Work, any sort of work, an activity that involves a mixture of physical and mental activity, and has the promise of a reward when it is completed, has, I have long thought, got to be good for you. Having a reason to get up in the morning, the mental and physical exertion, having other people who are relying on you and just the social interaction, even when you’re arguing have got to be good for you. Or at least better for you than sitting around with nothing to do other than watch day-time TV, surely.
Well yes, the negative impact of unemployment on both mental and physical health have been recognised for some time by the NHS.
But, now it seems that unemployment may, for some people, be the better option. New research from Manchester University, has found that bad work can have a larger negative impact on a person’s health than being unemployed.
Work involving stressful activities or those that are low paid are the most likely to have a detrimental effect on health, so if you have one of these types of jobs you may actually be better off, health wise, if you give up work.
During 2009 and 2010 Manchester University looked at how people 1,000 people aged between 35 and 75 transitioned from unemployment into different types of work and used self-reporting and hormone and other stress biomarker tests to assess the impact these different types of work had on their health. Their findings have been published in the International Journal of Epidemiology.
The highest levels of chronic stress were clearly found in the people who had who moved into poor quality work. They had stress levels higher than the people who had remained unemployed during the study. The lowest levels of stress where found in those people who had found what the researchers described as good quality work.
The impact of quality of work on health seems to be focused on mental rather than physical health. If a person found good quality work they were likely to show an improvement in mental health and people who found poor quality work had increased risks of a range of mental and physical health problems.
These findings are not as new or as radical as they may at first sound. The Institute for Public Policy Research has also identified that people in insecure or temporary employment are more likely to have mental health problems than those who enjoy the stability of being a permanent employee.
The leader of the research team Tarani Chandola, professor of medical sociology at the University of Manchester has called for employers to design jobs that include quality work activities as this is likely to impact the level of success that an individual has in that job.
The professor acknowledged the widely held view that good quality work is good for health, but called for greater acceptance of the negative impact that poor-quality work has on health.
Professor Sir Cary Cooper, president of the CIPD, and professor of organisational psychology and health at Manchester Business School, told People Management good work involved more than just the activities of the job. Having too much to do, being in an organisation with a culture of bullying or just not being able to see any way out of a bad job all contribute to what makes work poor-quality.
Sir Cary predicted that maintaining good workplace health and wellbeing strategies could become more difficult in the near future because of growing job insecurity and general economic uncertainty. He said that having an employee wellbeing strategy is what supports an organisational statement that an organisations employees are its most important asset. HR professionals, says Sir Cary, need to be more assertive in the board room when it comes to promoting the wellbeing agenda.
Getting boardroom buy-in to employee wellbeing strategies is a subject that I spoke about at an event organised by PATH Yorkshire,
It seems very easy to blame employers for creating poor quality work, and it is far too simplistic to suggest that part of the solution may be for people who have poor-quality jobs to simply stop going in to work and visit the Job Centre Plus instead.
All jobs involve tasks that are boring, and all jobs involve activities that are stressful. It is true that employers could improve the way in which they design jobs and how they manage the people doing those jobs so that work with the potential to be good does not turn bad because of the non-work-related aspects of employment, which Cary Cooper described.
It is also important to acknowledge that employers like the suppliers of any product or service provide the jobs that people are prepared to accept. If no one accepted job offers to do poor-quality work or walked out of jobs that made them unhappy the way in which work was organised would change quickly.
Well, I’ll put the rose-tinted glasses off and accept that it will be a long time before that happens. I won’t stop trying to help employers create work that people want to do because it helps them achieve their lifestyle aspirations at the same time as working towards the achievement of an organisations objectives. I will try and make sure that any company that works with us is focused on making their employees happy, because as Sir Richard Branson is often quoted as saying, happy employees are more productive, they create happy customers and that creates happy shareholders… I know he has taken the Virgin Group back into private ownership since then.
What the researchers at Manchester University did not tell us was what the people who found themselves in poor quality work did to improve their situation. It is too easy when you find yourself in a bad job, bored by the work you are doing, disliking the people you work with, hating your boss, and knowing that you are capable of doing something else to feel despondent. I am sure that everyone has felt that way some of the time in every job that they have ever had. It’s when the problem days outnumber the good days that you know something really needs to be done about it.
