Why are you stressed? Ask your line manager

Cary Cooper says the recession hit wellbeing hard, but a good boss can make all the difference.

by MT Staff
Last Updated: 05 Oct 2017

Workplace-related stress, anxiety and depression have been on the rise for years now. The culprit? Even ten years’ on, it looks like we can still blame the recession. According to renowned organisational psychologist Professor Cary Cooper, the downturn fundamentally undermined the psychological contract between employers and employees, with disastrous results.

‘It’s totally gone since the recession. A contract has to be two ways. Employers are demanding more and more from a more contingent workforce, yet are not prepared to give any job security,’ Cooper tells MT.

It’s long been known that job insecurity and increased workloads have a negative effect on mental health and wellbeing – ‘the evidence is that if you consistently work long hours, you’ll get ill and you’ll get less productive, even if you like your job’ – and that this eats into the bottom line, not least because mental health problems are the leading cause of sickness absences.

Yet retention of employees has become even more important as organisations have become leaner – there simply isn’t as much spare capacity to cover for absences or replace lost talent. There’s been a lot of work done to help people who’ve suffered mental health problems to return to the workplace, Cooper says, but now we need to focus on creating environments that help prevent these problems developing in the first place.

‘The really good employers are saying wellbeing’s not a nice to have like it was before the recession, it’s a must have now.’

But if you wanted to improve your employees’ wellbeing, what should you do? It might be an idea to start by looking in the mirror.

‘No matter where you are in the organisation, the number one thing that creates a lack of wellbeing is the line manager. The rest follows. Wellbeing’s about autonomy, well that’s partly a function of the line manager. It’s about manageable workloads, well that’s partly a function of the line manager. It’s about flexibility – yet in those organisations that offer flexible working, people don’t apply because their line managers don’t want them to,’ Cooper explains.

With resources stretched, it becomes even more important for managers to be socially sensitive to unmanageable workloads and to motivate by praise and reward, not fault finding. ‘We need managers with Emotional Intelligence. We don’t have enough of them. Business schools don’t train MBAs on the skills to manage human beings,’ Cooper says.

Emails: a double-edged sword

Beyond rethinking hiring, promoting and training practices to emphasise soft skills, organisations could also benefit from thinking about how they are impacting their employees’ work-life balance at a time when technology has left us plugged in 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Cooper brings up his National Forum for Health and Wellbeing, a group of HR directors and chief medical officers from 25 major employers, which meets quarterly to discuss the evidence around wellbeing issues and then agrees plans of action. The first topic the group chose was line managers. The second was emails: We send too many of them during the workday, and can’t seem to ignore them on evenings and weekends. ‘It’s damaging people’s health.’

Changing an out-of-hours email culture is easier said than done, however. You can tell people they can’t – as the French government has done to its entire population, for instance – but that doesn’t mean they’ll listen. Some like VW close their servers at night, while Daimler blocks your emails while you’re on holiday.

The danger with taking a heavy hand, Cooper says, is that you might prevent people from working flexibly and thereby harm wellbeing. ‘You don’t want to throw it out entirely – you’re throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Organisations need clear cut policies, such as only CC people who absolutely need to know, rather than covering your backside by sending it to your boss or boss’s boss.’

It is not easy to cultivate a healthy and nurturing environment, particularly when it’s been lacking before. Processes and culture will need to change hand in hand, which requires continued effort and diligence. But if you get it right, it really can be win-win for employer and employee.

Cary Cooper is speaking on day two of Sodexo’s Quality of Life conference in London, October 17th. For more information about, visit http://www.qualityoflifeconference.com/home.html.

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