Sir Cary Cooper, the professor of organisational psychology and health at Manchester Business School, is clear: we have a stress-related work problem.
“In most developed countries, between 50 to 63% of long-term sickness absence is down to stress,” he says. Musculoskeletal illnesses - backache - used to be the primary cause of staff absence. Now, he says “it’s the common mental disorders like anxiety, depression and stress.”
In the UK, it’s particularly bad, and that, combined with a chronic low productivity per capita rate, is causing problems for British industry.
But Cooper believes there are 3 key things we can do to change this:
1. Increase the EQ of line managers
The first is to rapidly increase the skills of line managers. They may get a bad rap, but they are critical for creating workplace engagement and setting the conditions to avoid employees being under unnecessary stress. Those with good EQ know how to get the best out of their employees and be able to recognise when somebody is not coping well and proactively help them.
“We tend to promote and recruit people to managerial roles based on their technical skills, not their people skills. So managers often don't have much EQ or good social intelligence. We need to recruit people where there's parity between their people skills and their technical skills and promote people on that basis,” he says.
From his research, in any company, roughly 40% have naturally good people skills, 40% are trainable and the final 20% are damaging managers and shouldn’t be put in charge of people. “You have to bite the bullet and say to these people, we want you to do that job as an engineer, but we don't want you in a management role. We’re prepared to continue to pay you well, but just not in that role,” he says.
He believes society is looking at productivity from the wrong lens. Instead of focusing on infrastructure or investment, look at how workers are treated. He says: “If someone says ‘Cary, we expect you to get a four-star scientific article every Friday or something’s going to hit you’, I’m not going to perform as well as somebody who says, ‘That article you did last week was brilliant. Thank you very much. You’re really making a contribution to this business school.’ There’s a big difference in that."
2. End “technostress”
Another critical factor is ending, what Cooper calls, “technostress”. In his research, employees said being overloaded by emails and online messages was the most significant factor in their poor productivity rates.
“People’s private lives are being overwhelmed by lack of guidance by employers about email usage,” he says. This is easily fixed by putting in place policies, like only sending emails out of office hours if absolutely necessary, not sending emails on Friday nights or making it clear the work can wait until Monday.
3. Make a board director responsible for employee wellbeing
In order to tackle the crisis of people getting ill at work and boost productivity rates, Cooper says: “It’s not about beanbags, a wellbeing day, or mindfulness at lunch.The number one thing is to have a director who is responsible for it on the board.”
“Wellbeing champions and mental health first aid is fine, but that doesn’t change the dial. The dial is only changed when the board and senior management are held accountable for doing badly on employee health and wellbeing,” he says.
He likens it to the new legal obligation to report on the gender pay gap. “We need proper metrics to measure what the organisation is achieving, including subjective measures like employee satisfaction, and objective measures like sickness, absence rates and labour turnover,” he says.
“Unless we tackle stress-related ill health, our productivity will continue to decline.”
Illustration created using pictures from Getty Images