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Don’t ignore the flickering flame

Employers are burdened by the need to produce growth at a time of recession. But pressurising staff until they feel they must work long hours, weekends or through holidays is a temporary fix that will exact a cost on the business, as talent walks at the first opportunity. Yves Duhaldeborde, Director of Employee Surveys, Towers Watson, reports.

Whatever economic difficulties we may be facing, businesses need to start acting to prevent their workers from experiencing burn-out. Years of uncertainty have led to increased anxiety around job security, with workers putting in longer hours than ever. Employees feel that they have no choice but to stick it out where they are and put up with everything that is thrown at them, as the ever-present threat of redundancy is in danger of becoming ingrained in the psychology of the workforce. Overtime engagement, morale, wellbeing and productivity can all decrease as employees struggle to keep pace with demands. Our recent Global Workforce Study put these concerns into sharp focus. We found that one-in-three UK employees said that they were often affected by excessive pressure in their job while only half of the workforce reported that their stress levels at work were manageable. The analyses we conducted to identify the root causes of these symptoms revealed that nearly 60 percent of UK workers have been working more hours than normal over the last three years and half do not expect this to improve over the coming three years. These figures should concern CEOs and investors as much as HR Directors because a workforce that cannot cope with the requirements being asked of it is in danger of burn-out and underperformance.

So what can businesses do about these worrying figures? A financial services company I have been working with recently has committed itself to the issue of wellbeing as part of its corporate culture to protect its employees and encourage a more sustainable working environment. Numerous activities and programs have been implemented or extended including healthy eating options in restaurants, discounted gym memberships, health assessments, an employee assistance programme and an expanded flexible working scheme, but the success of the overall program has less to do with the collection of activities and programs available to employees than with the way the health and wellbeing program was conceived, managed, communicated and delivered. Several key points come to mind. First, senior leaders articulated and communicated a clear vision of what a high level of staff wellbeing would look like for the company, and why reaching that state would make a difference to business performance. Second, the importance of involving employees was emphasised from the start so it always contained the flexibility, individuality and accountability required to make a real difference to staff. Third, considerable efforts were made to integrate the program with other initiatives, including community activities, charity events and the design of a new employee value proposition. Finally, senior leaders “walked the talk”, demonstrating their support for the programme through active participation in the activities on offer, such as running programs or organised walks. This had the added benefit of giving employees the sense of leadership care and proximity that fuels engagement. While the initiative described in this example is only in its first year, the early data collected on absenteeism and other business KPIs is promising. Our own global analysis of company performance, wellbeing and employee engagement shows that while organisations with low employee engagement produce an average operating margin of around ten percent, organisations that achieve both high employee engagement and high wellbeing, perform with operating margins of more than 27 percent.

Of course the other issue that employers should consider is that we are starting to see improvements in the job market. There could be a power-shift on the horizon as more jobs become available and workers feel they can start to look around for a role that gives them better work-life balance. This is where Human Resources staff must seize the initiative and ensure that the workforce is not at risk of burnout. Managers and senior staff must be made to realise that people working from 7am until 8pm doesn’t result in the best work and isn’t good for the business in the long term.

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