Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Workplace Trends: Wellbeing & Performance

As usual I pulled the programme together for this year’s Workplace Trends conference. The theme for this year, the tenth annual conference, was wellbeing and Performance. I selected this theme simply because during the last year of attending conferences the subject of wellbeing was raised, but not really discussed, by the audiences and a few speakers. I was intrigued, is wellbeing genuinely a different issue to performance, or is Wellbeing simply a rebranding of the whole productivity agenda?

Not only are wellbeing, performance and productivity mentioned in the same breath but we can also add happiness, satisfaction and motivation into the mix. Nic Marks opened Workplace Trends presenting his happiness index. Nic presented research which revealed that positive emotions both a) broaden our thoughts helping us to pay more attention and be more creative and b) build psychological resources such as resilience/coping mechanisms and social skills. Both are useful attributes in the workplace and clearly happiness is a positive emotion but the link to performance is only implied and a direct causal link is not demonstrated by the research.
So does happiness lead to better performance or better performance lead to happiness? Well according to a Gallup survey presented by Nic, the impact of happiness at work on business performance is twice as large as from business performance to happiness at work. Tim Whitely, an old friend of mine at Arup, found during his PhD in the 1990s that job satisfaction and individual performance are related but interdependent on each other. From my perspective I can see how a successful business will lead to better rewarded, contented and high performing staff and I can also see how highly motivated and performing staff leads to better business.

But, as Paul Morrell pointed out in the afternoon, we are British and we are naturally suspicious of happiness, especially at work. I think our fear is of being that happy person in the office, the one who is unaware of office politics, the one who is the last to know when the company is struggling and the one who is usually the most vulnerable to organisational restructuring. The more cynical amongst us might even associate happiness with (blissful) ignorance, being ill-informed or, dare I say, a lack of intelligence. Or perhaps happiness is too high an emotional state that can lead to distraction from work duties. For example, maybe “happiness” is too close an emotion (or word) to “love” and Nic even reworded Tina Turner’s song as “what’s love/happiness got to do with it”. But I also subscribe to the“a happy worker is a productive worker” camp. So, I propose replacing “happiness”with “satisfaction” (or even “motivation”) to make Nic’s underlying message more acceptable to the dour British business.

In the second presentation, Mark Duddridge and Jane Abrahams presented Ginster’s wellbeing programme. I love the irony of Ginster’s speaking on wellbeing but the story of improving the health of Ginster’s meat-packers and pie-makers is a one of success.

Mark mentioned that Ginster’s, like all good companies, have a preventative maintenance programme for their machinery, so why not have one for the workforce. Liking the wellbeing programme to preventative maintenance for workers, akin to treating the workers as components in a process, was clearly too Taylorist for many of the Workplace Trends audience. But the key point made was that some organisations take more care of their machinery than their true primary asset - the workers.

If employees are not working then they are not productive, regardless of how well motivated they are. CIPD quoted the average absenteeism rate at 8 day per employee per year (approx 3.5% of a working year) and much higher in some sectors. In Pawel Wargocki’s presentation he told us that a productivity gain of just 10% would offset all the organisation’s property costs. Pawel’s analysis is based on the typical percentage of the business costs that are salaries and property – but base the calculation on the revenue generated by the staff and the productivity gain for offset is more like 5%. The outcome of this analysis is that businesses should invest more in their working environments in order to improve staff performance, rather than reduce investment in the workplace possibly resulting in loss of productivity.

Some absenteeism is due to accidents and poor ergonomics (such as RSI and musculoskeletal disorders) the realms of occupational health. Nevertheless healthy and fit employees are likely to be more alert, and less prone to accidents or illness, and therefore more productive over the working year. It seems to me that wellbeing is similar to sustainability in that it is about prevention of long-term possibly irreversible problems. The problem with it, like sustainability, is that the effects (positive or negative) are not immediately obvious and investment in it requires an element of faith.

Later in the day the Workplace Trends delegates were introduced to Karōshi which is the antithesis of wellbeing. Karōshi means "death from overwork" and in Japan is recognised as occupational sudden death, most commonly due to heart attack or stroke brought on by stress at work. Although I struggle with pushing happiness in the workplace, I certainly prefer it Karōshi.

It surprised me that, in his light-hearted presentation, Paul Morrell referred to motivation and to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (it surprised me even more that it was one of my graphics that he was using without any citation). At the lower end of the hierarchy are the physiological factors which are arguably related to a safe and comfortable workplace. Morrell was arguing that we need to get these factors right before worrying about happiness, although it could be argued they are fundamental to wellbeing.

At the top of Maslow’s hierarchy is self-actualisation, a point when we are most productive due to be autonomous, well rewarded and respected. I can see how happiness is an element of self-actualisation but what Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is actually about is what motivates us. Maslow’s thesis has never actually been demonstrated whereas Herzberg’s theory of motivation has. He found that so-called hygiene factors (safety, ergonomics, temperature, light etc) can prevent us from performing when they are not right, but it requires organisational factors (management, colleagues, reward, respect) to motivate us to perform better. Indeed, research colleagues of Pawel (including myself) would also argue that the biggest impact on performance is from organisational factors and the environment can only provide up to a maximum 15% impact.

The final presentation, from Doug Shaw, was an honest and candid account about humanising the workplace by bringing authenticity, vulnerability, simplicity and transparency back into it. These will help reduce fear, enhance interaction, build trust, facilitate collaboration and ultimately improve performance. The four characterises presented by Doug are actually more akin to the positive emotions I would like to see in the workplace.

So my closing thought is that the underlying theme of the conference was not wellbeing and performance but actually motivation and performance. We shouldn’t worry too much about what makes our staff happy but focus on how to motivate them (by addressing organisational factors, by creating great workspaces and by improving their wellbeing) which in turn may improve happiness but more importantly it will inspire them to perform better and reap the rewards.

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