How workers can manage both health and productivity

Within the space of a few short weeks, the gloomy forecasts of rising joblessness after the furlough scheme ended have morphed into stories of labour shortages and the ‘great resignation’. What is clear is that post-lockdown Britain is a turbulent place and that some employers are struggling to keep up.

The lofty rhetoric of a high-wage, high-skill and high-productivity economy can be hard to make sense of if your business is troubled by supply chain woes, too many vacancies and higher than normal resignations.

This might be especially hard if productivity is not easy to measure in your organisation. But if COVID has taught us anything it is that a healthy workforce is critical to both business survival and to maximising its productive capacity.

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But even after the pandemic, it would be naive to imagine that all senior executives are convinced that healthy employees help deliver healthy profits and surging productivity.

For a minority, a focus on wellbeing is tantamount to pandering too much to the needs of employees and paying insufficient attention to the impact that ‘stretch targets’ and financial incentives can have on driving up performance.

For these managers job stress can be a better driver of performance than any wellbeing programme, and there is an element of social Darwinism in using tough deadlines and a performance-oriented work culture to sort the ‘wheat from the chaff’.

Most of the research we have conducted firmly contradicts this view.

Indeed, we argue that the demographic realities of the next 20 to 30 years mean that all employers will need to come to terms with the fact that in excess of 40% of the working-age population will have at least one work-limiting chronic illness and that the limitations on their functional and cognitive capacity which result will need to be accommodated with compassion, imagination, pragmatism and empathetic leadership. Ratcheting up work pressure is not the answer.

Ironically, many of the management practices which promote wellbeing at work also improve retention and productivity.

A good line manager relationship, lots of control and autonomy in your job, feeling valued, access to flexible working, chances to learn and grow and support from colleagues all play a big part. No amount of fruit or pilates will compensate if these things are missing, of course.

We also need to review how we think about work limitations.

Living with depression or a chronic illness does not by any means imply that an employee is inherently less productive. Indeed, if we focus more on capacity – rather than incapacity – when thinking about the health and job performance link, then it is often the case that those with health challenges are among our most resourceful and conscientious colleagues.

The flexibility of the working arrangements which many employers embraced during the pandemic should, in theory at least, work to the advantage of those employees whose health challenges fluctuate or cause anxiety, chronic pain or fatigue because we now know that most jobs can be adapted to accommodate their needs.

Perhaps it’s time to ditch the false dichotomy which says that businesses have to choose between high-productivity work practices and those which foster wellbeing. If we can de-medicalise the concept of wellbeing at work and invest in great line managers, flexible job design and working arrangements, and technology which optimises the contributions of all employees – regardless of their health conditions or disabilities – then wellbeing can take its place as a powerful driver of high-octane performance and productivity at work.

Stephen Bevan is head of HR research development at the Institute for Employment Studies. Sir Cary Cooper is professor of organisational psychology and health at Alliance Manchester Business School. They are co-authors of The Healthy Workforce: Enhancing Wellbeing and Productivity in the Workers of the Future