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Loneliness at work

The launch of the commission on loneliness this week has highlighted some interesting facts by encouraging people to share their experiences. One of the key points that have been raised is the assumption many make of associating loneliness only with older people. Another common myth is that loneliness involves being alone, but it can affect people who are surrounded by others and well-connected socially. This is because loneliness is not simply about the quantity of connections but the quality of them, so a person may know a lot of people but still feel lonely as their needs for social contact are unmet. This is becomingly increasingly common with modern lifestyles that rely on technology and social media for most interactions.

One of the stories I heard was from a lady who described herself as being what others would see as happy and successful, essentially someone who would have no reason to be lonely. She had a number of connections including a partner, children and a successful career but she considered herself to be among the fifth of the population who according to research are “always or often lonely”. And with two thirds of those people stating they would never publicly confess to suffering from loneliness it’s no wonder it’s a hidden topic.

We are social animals and naturally like to feel like we belong and this is true not only in our personal and social lives but also at work. Our work tends to form a large part of our identity and for some can provide opportunities for social interaction that enhance wellbeing.
However, in some cases work intensifies feelings of loneliness. With so many changes to working patterns it is not unusual for employees to feel disconnected from colleagues.

I was recently speaking to a group of home-based workers who praised the benefits and flexibility of working from home but alongside this were feelings of isolation and being ‘out-of-the loop’ with other staff and the company, one described it as feeling forgotten or invisible at times. Similarly those or with part-time or shift working patterns can feel distanced and it can be difficult for those on short-term or temporary contracts to settle or feel they belong in a team that they may only be part of for weeks or months.

With loneliness being talked of as a significant public health issue it’s a subject to consider in a range of settings. In the workplace the importance of communication is key, and effective and appropriate communication specifically. Managers should consider how information is shared; a common complaint can be feeling like you miss out on important information as this is discussed when some people aren’t present. With a decrease in face to face interactions and a greater reliance on emails it is important that business or organisational issues affecting employees are communicated openly and inclusively.

An opportunity to talk about other things than work is also very important. So called ‘water cooler chats’ are frowned upon in some organisations for being an unproductive use of time; however, short breaks discussing hobbies, holidays or even last night’s TV programmes can have great benefits. They can bring people together, encourage better team work and engagement and can also flag up any early signs of issues such as stress that may otherwise remain hidden. For those that don’t tend to be in the office these conversations can also take place virtually. For some organisations work nights out tend to be the main way to encourage people to socialise, however, they do not always help feelings of loneliness as not everyone will be interested in the same activities and for those that can’t attend it can lead to further feelings of exclusion.
There are a range of options to choose from and organisations can get creative with activities to offer from book clubs to quiz nights to museum visits. The important thing is for there to be a consistent approach that recognises even small gestures can make a great difference to those that feel isolated or lonely at work.

What do you do at work to encourage connections and reduce loneliness? Share with us in the comments.

Do we need to live a little bit more Danishly to get the security we need?

I have been reading a book called “The year of living Danishly” by Helen Russell, about a couple who decide to move to rural Denmark for a year. I was attracted to the book because the Danish have been regarded for some time as the happiest people in the world and I’m interested in how work impacts on their health and wellbeing. It seems I’m not alone in my interest as books and articles promoting ‘hygge’, a Danish concept that is said to underpin a happy attitude to life seem to be very popular currently!

The book is a good read and there have been lots of times when what I’ve read has made me smile and laugh as Helen and her partner navigate themselves through Danish life. Without giving away what’s in the book, she finds evidence of why we will probably never achieve the same levels of happiness here in the UK, but it does gives us some clues about how we might want to change our attitude to work.
Helen’s book talks about the Danish work culture and the flexicurity model that is followed which gives Danish workers job security and a safety net, if they become ill or are made redundant. While we are culturally too far away from the Danish benefits system that provides between 80-90% of your pay for up to 52 weeks and has great flexibility in changing jobs, shouldn’t we be looking a little more Danishly at how we consider work from both an employer and an employee point of view?

As I was completing reading the book, two reports dropped into my inbox, both from the CIPD. The first one said that poor financial wellbeing was beginning to affect people’s performance in the workplace and the second made the point that our flexible labour market may be beginning to constrain people in low quality jobs.
Neither of the reports makes for pretty reading and combined with the recent research that many fathers want to downshift to less stressful roles as they can’t balance work and home life, it looks like there is an emerging problem in the UK. A problem of what employees want and how that matches up with their time spent at work.

