Why mental wellbeing is the key to productivity

Conventional wisdom decrees that a happy workforce is a productive one. Why, then, are so many people in Britain unhappy at work?

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A survey conducted last month by the charity Business In The Community (BITC) revealed that over 75 per cent of 20,000 employees aged 16 to 64 said they had experienced symptoms of poor mental health, and nearly two-thirds of those with diagnosed mental health problems, such as depression or anxiety, felt that their job was a factor.

The study, published in partnership with YouGov, also found an alarming lack of employer awareness and responsiveness. More than half of the employees who disclosed their conditions said that their employers did nothing to help. Only 22 per cent of managers surveyed, meanwhile, said that they’d had training in spotting employees who are struggling as a majority of bosses (63 per cent) said they felt obligated to put the needs of their organisation above the wellbeing of individual staff.

The problem with prioritising profits over people, BITC Wellbeing Director Louise Aston explains, is that happiness and productivity are inextricably linked. “The idea that you can separate the two,” she says, “is completely misguided. A healthy, engaged and resilient workforce is infinitely more productive and profitable in terms of efficiency, customer relations, staff retention, and sustainable performance.”

BITC, which operates in an advisory and consultant role for a range of businesses, has subsequently developed The Workwell Model to hammer home these points. Aston adds: “The Workwell Model aims to elevate mental wellbeing to a boardroom issue. It offers guidance on how to keep employees engaged and healthy. We want to see receptiveness from managers, regular feedback and dialogue.”

Henry Stewart, founder and chief executive of London-based training company Happy Ltd, warns that many attempts to augment or streamline productivity have often served to hinder it. He highlights “email overload”, a side-effect of the paperless office drive, as a particular risk to people’s mental wellbeing. “The moment you start removing actual conversations from the workplace,” Stewart says, “you’re asking for trouble. External emails make sense, sure, but an internal chain removes the human element of work and only compounds a blame culture – ‘Did you not see my email?’ – which is never good for business. If you are constantly bombarding people with data and information, why would you be surprised if they feel overwhelmed or under pressure?”

Some employers have used deterrents, like the threat of the sack, as a means of motivation. In a period of economic uncertainty, is this an effective tactic for keeping staff on their toes? Stewart couldn’t disagree more. “I can’t think of anything worse. People work best when they feel good about themselves. People do not work well when they are bullied, told off or blamed. People shouldn’t live or work in a state of fear. They should be encouraged to learn from their mistakes, not fear the consequences.”

This fail fast, learn fast approach, Stewart believes, is central to better employee development. He continues: “We all know that innovation is best when you try lots of things and see what works. Something where you have to plan extensively or are told that you must do this in a certain way is ultimately going to be constrictive. The role of the manager should be to coach, not to instruct.”

Is greater control, then, crucial to happiness at work? In his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Daniel Pink argues that any job’s financial incentivisation will eventually be supplanted by the want for “autonomy, mastery and purpose.”

The issue of money, he recommends, “should be taken off the table”, so that employees can apply themselves without distraction. Employees perform better, Pink suggests, if they can be flexible with when and how they work, be assured of opportunities of progression and have a clear idea that their efforts are actively making a difference to the company. The cog in the machine mindset must be eliminated and individuals must recognise their own uniqueness, whatever the size of the company.

The concept of a shorter working week has also been touted as a potential solution to combatting poor mental wellbeing at work, while in turn boosting productivity. The Svartedalens retirement home in Gothenburg, Sweden’s second largest city, conducted an experiment in 2015 to see whether cutting nurses’ hours to six per day improved patient care and employee morale.

After a year, the experiment found that nurses who worked shorter hours were 20 per cent more satisfied with their jobs and took half as much time off sick as those in the control group, and were able to do 64 per cent more activities with elderly residents. In Britain, however, the importance of a work-life balance has been neglected and instead replaced by a culture of presenteeism.

Aside from the physical and mental health risks associated with working long hours – research in 2015 at University College London found that those who work more than 55 hours a week are 33 per cent more likely to suffer from a stroke – it is thought that work-life balance has a directly correlative effect on a company’s ability to keep its staff. Indeed, if you have to restart your recruitment process at regular intervals, how do you expect to get anything done?

According to a study by business watchdog People 1st this summer, Britain’s hospitality and tourism industries, which are blighted by long hours and low pay, suffer from high staff turnover. People 1st estimates that the sector is spending £274m on coping with employee losses, which makes the sector’s recruitment needs extremely challenging as 870,000 of the 993,000 staff required by 2022 are to replace rather than to grow.

The Greek playwright Aeschylus quipped: “Happiness is a choice that requires effort at times.” The invariably positive returns of a happy workforce, Britain’s employers would do well to realise, are well worth the hassle.

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman