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No room for workplace complacency despite 'green shoots'

Cary Cooper , 23 Jun 2014

Cary Cooper

In offices around the UK, there is an unmistakable optimism stirring. Summer is arriving and the World Cup is on, but there were some big numbers released this week that may mean the seasonal sentiment lasts longer than England’s run in Brazil.

First, Government figures show inflation is down to its lowest level for nearly five years (1.5%) and is set to stay around that mark for the near future. And, released the day before those figures, an independent survey has reported that sickness absence is at an all time low of 2.1%, roughly equivalent to 5 days a year for the average worker.

Health and spending power rank highly in any list of priorities, so an improvement in both is likely to have a big impact at a personal level. At the height of the economy’s worst moments, the cost of living was keenly felt when doing the weekly shop and noticing the new prices.

But we can’t afford to get complacent about the state of UK workers and workplaces at the first sign of those infamous green shoots. As an occupational psychologist, my first reaction to the record low absence figures in particular is to question, are they really a reflection of people’s good health? Many who read this blog will be familiar with the concept of presenteeism, or attending work while ill, which is now a problem on a national scale.

Earlier this year, Robertson Cooper conducted research into the financial industries and found that 59% of respondents say they have been a ‘presentee’ within the last three months.

That’s a broadly representative figure for UK workplaces and when you dig deeper into the research, it’s clear that those who have exhibited presenteeism feel more pressured, and report worse physical and psychological health than those who just stay at home when ill.

So it’s a complex picture that’s only really enlightened with some serious fact-finding missions inside organisations, and a commitment to understanding the reality of work. Simply emphasising absence rates is not only a little naïve, it could actually generate a negative culture at work.

And, if you’re starting to recruit again, how have your existing staff reacted? Are they afraid to operate at anything less than 100% with competition incoming?

Spurred on by these latest figures, it’s a perfect time for people to consider their own experience of work, or, in the case of managers and employers, the experiences they create. Inflation is low, but how do your people feel about their reward packages? Are there some benefits missing, like a pension or a small yearly increment?

Of course, it’s a luxury for many organisations to be able to award big pay rises, but like any other business expense, it’s one that can only be ignored for so long.

In the end, loyalty, engagement (and yes, fear) can never be a substitute for a good working environment. As John Ruskin wrote in 1851, “In order that people may be happy in their work, these three things are needed: they must be fit for it, they must not do too much of it, and they must have a sense of success in it."

Cary Cooper is distinguished professor of organisational psychology and health at Lancaster University Management School and co-author of the book Wellbeing: Productivity and Happiness at Work.

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