You could argue that the issues identified in the recent research all have an impact on employees’ productivity in one way or another, which is particularly relevant in Sheffield as it has been reported that the city has the lowest productivity for all of the large cities in England.

So going back to the book I read – could making a move to living a little bit more Danishly have an impact? And as financial security appears to be near the top of the list, is there something that employers can do?

Sick pay insurance maybe one answer, but it appears not to be on employer’s radar, perhaps because this type of insurance product appears to thin on the ground in this country. This is something that I have been researching and have found it is not too expensive to provide a scheme where employees who are ill could get 50% of their pay for a set period of time. We see many people who go to work when they are ill as they can’t afford to be off work because there is no company sick pay scheme. The result is people who aren’t being productive and depending on their illness sometimes affecting the health and wellbeing of their co-workers.

This is an important issue to consider as changes in the economy mean that the financial pressures employees are currently experiencing are likely to persist or worsen in the years to come. Having a scheme that provides some sort of financial safety net must be a good thing as it appears that financial wellbeing can have an effect on people’s overall health and productivity at work. Therefore rather than looking at isolated issues employers need to look at the way in which financial support can be offered within the wider context of how they provide support over a wide range of health and wellbeing issues.

Domino Effect of Disengagement

When in ‘good work’ we are more likely to be engaged employees; adopting the vision and values of the organisation, being focused and enthused about our tasks, sharing ideas, being adaptable and persistent in changing or difficult situations.

Unfortunately, however, many people experience situations that do not match with this. One of the key themes we encounter in our service, whether it’s supporting employers or employees, is disengagement. This can present itself in many forms and lead to a number of issues.

Firstly, let’s consider what is meant by disengagement in the workplace. One way to define disengagement is the lack of enthusiasm and commitment to work or a workplace. Active disengagement can present itself in behaviours such as absenteeism, low energy and poor relationships.
A quick online search of disengagement in the workplace brings up numerous links for issues of disengagement among employees but is it only employees that this affects and what leads to an individual feeling this way?

Consider the example below of a case we have been involved with recently;

Mr A works as a joiner for a large employer in the city. He was signed off from work around a month ago due to an injury to his back caused by a job he was doing. Prior to the injury he had asked his manager for further support as although he’d been qualified as a joiner for some time, he was moved to another contract that required him to complete tasks that he had very little experience of.

Further support was not forthcoming which caused him to develop symptoms of stress and anxiety. He has suffered from this in the past and his employers were aware that he was struggling. After being referred to the company occupational health department and meeting with his manager to discuss a return to work it was determined that Mr A was only suffering from a physical issue and they were very dismissive of his mental health symptoms. Measures were taken to address some of the physical limitations Mr A had in his role but little was done to reassure him that he would be supported to learn the role and reduce his stress and anxiety. Before being signed off his manager opted to start capability procedures further exacerbating his symptoms.

Mr A was referred to SOHAS midway through his absence, he met with an advisor who provided guidance for requesting occupational health support which noted his stress and anxiety. A letter was also drafted providing the employer with recommendations on how best to support him back to work that actively looks to address his mental health to ensure that he’s able to stay well and in work such as carrying out a stress assessment and organising regular supervision.

What do you notice about this situation?
Let’s begin with the employee; Mr A was very open about his concerns moving into a different role and was proactive in requesting help in order to carry out the new tasks. Would he therefore be considered to be an engaged employee? However, he was not offered support which not only led to a physical injury but also had an impact upon his mental wellbeing. What impact is this likely to have when he does return to work? If we think about the organisation as a whole how many other employees are likely to be struggling at work but are reluctant to come forward if the manager is not supportive? This suggests the issue could be greater than just an individual.

The most common reason for disengagement in the workplace is thought to be due to relationships with managers. Managers have a key role to play in engaging and leading their teams and in order to do this effectively they need to be engaged themselves.

According to a Gallup study(1), “Employees who are supervised by highly engaged managers are 59% more likely to be engaged than those supervised by actively disengaged managers.”

This is a cause for concern when another report by Gallup(2) suggests that only 35% of managers are engaged in their jobs. (These figures are for managers in the US as there seems to be a lack of data for the UK).

