THE MT WORK LIFE SURVEY - Does your life work? - How's the job? And the rest? An exclusive MT/Ceridian work/life survey has found that one in every three of Britain's managers is dissatisfied, one in five is downright unhappy and one in three says the strain of work is hurting his or her sex life. As a result, 40% of 2,000 responding are likely to look for a new job. Evan Davis asks if it is time for a 21st-century manifesto for improving the workplace.
Good news. Two out of three managers in Britain are happy in their job. Alas, that means the remaining third are not happy - and one-fifth of our managerial elite are decidedly miserable.
Such are the findings of an MT survey carried out in conjunction with Ceridian Performance Partners, the work/life consultants. Nearly 2,000 readers gave their views about what bothers them most about the workplace today and what they would most like to change. The results show that a disturbing proportion of Britain's senior managers are making big sacrifices in their personal lives to keep up with the rat race - and many feel unappreciated.
Over 40% of respondents say they are likely to look for a job within the next 12 months. In other words, Britain is witnessing a 'strain drain'.
The results speak for themselves:
- 49% of respondents think morale in their organisation is low
- 55% say they face frequent stress at work
- 30% of respondents think their health is suffering because of their work, while 28% think their sex life is being affected
- Half of the sample admit to having too little time to build relationships out of work
- 20% say they sometimes drink to ease the pressure of work, and 8% have turned to therapy or counselling
The purpose of the survey was not just to shock, or to give vent to the complaints of disgruntled employees. The questions were designed to highlight some of the key issues surrounding recruitment, retention and motivation of senior staff.
We shouldn't be unnecessarily selective in emphasising the gloomy results as there are clearly plenty of happy people out there. But the responses do make for uncomfortable reading, as they indicate the existence of a huge minority of overworked, stressed, unappreciated and discontented employees. Not just the odd two or three, but the odd 20%-30%. And the miseries of the dissatisfied minority are also evidently affecting the welfare of the apparently contented majority.
And on these issues, the survey indicates that employers should beware. While 81% of respondents claim to be 'very loyal' to their organisation, most betray a promiscuous outlook. A high 70% say they would seriously consider an approach from a head-hunter and a quarter of the sample rate themselves as 'very likely' to look for a new job in the next year. More worryingly, 31% claim not to trust their employer and 40% believe their organisation does not respect its staff.
Enough facts. What is going on here, and how should companies respond?
The difficulties of providing satisfaction and motivation for employees are being increasingly well recognised. Most importantly, there really is something that can properly be identified as the 'rat race'. The public has intuitively understood it for years; now, economists and commentators have started taking it seriously. People rate their performance not against some absolute yardstick, such as how productive they are, but against the relative yardstick of how productive they are compared to their colleagues.
As soon as it is relative performance that matters, the pathology of the workplace is such that everybody ends up working harder, longer and under more stress than they would like. It's like the arms race: Russia wants more weapons than America and America wants more weapons than Russia, with the outcome that nobody beats the other, but everybody has more weapons than they need. In the office, the desire to work harder or longer than colleagues means we all end up miserably working long hours, even when the results don't justify the effort put in.
Ironically, in the world of the rat race, the sociable thing to do is to work less hard, not harder. Relax a bit, and you don't end up dumping tasks on colleagues - you actually relieve them of the stress of trying to match your long hours. But it is a brave employee who unilaterally does that, because cutting hours exposes them to the risk of being seen as a shirker, with all the attendant unfavourable comparisons in pay and promotion decisions. No wonder economists have labelled the study of the labour market in these terms as 'tournament theory'.
The problem of the rat race is evident from our survey - 48% of respondents say they feel guilty if they leave work on time. As many as 41% of the sample say they are disappointed with the work/life balance they find in their current job. And most tellingly, 85% of the sample think holidays should be compulsory. How sensible: if everyone is working too hard, this workplace equivalent of an arms limitation treaty is a rule to prevent them escalating the 'be seen at work' contest too far.
Overall, the crucial feature that emerges is that even among employees who are generally satisfied, getting the work/life balance right is a constant problem. So why do many employers persist in ignoring this finding? After all, this year's survey is not the first to note the problem. And our survey reflects the views of managers themselves, the very people who have the power to shape company policy in a more benign direction. (A sixth of the sample is at board level, and 40% are senior directors.)
One reason why the existing high-pressure environment survives could be because the 'median employee' is broadly satisfied. No one feels much incentive to take evasive action if no crisis looms. Yet the fact that most people maintain some job satisfaction does not mean life could not be improved.
Maybe the stress and long hours persist because most employees expect and want to be challenged. (The professional challenge is by far the most popular reason our respondents say they took the job they are in.) Perhaps the employers, or the managers themselves, confuse 'confronting a challenge' with 'sitting at a desk for 15 hours a day'.
There is, however, a more obvious reason why nothing changes. Employers resist attempting to reduce the pressure in the office in the belief that long hours and stress-induced effort from their employees is needed to generate extra output and profits. This of course begs the question as to whether the stressful office is a truly productive one. Looking at this and other surveys, and indeed at other evidence, one has to doubt whether the extra hours and stress generate a proportional increase in output.
But even if you get a little more out of employees by working them through their lunch hour, there is no such thing as a free lunch hour for the employer. If you work staff too hard, inevitably they end up leaving, or you end up having to pay them more to keep them. So the really big decision facing companies is whether it is better to work staff hard and pay them more, or not.
Research carried out last year showed that most employees would not accept a pay cut to work fewer hours. A similar finding emerges from corresponding American evidence. Our survey this year offers ambiguous evidence on this score: when asked what would make them leave their job, almost identical numbers quote money and poor work/life balance as the most important factor. The obvious conclusion is that not all employees are the same; some want cash, others want time.
If that is right, there are two challenges for employers. First, to think about the managers and employees who would trade less pay for fewer hours. To what extent can their needs be accommodated? The second challenge is to find ways of minimising the downsides of high-pressure work for everybody, even for those who are broadly satisfied operating in that kind of environment (or who are at least willing to suffer it for the money). Our survey reveals some of the ways companies can improve things.
By far the most obvious is to run a small organisation. On almost all questions, respondents from small organisations were more positive than those in large ones. Trust, satisfaction and morale are all higher - three times as many respondents in small organisations report high morale than in large ones. The desire to seek work elsewhere is lower in small organisations, notwithstanding the fact that larger organisations should be able to offer more varied opportunities for advancement. Retention and recruitment problems appear smaller in the small organisations.
So, somehow, the challenge in large organisations is to replicate the small-is-beautiful culture of a smaller organisation. The obvious tip arising from our survey is to say 'thank you' more often, as one of the factors that emerges again and again is the importance of personal recognition.
Lack of recognition is surprisingly cited as more important than money as a factor that could lead respondents to seek a new job. In large organisations, disappointment with the amount of recognition received is evident in almost half of respondents; in smaller organisations recognition is only cited as disappointing in 38% of cases.
Small organisations also appear to respect their staff more, and listen to them. In large organisations, 38% say they do not believe their employer takes suggestions for new ways of working seriously; in small ones, it is a mere 26%.
All in all, the findings give plenty of material to support what could be described as a humane '21st-century manifesto' for improving the workplace. For those still operating on the basis of the Victorian model, perhaps the survey should be seen as another nagging piece of evidence that it is time heads were knocked together and a new culture nurtured.
Can we dismiss the findings of the survey? It covers a substantial sample - nearly 2000 responses. The majority of respondents are in their forties and married; a large minority have school-age children. The respondents are geographically and sectorally dispersed.
Obviously, participation was voluntary, so the self-selecting nature of the sample might skew the results towards those with the biggest gripes.
But we have not received mailbags of abusive complaints about evil employers; the results are thoughtful and consistent and by no means unanimous. Is there any more positive note on which to end? Well, it is the hope eternal expressed by respondents. A majority (just) - some 51% - believe that work/life quality for their staff will improve over the next five years.
Maybe it will - if only the managers who responded to our survey take steps to respond to its findings.
Full copies of the complete research report, The Price of Success, are available from Ceridian Performance Partners (tel 0171 420 3800), priced £45+VAT
SIMEON BIRD 'The way I look at it,' says Simeon Bird, 28, 'I'm not that far through my career, so the jobs I want to be doing at the moment are those which look to the future and add to my CV. Money is obviously important but not as important as establishing myself in some area or discipline.' Bird is the international area manager for Twinings & Co, the tea makers. He is unmarried, has no children and lives in West London, 'reverse commuting' to work in Andover, Hampshire.
Having recently left American toy giant Hasbro, where he was UK brand manager for MB Parker Games, Simeon has been in his present job for five months. 'Basically, I'm extremely happy with what I'm doing,' he says. 'Tea and toys are very different and it's nice to find work challenging again.' He spent the best part of nine months looking for a new position before choosing Twinings, because 'a lot of sales and marketing jobs pay very well but don't offer much in the way of valuable long-term experience'. His longer-term plan is to stay in international marketing for blue-chip companies, although he points out that before your early to mid-thirties it is hard to predict where exactly you will end up.
MATTHEW WRIGHT would like to see more of his daughters - Olivia (seven) and Alexandra (four) - but work gets in the way. The 36 year old managing director in Europe of head-hunters Russell Reynolds Associates squeezes his personal life in around long hours and foreign travel - he often spends two or three nights a week away from home. 'I only spend around 15 minutes with my children on weekdays,' he admits.
