to have either. I would like to suggest a couple of potential policy ideas:
- (a) A Challenge Fund for SMEs, supported by the Department of Business, where SME leaders would be able to access consultancy support to help them develop an employee health & wellbeing strategy. In the early noughties, the DTI did this for SMEs in terms of flexible working, and it was a great success. The government would put in half the funding and the SME the other half, with the Department of Business creating a pool of relevant and credible providers to provide health and wellbeing support for the SMEs.
- (b) Tax breaks for large employers who provide support on health and wellbeing, through their HR and occupational health professionals, to their supply chain and/or other SMEs where their main production facilities or offices are in their local communities. This would be particularly relevant in the construction industry and other similar industries, where the big firms have many SMEs in their supply chain.
Second, research seems to suggest that the behaviour and management style of the line manager is fundamental to the health and wellbeing of employees. Organisations seem to promote and recruit line managers based on their ‘technical skill’ and not their ‘people skills’. There is a need to train line managers, in the private and public sector, in terms of the social and interpersonal skills or their emotional intelligence (EQ). A ‘command and control’ or bullying management style is not only not effective in terms of performance but also damages the self-confidence and health of employees. The recent CMI report on ‘line managers’ found that over 80% of managers are what they term “accidental managers”, they get to their management role without adequate training. This policy suggestion is that employers be incentivised to provide management training at all levels, from shop floor to top floor, on developing their people management skills.
- (a) A small levy to be introduced on employers, of over 250 employees, to encourage line management training, which the employer can draw from for training their managerial staff. A similar programme was in place in the 1980s to stimulate mainly blue-collar job training called Industrial Training Boards (ITBs). This type of Line Manager Development Board would provide training for managerial staff on enhancing their social skills, their management style vis-à-vis their staff, their engagement behaviour and other relevant behaviours that would develop the health, wellbeing and productivity of their staff.
Third, in order for organisations to change their culture in ways that enhance employee health and wellbeing, they should be incentivised to carry out regular stress/wellbeing audits to capture ‘employee voice’, and then intervening where serious problems emerge.
- (a) This could be done by government encouraging the insurance industry to provide major discounts to employers who provide medical health insurance for their employees, given that the leading cause of long-term sickness absence is due to the common mental disorders of stress, anxiety and depression. These wellbeing audits, using proper psychometrics, help to prevent stress-related ill health and ultimately referrals for treatment and stress-related sickness absence.
The costs to the UK economy of mental ill health at work in terms of long sickness absence, high labour turnover and poor productivity is extremely high, in the tens of billions of pounds annually. We need to find ways of preventing and treating this 21st C disease. As the social reformer John Ruskin wrote 1851, at the start of the Industrial Revolution: “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”.
About the author
Professor Sir Cary Cooper CBE
Cary L. Cooper is the 50th Anniversary Professor of Organizational Psychology and Health at the Alliance Manchester Business School, University of Manchester. He is a founding President of the British Academy of Management, Immediate Past President of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), former President of RELATE and President of the Institute of Welfare.
He has been an advisor to the World Health Organisation, ILO, and EU in the field of occupational health and wellbeing, was Chair of the Global Agenda Council on Chronic Disease of the World Economic Forum (2009-2010) and was Chair of the Academy of Social Sciences 2009-2015. He was Chair of the Sunningdale Institute in the Cabinet Office and National School of Government 2005-2010.
Professor Cooper is currently the Chair of the National Forum for Health & Wellbeing at Work. He was awarded the CBE for his contributions to occupational health; and in 2014 he was awarded a Knighthood for his contribution to the social sciences.
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