There are a range of factors that can contribute to disengagement among managers and some could be shared across employees at all levels but others are specific to managers. For example, a lack of awareness of the issues that affect employees due to a lack of communication or perhaps similarly to the situation described above talking about the concerns but not acknowledging or acting upon them. This can be due a lack of skills, time, supervision and/or support to be able to deal with issues such as mental health leading to the manager feeling out of their comfort zone.

It is important for organisations to not only encourage open communication among staff at all levels but to investigate and act on issues that arise. This can then lead to increased trust and a supportive network forming in the workplace as opposed to the domino effect of disengagement.

Please do leave any comments as future blog posts will continue to explore other aspects of disengagement.


The Generation Game – considering the needs of an age diverse workforce

I have been carrying out some research in partnership with the Leicestershire Fit for Work Service on the attitudes to employee health and wellbeing in the voluntary sector. One of the questions I’m asking is “How do organisations manage the health and wellbeing of a multigenerational workforce?” The replies to the question have been fairly consistent and usually start with “That’s a good question” and end in “We haven’t thought about that issue.”

I’m reasonably confident that view isn’t just confined to the voluntary sector, where, once you include volunteers it’s not uncommon to have staff between the ages of 18 and 80 working together delivering services.

Looking at the country as a whole, you can conclude that the picture is or will be similar in other sectors once you consider that;

  • In the near future the average age of the UK workforce is projected to be 43 years.
  • An increasing number of people who are in their 50’s now have no option but to continue working past traditional retirement ages because their pensions (private and Government) will not cover their living costs.
  • There are an increasing number of people who do not want to fully retire because they feel that working helps them to maintain their health.

With a steady increase in workforce’s where the youngest employee could be 16 and the oldest could be in their 70’s, the issue of a multigenerational workforce isn’t one that can simply be ignored.  In addition, recent research about the health of employees suggests that 1 in 3 of the working population (over 11m people) have at least one long term health condition, a % that is growing as we age (15% of 16-24 year olds, to 57% of 65-74 year olds) so employers have a challenge on their hands.

So what can organisations do? Well, one of the choices is whether to avoid or embrace this; I recently heard a CEO of a major employer in the UK imply that they didn’t really want to keep on employing people past the retirement age or you can take the view that there are some benefits of having a multigenerational workforce.

There is emerging evidence that a different approach on how you engage with a multigenerational workforce could be beneficial. Breaking down your workforce by generation can give an idea of the complexity of the issue.

Silent Generation:  Born before 1945

Baby Boomer: Born 1946-1964

Gen X: Born 1965-1980

Millennials: Born 1981-2000

Gen Z: Born after 1995

It is generally believed that different generations have different outlooks on work e.g. the Gen X “Work to Live” and the Baby Boomers “Live to Work” and that there is the emergence of the “Sandwich” generation who have child and carers responsibilities.

The main issue to engage your employees with is on their health. There is a large amount of evidence of the effects of poor health of employees in workplaces, with mental health issues continuing to rise. This year it has been reported that almost 1 in 6 of the working population have a diagnosable mental health condition and 9.9m days will be lost to work-related stress, anxiety and/or depression. There are some common issues across the generations that employees say affect their health; workload, flexibility, control, the relationship with their line manager and how sickness absence is managed.

There is also a growing argument that different approaches are required to meet the needs and expectations of different generations. An example of how this can be done is in office design, where we are beginning to see the rise of open plan offices being changed to a mixture of traditional desks, hot desks, open spaces and communication hubs.  These are modelled to suit the needs of each generation. A short time ago this was seen as something that a contemporary company like Google would do, but it is now filtering through to a wider range of other organisations.

I don’t think that there is anything specifically new about how you engage with a multigenerational workforce; the key is that the organisation has to be “well managed.”  We often see that training for line managers in the UK lags behind other more productive countries such as France.  Therefore, my vision of how an organisation can manage health and wellbeing effectively regardless of the age of their employees would include:

  • Managers who are trained in managing the expectations of multigenerational employees, with a particular emphasis on mental health issues. Devising the most flexible approach to how employees can carry out their work.
  • That staff have an appropriate level of control over workload.
  • Having a proportionate sickness absence policy, that doesn’t penalise employees with long term health conditions.

The issue of how organisations respond to an age diverse workforce is growing in importance and one that is seemingly being ignored from the research I’ve carried out so far.

