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Mind The Gap: Managing The UK Into Higher Productivity

Posted by on in Management

The UK has a productivity problem. Currently ranking 21% lower than the average for the other six members in the G7, despite a fast-growing economy, the UK government is scrambling to find a solution to help plug the gap. The focus seems to be on new technologies as a way of improving productivity, but this strategy isn’t working.

The problem is that, thanks to the downsizing that took place during the recession, there has been an increase in pressure on people working in both the public and private sectors. Those employees who survived the cuts were left feeling less secure in their jobs and having to pick up the slack.

Data from Robertson Cooper’s ASSET™ survey shows that, as the recession went on, people grew more and more concerned that they were working longer hours than they would choose to. Of course, this had an adverse effect on people’s family lives and on their overall wellbeing.

The question that we need to be asking is: how do we manage this situation? How do we manage the fact that employees are disengaging because they’re working longer and harder, feeling more job-insecure and feel they’re getting less in return?

The psychological contract is broken

What really happened during the recession was the break-down of the psychological contract between employers and their employees. A tacit agreement between companies and their staff, the psychological contract at work is the mutual understanding that both the employee and employer both have certain obligations and responsibilities.

But during the recession, the power shifted. For some, rapidly declining job security meant that they suddenly had to sacrifice more of their time and energy to demonstrate commitment for their jobs. For others, the cut-backs meant they could no longer deliver the same quality they were accustomed to and, rather than producing work to a lower standard, they put more pressure on themselves by refusing to compromise. In return, employers came to see this as a normal way of working.

We are demanding more and more from our employees without giving people the security or flexibility they need to feel happy and healthy at work. It’s not a sustainable way of working. It’s becoming clear that we need a different kind of arrangement. We need good line managers at all levels of our organisations who are equipped to handle this situation.

Managing attitudes

The changes our workplaces have been undergoing since 2008 have left people feeling drained. When we’re under pressure we find it almost impossible to be creative and productive. We are also significantly less open to new ways of working, meaning we’re not able to deal with increased demands in a positive and proactive way. Instead, people respond by working longer and harder, which is making them ill.

Of course, sickness absence figures have more or less stabilised. It’s at a reasonably high level, but it is stable. But, crucially, presenteeism is at an all-time high. People feel they have to come into work even when they’re not well, and this is costing employers twice as much!

It used to be that the main causes of sickness absence were musculoskeletal – back pain and that sort of thing. But today, the main causes are stress, depression and anxiety because people aren’t able to cope with their employers’ expectations. It is becoming clear that we need to change our attitudes and abolish the assumption that working more hours at full-capacity is the answer because it is simply not a healthy, productive or sustainable way of working.

In order for employees to be able to work more efficiently and productively, they have to be well enough to do so. This means they can’t be suffering from stress, anxiety, depression and all the rest of it.

It all comes down to the way people are managed.

In the future, we need people who can manage people

Sadly, many organisations don’t hire managers based on their people skills. But why not?

When we’re recruiting the managers of the future, we need to take their social, interpersonal skills into account and consider how capable they are of managing and building relationships with other human beings.

We need leaders with the ability to speak to employees in a language that they can relate to and appreciate. We need more engaged leaders who manage by praise and reward, not by fault-finding. We need leaders who can build trust to cultivate a culture of flexibility, giving their teams more control over their workloads which will make them feel more engaged as a result.

Currently, we don’t have enough of these people in managerial roles in our organisations. The psychological contract is gone and we’re increasingly moving closer and closer towards the American model of working. Until we start investing in the right skills for our managers, we won’t see any dramatic improvements in the UK’s productivity.


  • Guest
    DaveML Friday, 17 July 2015

    One aspect I'd like to emphasis : - increasingly, the pace of change ( those that are for changes sake - or no obvious benefit) has meant that we no longer can accurately estimate how long a task will take. We just feel we have to commit to doing it with no real idea of: how long will take, how hard it will be, who or what might derail it. And we probably have a number of these 'ill-defined' tasks on our plates. Probably an answer in the APM hand-book but also managers have a responsibility to ensure the tasks we hand out are acheiveable by a 'normal' Human Being and this implies some stability/data on how long a similar task took last time...

  • Tori Wastnedge - Good Day At Work Content Editor
    Tori Wastnedge - Good Day At Work Content Editor Friday, 17 July 2015

    Thanks for your thoughts, Dave! You've raised an excellent point that relates to sense of purpose: we know that having a clear sense of purpose is vital for people's wellbeing at work. When the tasks coming to us are too ad-hoc and sort-of related to our role but not really, it can keep us from feeling connected to our jobs. We need to be careful not to undermine our sense of purpose at work by saying "yes" to every task that comes our way, just as managers have a responsibility not to make unreasonable requests.

    Content Editor, Good Day At Work

  • Guest
    Elizabeth D'Arcy-Malone Monday, 20 July 2015

    I think the point about presenteeism is really interesting. Is there any current data to show how presenteeism is rising?

  • Tori Wastnedge - Good Day At Work Content Editor
    Tori Wastnedge - Good Day At Work Content Editor Monday, 20 July 2015

    No problem, Elizabeth. According to the latest CIPD Absence Management report (Oct 2014), presenteeism has risen from 26% in 2010 to to 33% in 2014. It's typically associated with anxiety which may be triggered by low job security (in fact organisations anticipating redundancies in the near future are almost twice as likely to report people coming into work when they're not well).

    For more information, you can check out the report here:

    Content Editor, Good Day At Work

  • Guest
    Ian Watson Wednesday, 22 July 2015

    As a HR Director for 2 public sector organisations I completely concur with the breakdown of trust inherent in the psychological contract as a consequence of the recent CSR changes. Don't get me wrong change within my sector was and still is needed but in exercising such change this shifted if not broke the psychological contract. Regretably the challenges we face over the next few years are going to be even bigger. I'm afraid this will do little to rebuild a sense of security and stability. Nevertheless in my view one of the main methods of maximising well being and engagement in this environment of change and ongoing uncertainty is the same as suggested in the article - that is the quality and style of leadership at all levels within the organisations.

  • Tori Wastnedge - Good Day At Work Content Editor
    Tori Wastnedge - Good Day At Work Content Editor Thursday, 23 July 2015

    Well said, Ian. In all businesses, but for public sector organisations in particular, change is inevitable. Like you say here, it's not about stopping change but about managing it properly, and making sure that, while employees are kept informed, they are also equipped to be able to handle the odd curve-ball when it comes their way. For this reason, we need to pay more attention to the way we manage our teams and the people we place in these positions.

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Cary CooperGood Day at Work™

The new wellbeing 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 wellbeing, engagement and resilience at work.

Cary CooperCary on Twitter

Professor Cary Cooper, Director and Founder of Robertson Cooper Ltd, Distinguished Professor of Organizational Psychology and Health at Manchester Business School.

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