Towards Gross National Wellbeing

Professor Gail Kinman reports on Professor Sir Cary Cooper’s keynote at the Society’s Annual Conference – how can psychologists help to enhance mental capital and wellbeing at work?

Stress is the number one work-related health problem with extensive costs to individuals and society - a total of 11.3 million working days were lost to work-related stress in 2013/14, with costs estimated at £92bn. In his well-attended keynote address, Professor Sir Cary Cooper drew on the findings of the many studies he has conducted in his highly productive career to consider the causes of workplace stress and what can be done to alleviate it. 

Although concerns are frequently raised about the high costs of sickness absenteeism for the profitability of organisations, Professor Cooper presented evidence showing that ‘presenteeism’ (when people continue to work while sick) is more common and considerably more costly. Presenteeism may be seen by employers as beneficial in the short-term, but it has potentially serious implications for health and performance. There are particular concerns in jobs where lapses of attention and faulty decision making resulting from employees feeling unwell could compromise the safety of themselves and others. Professor Cooper emphasised that organisations clearly need staff that are both healthy and present, but the findings of a UK study of 39,000 employees indicated that only around one-third of employees fit this category at any one time. So what can be done to make people healthier and more productive and what is the role for psychology in meeting these aims?

Professor Cooper presented an overview of his comprehensive model that identifies key sources of job-related stress with strong potential to impair wellbeing and organisational functioning. Nonetheless, he argued that it is vital to consider the role of context; some job stressors such as workload, low control and poor communication are likely to be stressful for all workers but job-specific factors, such as managing aggressive patients or clients, can be particularly hazardous for health. He emphasised that work ‘under-load’ can be as much a problem as overload as boredom has negative implications for employee engagement, performance and health and safety. Other key sources of stress discussed were the employee’s role in the organisation, career development (including job insecurity) and organisation structure and climate.

The importance of positive and supportive relationships at work for both wellbeing and organisational profitability was strongly emphasised. Professor Cooper presented evidence that the incidence of bullying and harassment has increased since the recession, with powerful negative effects on employee health and retention. Lack of support, reassurance and appreciation can also be powerful sources of stress. This was well illustrated by the findings of a recent survey that asked workers to identify the most important characteristic for managers in 2020 - the answer was overwhelmingly ‘social and interpersonal skills’. If we want to increase wellbeing and productivity, he argued, it is vital to select managers for their interpersonal skills. It is also vital to help them balance praising employees for a job well done with giving negative feedback.  Managers are typically poor at this: “do something wrong and you know it, but you are never told if you do something well”.

Reducing working hours is also crucial for improving the quality of working and personal life, with wide-ranging benefits for health and performance. In the 1960s it was predicted that technology would allow us to work a 20 hour week, with the surplus spent on leisure activities. Professor Cooper provided evidence that average working hours have increased rather than reduced over time. The UK now has the longest working hours in the developed world with managers currently putting in between 52 and 55 hours in an average week. A body of evidence shows that longer working hours impair rather than enhance productivity with little time and energy left for employees to replenish their psychological and physical resources. Nonetheless, he argued, organisations continue to believe that "face time" is synonymous with productive time. Research conducted during the recession and its aftermath also suggests that employees themselves are prepared to put in longer hours and compromise their work life balance and wellbeing due to job insecurity.

The serious consequences of long working hours for personal relationships were well illustrated by Professor Cooper. The findings of a study he conducted with the charity Working Families showed that one in three employed parents spend less than one hour with their children after work on weekdays. He argued that the recent expansion of the right to request flexible working to all employees should make a difference to all. Although employees do not have the right to work flexibly, their employees must take such requests seriously. The extension of the right to request flexible working and increased uptake should highlight the benefits for organisations and employees. Professor Cooper stated that organisations typically fail to reap the benefits of flexibility and e-working – they do not trust their employees to do the job they are paid for rather than “catch up on the soaps or do the gardening”. He argued that there is a sound business case for encouraging flexible working practices as people who work flexibly are not only more satisfied with their work and personal life, but also more productive - they tend to put in longer hours as working at home saves on commuting time.

New technology such as smart phones can enable employees to work more flexibly: “they can do their job anywhere and anytime”. The downside is that it is hard to switch them off. There is evidence that employees frequently feel pressure to be always on duty - for example, reading e-mails during evenings, weekends and vacation periods - which can impair work-life balance, wellbeing and performance over the longer-term. How can we use our mobile devices more healthily? Professor Cooper provided some examples of organisations that have begun to recognise the need to ‘reboot’ human beings, such as introducing e-mail control systems to encourage face-to-face social engagement. Such systems may involve shutting the server down outside normal working hours to stop e-mails being sent and received. He observed that employees frequently send e-mails to a colleague who may be located in the office next door, rather than engage in a face-to-face conversation with them. Organisations, such as Liverpool County Council, have stopped employees from sending emails to colleagues within the same building altogether, with tangible benefits for interpersonal relationships and team-building.

Professor Cooper made a strong legal, moral and business case for employers to protect the wellbeing of their staff. Nonetheless, although nearly 70 per cent of employers acknowledge that the wellbeing of their employees directly impacts on their productivity, they do not necessarily know how to manage this. Although psychologists have a clear role to play, Professor Cooper remarked that we are better at identifying problems than generating realistic and acceptable solutions to help organisations improve wellbeing amongst the workforce. He highlighted the importance of resilience in helping employees thrive at work rather than merely survive. As yet, however, we know little about the working conditions and personal qualities that help employees to flourish. Improving personal resilience is clearly important, but Professor Cooper emphasised the need for organisations to fulfil their duty of care to protect employees from the damaging effects of work-related stress. All too often, he argued, employers expect employees to adapt to stressful working conditions, rather than try to eliminate the stressors at source. He acknowledged that changing organisation policies and practices is obviously more challenging than changing individuals, but the findings of several meta-analyses show that organisation-focused interventions are particularly effective.

In order to manage employee wellbeing sustainably and effectively, psychologists need to offer organisations a range of evidence-based multi-level interventions and emphasise the difference they can make to “hard” outcomes such as productivity and profitability. Professor Cooper also emphasised the need for organisations to change their cultures to fully embrace new ways of working. It is particularly important to challenge the prevailing view that the ‘ideal worker’ is one who is always available. He warned that the parents of the ‘millennium generation’ frequently sacrificed their personal lives, relationships and wellbeing for the job. Young people do not want such a ‘one-sided deal’, but a different type of psychological contract where a fulfilling personal life is prioritised and the benefits of this are recognised by all stakeholders.

Professor Cooper concluded his highly engaging talk by quoting from Senator Robert Kennedy’s 1968 speech on the limitations of relying on gross domestic product as an index of national wellbeing and the need to move towards measuring gross national wellbeing:

gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile”.  

- Professor Gail Kinman is at the University of Bedfordshire. See also our 'One on One' with Professor Sir Cary Cooper.

More reports from the Society's Annual Conference will appear on this site over the coming days and weeks, with extras in the July print edition. Find out more about next year's event

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