Future workforce health depends on line managers

Academics Cary Cooper, Stephen Bevan, Zofia Bajorek and Ian Brinkley discussed the future of the workplace

HR mustn't neglect the importance of line managers in favour of focus on phenomena such as AI and the gig economy, according to the co-authors of a new book 21st Century Workforces and Workplaces: The Challenges and Opportunities for Future Work Practices and Labour Markets.

Speaking at the launch of their new book, Cary Cooper, Stephen Bevan, Zofia Bajorek and Ian Brinkley stressed that line managers have the biggest impact on an employee’s health and wellbeing and in building a healthy and happy workforce of the future.

Cary Cooper, 50th anniversary professor of organisational psychology and health at Alliance Manchester Business School and HR Most Influential Hall of Fame Thinker, explained that “a bad line manager can be dangerous to their subordinates’ health”.

“The second biggest risk is emails and the inability to get a work/life balance because employees are constantly tapped into their work emails wherever they are,” he added.

Cooper cited evidence of a link between an employee’s health and wellbeing and their productivity levels, but said that there is a clear gap between organisations recognising this link and taking the right action.

“The UK is lagging behind competitors in terms of productivity,” said Zofia Bajorek, lead researcher in HR and management at The Work Foundation. “And the UK also invests much less on management training, so it seems there’s a clear link between management training and business productivity.”

Speaking to HR magazine after the launch, Stephen Bevan, head of HR research development at the Institute for Employment Studies, called on HR to address a lack of line manager training, instead of focusing on “overstated trends and hang-ups like robots and Uberisation”.

“When we talk of the future there’s a lot of focus on innovation, but unless we crack the softer skills and sort out the issues around the capabilities of line managers there will be no-one capable of exploiting these innovations,” he said.

It is therefore critical that HR invests in line manager training, the co-authors agreed, but it is also a matter of recruiting the right people into these positions.

Bajorek told HR magazine that constant workforce changes and a loss of job security means HR must draw up new criteria for what a line manager should be. “It is now just as – if not more – important that line managers have empathy and care about their staff as it is that they are good at their day jobs,” she said.

Cooper agreed that “managers should be assessed on both their technical skills and their emotional skills, and if they don’t have the latter then don’t employ them”. “Not all skills can be taught and so employees need to think about how they will assess potential candidates in the future to recruit the right people into these roles,” he added.

Their research also explored the impact the ageing population will have on the UK workforce, in particular on female workers who have a longer life expectancy post-retirement – now on average 25 years.

Bajorek advised that myths around older workers need to be addressed. “The idea that older workers are less productive is simply untrue. In fact, older workers take fewer sick days than younger workers,” she said.

Organisations need to change their sometimes discriminatory treatment of older workers, the panellists agreed, given the rising trend for ‘unretirement’ – where individuals retire and then return to work, often for economic or social reasons.

Remote working, human augmentation, temporary workers and changing reward schemes were also cited as key trends HR should prepare for.