You can always buy a ticket for the lottery and hope for the best, because when you look around there doesn’t seem to be much help for people in work but poor-quality work and unhappy in that work. The priority for the Government is to get unemployed people into employment. That is part of the problem, the target doesn’t identify a difference between good and poor-quality work. Just find them a job!
The fact is though, that people who are unhappy at work do not have to simply accept that situation as their only option.
That is why I am pleased to have been asked to work with PATH Yorkshire on their Second Chance project, which helps people who are in work to gain the skills, knowledge and let’s be honest the self-confidence to take the steps that will enable them to obtain better paid work with ideally their existing employer or at some other company.
More employers should investigate how the Second Chance project might be able to help them develop their business by tapping into well, the untapped potential of their existing employees.
PATH Yorkshire have invited me to speak at a workshop on 19th July at Shine in Leeds, about the change management processes that will help an organisation introduce a more proactive approach to the mental health and wellbeing of their employees.
The invitation arrives in the wake of a visit to Leeds by HRH Prince Harry during which he spoke about the need for everyone to be more open about mental health issues and accepting that everyone is has an equal potential of having a mental health challenge.
At the same time, I have spoken to employers who whilst keen to talk positively in support of the Prince’s message are reluctant to acknowledge that their employees are at risk or that their way of working may put people at risk. I get an overwhelming feeling that a lot of employers are in denial. So, being asked to continue the conversation about mental health is quite a privilege.
I will be looking at how an individual within an organisation, regardless of whether they are a HR professional or not can build a case for introducing a proactive approach to employee physical and mental health and wellbeing.
We will look at the processes of building the business case and identifying how to position that proposition so that it is readily accepted by a senior management team and implemented.
This event comes at a time when the reluctance of employers to be involved in the management of employee health is having an impact on productivity and the number of employees with health issues is increasing. A recent survey of 2,000 UK workers conducted by PwC found that just over a third (34%) were struggling with a mental health issue, most commonly anxiety, depression and stress. Mental Health charity, Mind, says that a quarter (26 per cent) of staff with mental health issues thought work was the main cause.
Part of the problem is as the Heads Together campaign launched by Prince Harry and the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge says people are not talking about mental health. There is a way to go before people can feel comfortable about it.
Research published by insurer Legal & General shows that fewer than one in 10 employees would feel comfortable discussing mental health problems with their manager. They just do not have the confidence in their managers, but 78 per cent of those managers think their staff would be happy to have a conversation with them about their mental health. So, it is easy for managers to believe that if the employee is not starting that conversation, perhaps there isn’t a problem?
If the conversation isn’t happening, and there is no published policy about health and wellbeing, and no health-related benefits, more than half (54 per cent) of the employees surveyed by PwC said that their employer did not offer any health perks, such as subsidised gym membership, health screenings or counselling, then neither the manager or the employee knows what the other is thinking. You end up with a situation in which research published by insurer Aviva found that as many as 43% of employees feel that they employers value productivity more highly than the health of their employees.
It all starts to feel somewhat dark satanic mills.
But, if productivity is what concerns you, the PwC research identified that 39% of employees take time off or cut back on the work that they were doing as a result of their health, and 83% described their levels of productivity being strongly linked to their well-being. This results in an absence figure of 27 days per year per employee according to the Financial Times. Add that to an employee’s holiday entitlement and you could be looking at an average employee only being at work for just over 9 months of the year.
Add this to recent figures from the Office for National Statistics which show that overall UK productivity is falling, as measured by output per hour, is estimated to have fallen by 0.5% from Quarter 4 (Oct to Dec) 2016 to Quarter 1 (Jan to Mar) 2017; over a longer time-period, labour productivity growth has been lower on average than prior to the economic downturn.
All the evidence over a long period of time identifies that healthier, happier employees are better performers, they stay, they have a long-term impact on cost reduction and have fewer accidents.
So why aren’t businesses more interested in maintaining employee health?
In part, the perception of employees that productivity is more important has an element of truth.
As employers, we do not understand enough about what makes one employee more productive than another or what make one employee more susceptible to illness than their colleagues. What we do know is that successful businesses take a proactive approach to managing both productivity and employee health and absence.
The first step is to make sure that your senior managers are on-board with the approach and that is what we will explore at the event on 19th July.