Even when working in London, his journey begins while the children are still asleep. Getting home at a reasonable time may well mean taking work home with him. 'I aim to get home in time to put them to bed,' he says. Weekends on the other hand are 'exclusively for friends and family' - apart from the odd Saturday morning flight back from the US.
He admits that his family is very flexible. 'We'd relocate anywhere provided it didn't interfere with the children's education.' His wife, formerly a chiropodist, has given up work to look after the children, at least until they are both at school.
It's a difficult balance. Despite his heavy schedule he is fairly satisfied with the status quo. 'In a perfect world I might cut down the travelling and see more of my children, but I wouldn't want to spend any less time actually working than I do now.'
PERSON TO PERSON
10 work-related issues that affect the personal lives of all the respondents
Work/life imbalance 15%
Long hours 14.5%
Management culture 13.4%
Travel/absence from home 12.3%
Excessive workload 10.4%
Stress/lack of support 8.2%
Lack of personal recognition 3.6%
Insufficient rewards 2.9%
Intrusive technology 1.1%
'I don't trust my employer'
Large organisations 36%
Public sector 34% Men 31%
Private sector 30%
Small organisations 25%
'Morale in this organisation is high'
Small organisations 37%
Private sector 27%
Public sector 15%
Large organisations 13%
'We are experiencing increasing difficulties with recruitment in my organisation'
Large organisations 54%
Public sector 52%
Private sector 45%
Small organisations 38%
STEPHANIE MURDOCH 'I saw the opportunities and I went for them. I didn't have time for a family,' says Stephanie Murdoch, 35. She chose work over motherhood shortly after joining insurance company JLT Group Services as a claims processor. Twelve years later she is the managing director.
The most stressful part of her life, she says, is 'maintaining the balance between work and home'. 'Left to my own devices I am the kind of person who puts everything into their job. The pressure turns me on.' She is married to a 'house-husband' who stopped work when her job took them from Worcester to London. Now he provides regular 'reality checks' if she is in danger of letting work take over. 'We do have rows about my work. I am not the easiest person to live with.' The financial rewards for her single-mindedness are generous and can buy her life's luxuries.
She has no plans to start a family in the future - 'I am too selfish to bring up children.' Nor will she be slowing the hectic pace of her life for some time yet. 'Ten years from now I'll still be working hard - it's in my nature.'
JACQUELINE DE BAER For businesswoman Jacqueline de Baer, 42, the twice-weekly game of tennis is as important as any business meeting. The big secret in making this possible, she says, is buying time. 'I buy ready meals, I buy the kids clothes by mail order, I spend money on quality help,' she says. The chief executive of de Baer, a corporate clothing company which supplies uniforms to the likes of Boots and Whitbread, she runs a business with 65 staff and a turnover of £8.5 million.
She is also the married mother of three children aged five, three and one. '(Even) if a catalogue is twice as expensive, I'll buy from it; if a shop is closer and costs more I'll shop there.' She reckons that this costs her roughly £50,000 a year which, obviously, 'I factor into what I pay myself.'
At work she doesn't 'buy time'. But 'I don't spend time making decisions.
I don't hang around: I just do it.'
It's a set-up that works for her: 'Nurturing kids and leading a company aren't that different.' She couldn't, she says, be a full-time mother and is a happier person for the way things operate. 'It sounds corny, but if I had to sum it up, it's all to do with good time management.'
Will work/life quality improve over the next five years?
52% of women and 51% of men say yes
54% in the private and 41% in the public sector agree
64% in small and 41% in large organisations agree
THE TOMBSTONE TEST
(or how to design a life that works)
What do you really want to be remembered for? Being the last out of the office?
- Learn about yourself, know when your health and wellbeing are being compromised and be prepared to change something
Make your role models people you wouldn't mind being stranded on a desert island with as opposed to the have-it-all-heroes - they rarely do have it all
- Figure out the importance of both the provider and carer roles in your life. If you are in a couple talk about how you might share these
- Remember you are going to be working for a long time, so integrate your career into the seasonality of your own life and be prepared to see it wax and wane depending on the shift in your priorities
SOURCE: Ceridian Performance Partners
What have you tried to ease work pressure?
Holidays 76% 85%
Exercise/sport 72% 76%
Alcohol 19% 24%
Therapy/counselling 7% 15%
Calling in sick 3% 5%
What would make you leave your job?
Lack of challenge 44%
Lack of recognition 37%
Lack of work/life balance 35%
The boss 21%
Lack of job security 21%
Corporate culture 20%
Workload pressure 18%
Who do you talk to about pressure at work?
Partner 83% 88%
Work colleagues 61% 65%
Friends at home 38% 63%
The boss 38% 44%
No one 33% 28%.