Chartered Management Institute: In my opinion

Professor Cary Cooper of Lancaster University Management School challenges leaders to become better role models in tackling stress at work,

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Change has been the byword of the first part of this millennium, with its attendant job insecurities, long-hours culture, corporate culture clashes and significantly different styles of leadership. Without being too gloomy, I think it is safe to say that we have had all the ingredients of workplace stress: an ever-increasing workload with a decreasing workforce, a climate of rapid change and constant organisational restructurings, and a feeling of having less control over one's job.

As an occupational psychologist in one of the UK's top business schools, I have seen this trend at first hand over the past decade. Although I frequently hear top managers proclaiming that 'the most valuable resource we have is our human resource', in many cases I see more rhetoric than action, particularly in trying to create a healthy work environment.

I recall an after-dinner talk I gave a number of years ago on executive health and wellbeing to more than a dozen chief executives and chairmen of major companies. I highlighted the potentially negative impact of long hours on their health, relationships and even ultimately on their productivity.

After concluding my talk, there was a hue-and-cry of disdain at my suggestion that perhaps they did not need to work quite as long as they did and that they might delegate more or work more flexibly. Not only could this improve their own health and wellbeing, but it would offer a role model for their employees about getting a better balance.

The day after my talk, the chairman who had organised the meeting - one of the UK's leading industrialists - told me that a number of those attending had called him to admit that they and their families had, in fact, suffered because of their unrelenting lifestyle. However, they had felt inhibited from revealing this to their peer group of high achievers the night before, for fear of being perceived as wimps.

In fact, in the new Chartered Management Institute Quality of Working Life survey of over 1,500 managers - from middle managers to CEO/chairman level - we found that two out of three said that working long hours 'damaged' their social life. Nearly 60% said it affected their relationship with their spouse/partner, 56% their health and 54% their relationship with their children. Most interesting of all, 46% said that these hours undermined their productivity.

Another recent survey of over 600 working parents by Working Families also found that people whose employers allow more flexible working arrangements are more productive, have greater job satisfaction and fewer sickness absence days.

Why are we creating work environments that are psychologically and physically unhealthy when there is increasing evidence to support a good business case for workplace wellbeing? Do we really believe that working long hours is productive, or that micro-managing people is motivating; that managing people by fault-finding and 'keeping them on their toes' is effective, and 'change for change's sake' is necessary in a globalised and highly competitive world.

Increasingly, the issue of workplace health and wellbeing is being recognised as a bottom-line issue. At the end of 2004, the CIPD found for the first time in its annual sickness survey that stress was the leading source of long-term sickness absence among UK employers. Lack of wellbeing at work is now estimated to cost, in all its forms, about 5% to 10% of GNP per annum.

If we really believe that our most valuable resource is our people, what can we do to make the workplace more liveable, healthy and vibrant? First, in our technological age, let's get rid of the long-hours culture in central-office environments and introduce more truly flexible working arrangements where they are possible. Let's use technology to enable people to carve out the flexible arrangements that suit both their lifestyle and their business demands.

Second, much of the stress and ill-health experienced by many at work is a consequence of how they are managed. People like to feel valued and that they are making some contribution to the organisation, so let's be more praise and reward-orientated, as opposed to fault-finding and negative in our treatment of people from day to day. Third, poor management of change is responsible for a good proportion of ill health, so it is important to manage change better. We need to be more open and honest in our communications with subordinates, understand people's natural fears and encourage greater ownership in the change by real consultation and the mutual development of change strategies.

In a civilised society, it is important for all of us to realise that any feel-good factor at work should include quality-of-life issues, as well as bottom-line ones - including working hours, family time, manageable workloads, control over one's job and some sense of job security.

- The Quality of Working Life Survey 2006 will be published in late March. To obtain a free executive summary, please e-mail research@managers.org.uk.

- CV Cary L Cooper CBE is professor of organisational psychology and health at Lancaster University Management School and pro vice-chancellor of Lancaster University. He is also chair of the Sunningdale Institute in the National School of Government in the Cabinet Office, and a former president of the British Academy of Management and the author/editor of more than 100 books on management.

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