“In the office in which I work there are five people of whom I am afraid. Each of these five people is afraid of four people (excluding overlaps), for a total of twenty, and each of these twenty people is afraid of six people who are feared by at least one person. In my department there are six people who are afraid of me and one small secretary who is afraid of all of us. I have one other person working for me who isn’t afraid of anyone, not even me. And I find quickly that I am afraid of him.”
This might be a fictional account of work – from Joseph Heller’s novel, ‘Something Happened’ – but no doubt it prompts pangs of recognition for many people. I’ve just been involved in Robertson Cooper's new research on the banking industry and I opened with this quote at the launch event last week at the Bank Workers Charity in London. Why can’t work be more fun? More relaxed? Less of a grind? That was my message – although obviously the questions aren’t really as black and white as that.
If might be a overdone stereotype, but when we have offices that have a lot in common with the one Heller describes, we’re only scratching the surface of the lives of employees. How can we know their pressures, stresses, ideas and aspirations without an open, communicative environment that encourages people to discuss a range of issues?
This latest research - Bank on your People - uncovered a range of non-work pressures that have never been considered before in our conception of ‘bank workers’: lack of sleep; financial worries; caring responsibilities; and those everyday hassles like household chores that most of us have to contend with. Added on top of workplace pressures like heavy workloads, these are aspects that are creating ill health and lower productivity. So how do we address this wider ‘whole person’ conception of bank workers and improve those metrics?
All of the thinking, including the Mental Capital and Well-Being project I chaired a few years ago, shows we need to train managers to be more socially sensitive and socially skilled. That means better training in order to recognise and discuss work and non-work pressures, from shop floor to top floor. Secondly, we need banks (and other employers) to engage with the issue of well-being and look to mainstream it into activities like recruitment, personal development, talent management and so on. Senior leaders already realise that addressing the mix of pressures isn’t a ‘fluffy’ issue. Well-Being and resilience has recently been addressed by the World’s most powerful leaders at the World Economic Forum in Davos – a signal to business leaders that it’s a key topic for 2014.
Whilst leaders recognise the importance of well-being, they need a personal connection to its power, and how it can make you feel about your work and wider life, as well as the business benefits it creates. Banks were early adopters of the employee engagement agenda and it’s not hard to see why when the close link to customer service and productivity is obvious. But engagement is of a time and place. Well-Being creates the underlying conditions and mindset that drives sustainable results.
Contact centres are a great example where banks have broadly done good work, with dedicated employee experience teams, open communication and personal relationships that go beyond transactional manager-to-employee dynamics. If that accepted model is going to spread into other areas of banking, we have to start with an understanding of the pressures staff are under. Only then can we answer the crucial questions – how can we support our people, how can we make their job the most enjoyable and fulfilling it can be? And perhaps along the way, make accounts like Joseph Heller’s feel more like fiction than reality…
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MD of Cary Cooper's business psychology firm, Robertson Cooper - for all things well-being, engagement and resilience at work.
Professor Cary Cooper, Director and Founder of Robertson Cooper Ltd, Distinguished Professor of Organizational Psychology and Health at Lancaster University.
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