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Matthew Taylor in conversation with Cary Cooper

In our three-part series the RSA chief executive grills business brains on pressing employment and social issues

What do you get when you combine the boss of a progressive think tank and former Labour Party policy director, with an eminent professor of organisational psychology? Answer: much heated debate on workplace wellbeing, whether the socialist’s or psychologist’s take is better, and Brexit (much of the latter far too opinionated to print.)

This is the second of our three-part series with Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the RSA and author of the government’s independent review into modern employment practices. This time we put him in conversation with 50th anniversary professor of organisational psychology and health at Manchester Business School, University of Manchester (and fellow HR Most Influential alumni) Cary Cooper.

Matthew Taylor (MT): So what’s top of your list at the moment?

Cary Cooper (CC): Top of my list is workplace wellbeing. It’s really moving quite fast now. I think it’s no longer a ‘nice to have’ but a must have. Look at the recent Health and Safety Executive statistics… For the first time six out of 10 sickness absences are for stress at work. That is heavy; that’s a real cost to the economy. Also 40% of all incapacity benefit is for stress at work: the common mental disorders of anxiety, depression and stress. And with Brexit, the uncertainty’s caused people to get more ill.

MT: But it’s possible on any given day to think things are improving and on the next that they’re deteriorating… A lot of what corporations do in this space is disingenuous because they talk about wellbeing and have mindfulness classes but still the grinding logic of the organisation is towards maximising profits. So help me disentangle this.

CC: A lot are looking at the low-hanging fruit – so massages at your desk, mental health first aiders… which is cheap because you train up your own staff. I don’t want to dismiss them. But some of these have no evidence base. I have a PhD student in a big corporation currently studying the evidence for mental health first aiders. Because maybe training staff has a more beneficial impact on the first aider than the recipient.

I think the door is opening. But you’re absolutely right, what companies should do is look at the nature of their cultures.

MT: Richard Sennett wrote a book called The Corrosion of Character in which he argued that modern organisations want people to make an emotional commitment… yet people know if the investors said ‘we’re going to relocate or close down this function’ they don’t have any power because union power has gone. So on the one hand they’re told they’re emotionally significant beings, but on the other they’re powerless.

And arguably one of the challenges in the modern workplace is you’re required to be there fully and engage. In the old days lots of people had mindless work, they could just turn up and sit at a desk… So I wonder whether us telling people work should have meaning is actually one of the sources of anxiety.

CC: I agree. That’s the psychological contract between employer and employee. [But] what does a contract have to be? Two ways. What we get now is employers demanding long hours, emailing people on a Friday night and then demanding them to be happy.

A lot of employers a decade ago did really commit to their employees; even where they may have laid them off for a period of time. We don’t have that now at all. The issue is how do we re-establish the psychological contract so the employer actually believes in the things we’ve both talked and written about?

Further reading

Matthew Taylor in conversation with Paul Pomroy

What HR needs to know about the Good Work Plan

Wealth distribution in the future world of work

We have a duty to redesign jobs

MT: The move from manufacturing to service work does require certain things of you. I think it was American Airlines that required its air stewards to smile at everybody. But this depressed people…

Here’s a metaphor for it. In a relationship there are things that are against the rules. And that’s what I was talking about in my work for the government: basic regulations to ensure people don’t do bad stuff. So we all know in a relationship if I lie to you that’s the baseline. But that’s just the baseline, because a relationship is really about the upside: what’s created. I think tokenistic mindfulness is like if I were to say to my wife ‘because I’m committed to our relationship I’ve decided every Thursday we’re going to have half an hour of warmth’.

CC: The other thing that troubles me is that wellbeing stuff is for the senior and professional people, not the working people. But they’re the ones who actually deliver our services and products. Even when companies are trying to do culture change, frequently it doesn’t involve that group… What I’m doing is trying to convince people of the bottom line case for this. Maybe I shouldn’t be and should be saying ‘this is your moral duty’.

MT: I think that’s a really interesting question. The problem is: what if it isn’t [good for the bottom line]? Does that mean you don’t do it? Some people are very sceptical. I go around saying engagement is good for productivity and am hoping to do a piece of work on that. But there are some people who would say there’s not much evidence.

CC: I agree; but I’m an academic so I have to ask myself how do we operationalise that, how do we make it happen? I think engagement is a teeny-weeny part of the wellbeing culture. Every company has an engagement survey. But engaging is not the most important thing. It’s the things you talk about Matthew: do they trust me, do they value me, do they let me do my own thing, do they give me a sense of purpose?

MT: Like you I’m a practical person. I think about what might change some of this stuff. So one thing I would do is make every company beyond a certain size undertake a robust survey and publish the results. We should say ‘there are multiple providers, but they have to be kite-marked.’ Firms would have to say: ‘this is the picture we got from our staff, this is how it compares to last year and here’s what we’re doing about it’. I think as a small measure that would have an enormous impact.

CC: I want it in the annual report. What are the employee satisfaction rates and how has that changed? How many stress-related illnesses do you have?

