Dear readers (and my apologies for such an unusually direct address), I have a request to make. This month is the deadline for our wellbeing poster competition – Friday 19 October – and I would be delighted if you could give the competition a final push within your organisation and encourage your people to enter.
We know that the wellbeing of staff is crucial for their quality of life, for engagement and for any measure of productivity, and we hope this competition will trigger a conversation about building a healthier workplace. I know that many of you are doing so already and we’re looking forward to seeing your submissions.
This leads me neatly onto recent ONS statistics, reported in last month’s Safety Management, that ‘UK workers are taking the lowest number of sick-days on record.’ A reason to celebrate, one would think. It must surely be a good thing that more workers feel well enough to be at work and that the causes of sickness – at home or work – must be diminishing if these statistics are to be believed. Yet, in response to the news, respected commentators like Professor Gary Cooper said the figures ‘painted an unreal picture of the state of workers’ health.’ And the basis for this doubt?: In a word, productivity.
By all measures, UK productivity is not in a good place. Again, from the ONS, ‘UK labour productivity is estimated to have fallen by 0.4 per cent in the first three months of 2018 as a result of continuous strength in employment growth and weaker output.’ It goes on to note that low UK productivity has been bucking historical trends since 2008 when it used to average 2 per cent growth a year.
The reasons are hard to fathom – if there are more people in work and, with low sickness absence, more workers producing, then output would be expected to at least keep pace with the historic average. The ONS states that the ‘productivity puzzle’ remains.
Throw in the power of new technologies with their promised efficiency gains and their potential to revolutionise the workplace, and the puzzle grows.
What is going on? It seems likely to me that the human element is missing from the discussion about the health of the UK economy. Being at work is not the same as being productive. Being armed with the latest technology is not the same as being productive. What does make a difference, according to expert in work and health Dame Carol Black, and many others, is the wellbeing of staff. According to Professor Black, psychological wellbeing can produce as much as a 25 per cent increase in productivity.
The danger of the sick-day statistics is that they don’t get under the skin of what is happening in the workplace and can mask a multitude of sins. The danger of using negative metrics like sickness absence is that they can drive inappropriate behaviours. For example, if someone comes to work ill, they might improve the sick-day stats, yet they will not only be less productive than their healthy self, they can also spread sickness in the workforce, which impacts on the productivity of all.
Further, reducing sickness absence says nothing about what staff are doing while at work. Are they engaged, are they producing much output, is the job even a ‘real’ job?
If wellbeing is a complex description of physical and mental health and, crucially, a sense that work is good and it is seen as a good place to be; then improving ’work’– if one’s physical and mental health is ok (we don’t have to be perfect) – must be at the heart of any wellbeing strategy.
The presence of a lot of sick and disengaged workers cannot be the right measure of a successful business. Such ‘presenteeism’ is really bad for staff and the economy.
What our members and researchers tell us is that leaders who take an interest in their staff’s wellbeing, a board that considers staff wellbeing as much as the finances and where line managers are trained in people skills and not just technical know-how, will collectively drive out presenteeism and drive up productivity.
Further details on the Images of Wellbeing competition can be found here
Mike Robinson is chief executive of the British Safety Council.