Chartered Management Institute: In my Opinion

Chartered Management Institute Companion Des Benjamin urges leaders to take action to sustain health and wellbeing in the workplace.

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Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

We're seeing a few chickens coming home to roost in 2007. It's to do with the quality of our working lives. In my opinion, the dominant trends in management at the moment are having some very damaging effects - and nothing highlights our failures in this area more than our relationship with the younger generation of employees.

It's hugely exciting to watch young people coming into the labour market with attitudes that are far healthier than those of previous generations. These include a desire to see progress as a real possibility, a demand for variety in their work, a need for time flexibility, a request for respect from the start and a wish that their efforts go towards a clear purpose that they can take pride in. Increasingly, they no longer separate their personal beliefs from those of the company that they chose to work for, so if you want to attract and retain their talent you'd better listen to what they have to say.

This is incredibly demanding for us as managers, having grown up in a more hierarchical era with tightly formulated behaviours and expectations. And yet this is the very stuff of business in the future as it bends and twists its way in the new global markets. For business to prosper in the years ahead, we need their flexibility and adaptability; we need their ability to cope with less certainty and more ambiguity.

Unfortunately, what our talented managers and employees see at the moment is a conspiracy of factors dominating the business landscape. These include short-term ownership of businesses, with no sense of lasting purpose for their staff and a dizzying drive for financial results that seem to be the only mark of value.

These factors are driving business towards an uncomfortable position where great brands are diminished by poor service delivery. Customers naturally see no value and become capricious, chasing only the 'deal', while staff don't apply themselves to their company's goals because - well, why should they? What's in it for them?

This may seem extreme, but ask those around. Their feedback might surprise you. And there are clear signs in this year's CMI survey of The Quality of Working Life, supported by Simplyhealth, that employee goodwill is reducing.

We are nowhere near a crisis yet, and, often, the British response is not to do anything until the crisis is upon us - but I urge you to think more proactively now. The results in this year's report are indicators of changes that have already happened, and we must play catch-up to get back the best efforts of our managers and staff, returning them to a condition of health and wellbeing that is likely to be sustained. The problem is that the numbers are going in the wrong direction, with 42% of managers reporting that illness is on the up. Absence, too, has increased slightly.

When, as managers, we think about growth of the top and bottom lines, we must also concern ourselves with the growth of our people, our reputation and our licence or permissions with consumers. These factors are the source of a sustainable future and should be accorded more management time than we currently give them.

You can, of course, try to prove empirically that these things correlate with improved profits so as to justify the cost of any resources that are focused on these 'softer' areas of business. But, in the end, what managers are paid for is to make judgments and decisions, which will depend on a combination of their skills and beliefs.

Let's think a bit more about how those beliefs in an organisation guide us and bind us together. The things that matter to managers are just the same as those that matter to other staff. They want to feel valued, they want to serve customers well and they want to feel proud about what they produce and who they work for. These basic human traits don't change, whatever your job and however high you go.

When these traits are absent, the human passions that seek to overcome problems - that fight for an extra sale or late stay to get the job done - are diminished. Yet in this year's survey only 51% of managers say they are positively motivated. Some of the rest may be operating on automatic, unfulfilled by the objectives or 'way of being' of their organisation. It's no coincidence that they are also putting in less voluntary overtime than two years ago.

I would like to see greater attention paid in future to an engaging and enlightened approach to management, which turns its focus 180 degrees away from our traditional view that it's about checking on people, controlling their every move and enforcing rigid rules designed to replace the human element with automatons - supposedly, for consistency of quality. Liberated and with an understanding of responsibility, we will see a revival of management verve that will put business back on the track of serving customers well and profitably. Perhaps this is one time when we can say to companies: 'Would you like 50% extra (management) for free?'

The executive summary of The Quality of Working Life 2007 report is available at www.managers.org.uk/workinglife

CV

Des Benjamin has been group chief executive of Simplyhealth since March 2000, having spent most of his career in financial services, including accountancy, fund management, life insurance and direct banking. Simplyhealth is the parent company of BCWA, HealthSure, HSA, LHF, Adastral Health Ltd, Your Health Screening and Totally Active, and has been recognised in the Sunday Times Best 100 Companies to Work For awards for five consecutive years.

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