If you would like to know more about the issues I’ve raised or to share your experiences of working with age-diverse colleagues, we are holding a free workshop as part of the Fringe Events that are accompanying the MADE Festival, on Wednesday 9th November 1.45 – 2.45pm at Electric Works.  For more details and to book a place click here.

Good Work?

My aim is to post on a more regular basis from now on. All comments welcome.

I was interested by the recent news that the Welsh government had used some research by the New Economic Foundation (NEF) (1) on what was a “good job” as a part of their national indicators (2), they used the words “Percentage of people moderately or very satisfied with their jobs”. The definition that was developed by NEF was “everyone should be able to find secure, stable employment that pays at least enough to provide a decent standard of living.” While both definitions are a good start, it got me thinking about what is a “good” job. What about, the other parts of your job that make you come into your workplace and feel that you are valued and respected and that allow you to get on with your job.

I know from my job, what makes it good is having control over the way I do my job and the amount of flexibility I have to carry out my role against the needs of my family e.g. being able pick up from school. But I also decided to speak to colleagues from other companies in different sectors and here is a summary of what they thought is a “good” job;

  • Security – regular hours/ minimum contract / permanent position / same pay monthly
  • Flexibility – Support if I need to leave work to attend a school function or event, work from home with sick children, etc.
  • Appreciation – simple gesture of thanks from your manager or employer including ways to show your appreciation of the team you work in.
  • Involvement – involving staff in all aspects of the organisation and its decision making.
  • Support – working in a supportive environment, being given help and support and being helped and supported in turn and being expected to give support where needed.
  • People – fostering and developing bonds, one of the biggest reasons people said why they would not want to leave where they work is the people they work with.
  • Money – Being paid a fair wage, for what you do – this is not necessarily a great wage, but perceived to be fair and just, if you compare your workload and pay to another user in a similar role or company.

The amount people were paid wasn’t their top criterion on what makes a good job. I make no claim of any conclusive proof on the views I collected, but it is similar to what patients who use our advice services say they want; security, flexibility, control and appreciation in their job. These kinds of issues are the ones that contribute to maintaining people’s health and wellbeing.

NEF state in their research “Wellbeing and health have both seen improvements, but the underlying structure of the UK’s economy has allowed inequality to widen. Economic recovery since 2008 has meant a rise in overall employment, but at the same time, the proportion of people in secure, decently-paid jobs has fallen”

A recent report from the CIPD (3) recently noted that only 8% of workplaces have a standalone health and wellbeing strategy, which does tend to confirm our experience that most employers view wellbeing as an-add on “or nice to have” activity.

So with a chance of a recession being 50/50 according to many economists following our exit from the EU, is the proportion of people employed in “good” jobs going to go down or are we going to see employers look again about giving their employees an environment where they feel that they can be productive whatever the economic outlook.

  1. NEF:
  2. Welsh government: National indicator for Wales 2016
  3. Miller J, Suff R. growing the health and agenda: from first steps to full potential. London: CIPD. 2016


Fit notes and sickness absence

Two interesting documents arrived in my inbox today, An evaluation of fit notes from an employees perspective by the DWP:

and the 2013 Sickness Absence and Rehabilitation Survey 2013 by EEF:

 What is interesting is the difference in perception when talking about how well (or not!) fit notes are issued and used. The DWP report talks about the majority of GPs and employers having understood the types of changes in work that would be helpful to employees, while the EEF report shows that there are a substantial number of employers who feel that fit notes are not helping their employees to return to work earlier.  What the DWP report does show is that only a small percentage of fit notes issued gave information on what kind of help their patient needed to return to work. The EEF report suggests that the GP is solely responsible in ensuring that employees return to work as early as possible. While I’m not comparing like with like in terms of the two reports, I suspect that the realities of how effective fit notes are in returning employees back to work lie somewhere in the middle of these 2 reports.

 An employer has a duty of care to their employees to ensure that their health is not affected by their work and for an employee to take a responsible approach to managing their health so it doesn’t affect their work. The GP sits in the middle to give advice and support that should be beneficial to both the patient and their employer.

 There is no doubt that GPs need to get a better understanding of their patients job and the effect it is having on their health and to relate that to what they put on a fit note. Employers need to understand better that they have a responsibility to their employees to ensure that their work doesn’t make them ill.