Cary Cooper: workaholic culture will not solve productivity issues

Creating a workaholic culture is not the answer to our productivity problem, or good for our mental health

It’s no secret that the UK is facing a productivity problem – currently we rank 21% lower than the average for the other six members of the G7.

The latest Britain At Work report by Lansons reveals that overall Britain’s employees are willing to go the extra mile. This is reflected in the hours we’re working, with 61% saying they regularly work beyond their contracted hours.

So, if we’re working so hard why aren’t we productive? We’re putting in the time, but we’re not getting the results.

When we consistently work long hours our wellbeing suffers. We become tired and are less able to come up with creative solutions to problems, which in turn has a negative impact on our performance. Many of us compensate for a sluggish performance by putting in even more hours, which eventually leads to increased levels of pressure, mistakes or poor decisions, and even worse performance.

In the past the main causes of long-term sickness absence were things like back pain and other musculoskeletal disorders. Today stress, depression and anxiety are the illnesses keeping people out of work. Or present but not adding any value (presenteeism).

According to Britain At Work, 30% of workers don’t feel they have enough time to do their job effectively, and 18% say they are often too tired to do their job properly. Britain is caught in a vicious cycle of long hours and low productivity. We assume that working more hours at full capacity is the answer to our productivity slump, when actually it’s part of the cause. If we really want to improve productivity we need to change our attitudes and understand that this is not a healthy, productive, or sustainable way of working in the long term.

If we want to change people’s attitudes we need to recruit managers who aren’t just technically competent but who are good at managing others. Too often we see people promoted into management positions who aren’t cut out for it. This is because many organisations don’t hire managers based on their people skills, but on their technical skills or their bottom-line output in a previous job (without knowing what damage they left in their wake).

When recruiting managers we need to take their interpersonal skills into account, and consider how capable they are of managing and building relationships with their colleagues.

Britain needs leaders with the ability to speak to employees in a language they can relate to; engaged leaders who can build trust, cultivate flexible cultures, and give their staff more manageable workloads, with achievable deadlines and the autonomy to work in a way that makes sense to them.

For many, managing a team becomes even more difficult when workers’ personal lives overflow into their jobs. Most line managers are not trained to deal with challenging conversations around troubles at home, feeling depressed or anxious, or problematic relationships at work – the stuff of life.

Organisations need to ensure their managers are equipped with the skills to be able to host these conversations, and to ensure in future they prioritise so-called ‘soft skills’ much higher on the recruitment agenda.

Until we start investing in the right skills for our managers we won’t see dramatic improvements in the UK’s productivity. It’s not about better equipment or IT, it’s about people. Creating a workaholic culture is not the answer to our productivity gap or good for the health of working people. As Woody Allen put it: “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work, I want to achieve it by not dying!”

Cary Cooper is the 50th anniversary professor of organizational psychology and health at Manchester Business School. He is ranked first in HR magazine's HR Most Influential Thinkers list 2015