MT: It’s got to comprise of both the objective data on things like industrial action and flexible working requests, plus employee perceptions. And preferably companies beyond another size threshold should include their supply chain. Because one of the dangers is we have the gold standard for the end of the supply chain, and they devolve bad management practices.

CC: We should have over the door of every office: ‘This boss is potentially dangerous to your health’. Because that person can make you thrive or damage you.

MT: I kind of agree, but when we did our last survey we found that the most unhappy people at the RSA were the tier below the executive team. I was chatting to someone and they said ‘that’s the case everywhere’. Because the most unhappy people are those who have high levels of responsibility and low levels of influence… The reason I make that point is there’s a structural characteristic to this.

I agree. But we had a parliamentary commission on what a manager in 2020 should look like… when we asked the simple question of‘if you could change just one thing…’ overwhelmingly they cited more socially- and interpersonally-skilled managers.

MT: What worries me about that though… for example Charles Handy [author and philosopher specialising in organisational behaviour and management] was here a couple of years ago and he said he’s come to the conclusion that the Dunbar number is the critical issue. Once you get more than 150 people, organisations become systemically dysfunctional. So it’s all very well saying the problem is line managers. But if your organisation is 5,000 people, you’ve created an environment in which it’s very hard to have a sense of connection.

CC: We’re not saying different things in a way. There is the structural issue too. Middle managers feel caught between; they’re the ones suffering.

MT: I agree that an organisation should understand how managers feel and if they’re not happy you can forget anything else. What I’m resisting is when people say the reason organisations are unhappy is because managers lack emotional intelligence. Luke Johnson was the chair of the RSA for a number of years and we had a difficult relationship – I’m sure he’d say the same. I was a less good chief exec and it wasn’t because my emotional intelligence went down.

CC: In any organisation there’ll be a proportion of managers who are naturally good at this; they’re fundamentally critical. So what proportion are they? What proportion need training? And what proportion should never be managers? There are some people, no matter what training you give them, who will never get it.

MT: We need to reassess how we train people generally. At the moment the government is funnelling too much funding into training that won’t work. Which is: ‘you’re a coal miner, I’m going to train you to be a barista’. Well do they want to be a barista, and are there enough people wanting coffee in their neighbourhood?

The shock of that Janesville book [by Amy Goldstein] in 2017 is that people who retrained had less good outcomes. So my idea is: could we establish a framework for generic soft skills and competencies – so numeracy and literacy but also communication skills and creativity, leadership, entrepreneurship? What you want is a world where everyone has a portfolio as well as a list of qualifications. Middle-class people have that through LinkedIn etc. It’s lower-skilled workers who aren’t able to demonstrate how the skills they have now might be transferable.

CC: Here’s the worry I have… You have someone who’s really good at IT say, and to progress they become an accidental manager. So instead of a pyramid system why don’t we have a box? So technical people being promoted have the equivalent status and pay as someone in a manager role.

MT: Or why don’t we say to a teacher ‘do a few years of managing, but after that go back to the classroom for a while’? A general issue is it’s very hard for people to say ‘can I just go down a step?’ That would help carers and parents if we said: ‘you can come back in a slightly less-demanding role, then when you’re ready you can go up again.’

CC: We don’t have that culture at all. We have a greasy pole and it’s too greasy.

MT: But I am, broadly speaking, very supportive of what the government has done in relation to my review. It took a while but, despite the distraction of Brexit, it’s committed to carrying out the recommendations; it’s rolling out secondary legislation. But the policy can only take us so far. Take massively lowering the threshold for people to have representation… having that is just the baseline to engagement and good employee relations. And I’m not going to be standing back; there are certain ideas that require pushing.

CC: I do a lot of work with the government, and it is still looking at a number of things in the wellbeing space. The Department for Work and Pensions is on top of that, the Health at Work unit is on top of that. But you have to keep pushing otherwise Brexit could take over everything.

MT: There is a sense from government of ‘we’ve got to go upstream on health…’ And things have definitely shifted on workers’ rights. This is a Conservative government implementing the most comprehensive set of reforms; even five years ago Cameron and Osborne were still talking about further liberalisation… At the moment the public’s attitude is they want to see more fairness.

The danger is a medium-term one that at some point, if and when we leave [the EU], we get a free market government that generally believes there’s a Singaporean model that could work… But that’s not because of Brexit; it’s an opportunity created by it.

To me what we have now I’m sad to say is a class war again. I came to this country in the ‘60s… and Brexit has divided us again.

MT: In the old days you had class conflict at work and that was a challenge. But at least people knew where they were and it wasn’t personal. Whereas now it’s around identity and culture. The fundamental problem we have politically is that the left-right divide is still there… but you draw a line around openness to transgender people for example, or immigration, and that line cuts right across.

So once again you see we have to go back to structure… The problem with psychologists is they’re always over-tempted by individualistic explanations. Whereas socialists understand the structural issues.

CC: Touché.

This piece appeared in the April 2019 issue. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk