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Stress. It’s as much a part of our modern day office vernacular as paperclips, coffee rounds and conference calls. More than that, it’s also the leading cause of sickness absence in the UK – two out of every three days off are stress-related – and a catalyst for longer term physical and mental illness. So, how do we start to tackle a problem that has so much sway over our wellbeing, and the health of the British economy?

Recently, Dame Sally Davies – Chief Medical Officer of the NHS – revealed that the cost of these lost working days adds up to £100bn over the past five years. The numbers are getting bigger, which has prompted many public and private sector businesses to look at their wellbeing strategies. The fact remains, though, that even in the most supportive working structures, mental health can be an intimidating subject to broach with colleagues and senior to top management.

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Regardless of the source, the amount of unpaid overtime worked in the UK ranges from £500m to £2 billion every year. This raises several issues.

First, we need to clarify what part of the phenomenon we actually care about: is it the unpaid bit, or the extra hours spent away from family and home lives? And, is it national pride we’re looking to build – in those European league tables of enlightened attitudes to work – or would we rather focus on minimizing the impact at the individual level?

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Most of us, if we’re honest with ourselves, love a good stat and some startling ones have emerged lately. The divorce rate in Maine correlates almost exactly with US margarine consumption. Coincidence?

Yes.

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The modern PR and Comms. Department can have something of a love-hate relationship with social media. It’s one of the most powerful tools for building employer brands and reaching a wider audience but when it goes wrong, it tends to do so spectacularly. Now a new social media startup threatens to strike fear into the heart of even the most skilled and authentic corporate PR machines. Secret.ly is the network designed for people to communicate with the world in complete anonymity – as the site puts it, to ‘share anything they’re thinking and feeling with their friends without judgment’.

The recently launched site came to wider prominence in April as the news that Nike were to close their hardware division was broken on Secret.ly by a less than happy employee. The user pointed the finger at senior executives for mismanagement, forcing Nike CEO, Mark Parker, to confirm the rumours that the team are to disband.

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‘Behave like the boss’. It’s an out-dated understanding of how to get on at work but many of us could probably draw a stereotype of success in our organisations – of the behaviours, personalities, and ideals which are valued.

A new trend in Silicon Valley is taking people’s desire to meet those ideals to the extreme. Local plastic surgeon Dr Seth Matarasso has noted a shift in his clientele, away from former beauty queens and towards middle-aged board members who are looking to fit in with the perceived ruthless ageism of the tech industry. It might seem like a weird and distant subculture but it’s one with many parallels across the working world, in how society and businesses react to ageing populations.   

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Last week, Employment minister Chris Grayling promised to fund companies to the tune of £5,600 for each ex-prisoner they employ for longer than two years. The proposed policy aims to lessen the strain on the welfare state, but more importantly to help rehabilitate those released from prison to be able to lead meaningful, productive lives, contributing to society. 

It’s a much needed initiaitive. As a social group, ex-prisoners currently have amongst the highest long-term unemployment rates in the UK – official figures show that half of ex-offenders were on out-of-work benefits two years after being released from prison in 2008. Now, those released will be placed straight into the Work Programme, which provides specialist support to improve employability and reduce the risk of reoffending. And the statistics show that 61% of prisoners reoffend within two years of their release; but only 19% of prisoners who manage to find work following their sentence will reoffend within that same time period.

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With the latest CIPD Megatrends report suggesting that we are in the longest ongoing wage slump since the Second World War, the end of the pay rise may well be at hand. So, where does that leave UK businesses? The economic recovery is still in its early stages, and so many firms are still in the habit of watching their purses carefully. Managers must now look to other non-financial methods of engagement and retention if they’re to encourage productivity in the long-term.

Now more than ever, it is vital that businesses pay attention to their internal employer brand and how it aligns with their external brand. Not every business has the immediate external brand and cache of most organisations in the charity and art sectors, for example - but that is not to say that a corresponding positive internal brand in these organisations is a forgone conclusion. Every business must look to practice what they preach; so, if Innocent promote a campaign that extols the benefits of five-a-day fruit and veg, are they actively offering their employees five fruit and veg every day?

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It’s a week since the inaugural Time to Talk day, a brilliant initiative inviting people to simply sit down for a cup of tea and a chat. It almost sounds too simple but just making time to listen and be heard can have a big effect on people’s state of mind, so it was great to see over 100,000 events taking place across the UK. With so many good ideas around, and increasing support for businesses wanting to tackle mental ill health, it’s a perfect time for managers to sit down again – but this time to think about their strategies for creating mentally healthy workplaces.

That so many of us know the statistics around mental health speaks volumes for the work that organisations like Mind and Time to Change are doing.  1 in 4 people are affected by mental ill health at some point in their lifetime and it costs the UK £70bn a year according to the OECD. Businesses are waking up to the scale of the problem but depending on which figures you use, up to 70% still don’t have a formal mental health policy in place. 

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“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.

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The season of good will is the perfect time to reflect on levels of pay in the UK and beyond. Over the past year the campaign for a living wage has made enormous strides, signing up major employers and positioning itself at the centre of the next election. 

So, can 2014 be the year of the living wage?

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“Too many tweets might make a t**t” - that was the infamous line David Cameron used in 2009 to explain why he hadn’t yet embraced Twitter. Whilst all of us non-politicians might not have to bear scrutiny from the entire UK electorate, it’s a sentiment which neatly sums up the dangers we perceive in the kind of instantaneous, unchecked communication that Twitter offers.

So how confident do you feel in expressing your true self on social media? The answer probably depends on where you work.

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The Ashes, especially from Englands perspective, took another turn for the worse last night when it was revealed that Jonathan Trott has had to leave the Tour in Australia due to a stress-related illness. He's admitted to suffering from the problem on and off for some time, and has been apparently getting support from the England backroom staff to help him manage this. However touring in Australia, with an English team, is always going to present a particularly high level of pressure.

A great demand to perform to the highest standards, long periods of touring and time away from home and family (common with most international sports stars) and a culture of 'macho' banter, which can occasionally tip over into personal abuse seems to have pushed Trott beyond his ability to cope and manage the situation. However, the fact that he has felt able to publicly admit to a problem should be admired, especially when there still seems to be a stigma associated with suffering from a mental illness. Hopefully this means that the days of pretending that such problems don't exist are nearing their end. In the past, international sportsmen (particularly men) would have been very unlikely to reveal openly that they suffered mental health difficulties, and would have been actively discouraged from doing so by their coaching and management teams. The English cricket team though, have been open in the past about player mental health problems, notably with Marcus Trescothick, and they are to be applauded for doing so.  

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Wrapped up in the question of ‘how happy are you?’ seems to be the counter question, ‘well, how happy is everyone else?’. Life satisfaction is a subjective measure too – we can ask which is the most important, the actual life you lead inside and outside of work, or the life you could possibly have – whether that’s a better income, more time with family or even a different car? These are the kind of questions which lie at the heart of the latest ONS survey which compares regions of the UK in terms of the happiness of their populations.

Looking through the survey results, it’s easy to get lost in the numbers – how high are anxiety levels in Durham? How many in Bedfordshire say that they are very happy? As the ONS say themselves in the preface to the report, the relationship between well-being and locality is still not understood but looking at urban centres and the more remote, ‘green and pleasant lands’ of the UK, there are some striking comparisons to be made.

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The NHS will be taking a new approach to leadership development from 2015 that is arguably more ambitious than any other scheme out there. Jeremy Hunt has set the tone by announcing that Harvard University will be involved - it’s certainly more prestigious than some managers’ typical view of training and development, and it could prove to deliver more to the organisation than merely ‘upskilling’.

NHS ‘supermanagers’ will be offered a free two month business course at some of the UK’s top universities in a bid to attract and retain top talent. Managers are then contracted to remain in their roles for at least two years, or be asked to pay back the cost of the course. 

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After a summer spent bouncing between the Commons and the Lords, the government’s well-travelled ‘Rights for Shares’ scheme became law yesterday.

But, judging by reports in the press, there is yet to be a massive demand from businesses for advice on how to implement the new contracts – it’s a disappointing outcome for employee ownership, a model which has been proven to boost engagement and productivity in the workplace.

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There are 1 billion people on Facebook, which is triple the population of the United States. But unlike our offline communities, social interaction and the way we derive meaning on the site is condensed down to photos and text. This is the new normal, but is it good for us, and can we compare online networks to the real offline equivalent of social support?

It’s a question that psychologists should be eager to delve into. These are the technologies which define our work and our broader lives, so it’s vital that we get a handle on the effects that they have.

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The news this week that up to one in four mothers have a feeling that they are discriminated against at work is both worrying and frustrating. Well-Being, security and happiness at work is important at all times, but it’s even more crucial for new parents and those expecting, given how many other pressures they're facing.

The figures are frustrating too because all the academic research shows that the more flexibility employers provide, the more they get in return in terms of productivity and loyalty. Creating the kind of environment where women feel supported to make the right choices for them is a complex task. It isn’t something which can be turned around overnight, but there are tangible things that businesses can do.

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The ugly side of the flexible labour debate has reared its head this week with the media revelations about the use of zero hours contracts by major employers like Amazon and Sports Direct. Even Buckingham Palace stands accused of exploiting the labour market in a year when royal fervor doesn’t get much stronger.

Zero hours contracts have divided opinion because they offer employees no security from week to week and less benefits than salaried staff. The counter argument is that the contracts provide the flexibility that businesses need to continue growing out of recession, staying responsive, agile and competitive. Except that it isn’t really a counter argument.

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Estonia, and in particular it's capital Tallinn is considered one of the world's leading 'smart' places, especially in relation to the internet with the government encouraging online innovation. So it's no surprise that five years ago, Estonian Airi Kivi, a very innovative social entrepreneur decided to use the internet in a completely different way and created the Bank of Happiness -  an online forum, where individuals market good deeds, and offer services to one another free of charge.

Kindness is catching on

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The announcement that Royal Mail will be privatised in the Autumn won’t come as a shock to many. Chief Executive Moya Greene has been openly talking about the need for external investment since January this year, and her tenure has repositioned the group as a viable opportunity for potential investors. So where does this leave the employees of this historic institution?

As part of the flotation plans, each of the 150,000 staff will be given their share of 10% of the share capital on offer – equivalent to around £1500 to £2000 worth each.

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Cary CooperGood Day at Work

The new well-being resources hub founded by @profcarycooper and Roberston Cooper. Join for FREE and access blogs, videos, downloads, podcasts and more.

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MD of Cary Cooper's business psychology firm, Robertson Cooper - for all things well-being, engagement and resilience at work.

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Professor Cary Cooper, Director and Founder of Robertson Cooper Ltd, Distinguished Professor of Organizational Psychology and Health at Lancaster University.

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