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The HRZone Interview: Dr Cary Cooper on well-being at work

31st Jul 2012
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Dr Cary Cooper is professor of organisational psychology and health at Lancaster University Management School and author of more than 150 books on topics ranging from occupational stress and women at work to organisational psychology.

He is also a regular contributor to TV, radio and the press and, in 2001, was awarded a CBE for his contribution to occupational safety and health.  Here he talks to HRZone about such issues as well-being, the need for a new breed of manager and the importance of engendering hope and pride in the workplace.

Q There is more and more blurring between work and home life, caused partly by technology enabling us to work remotely. What are the consequences of this shift on working practices?

A There are enormous consequences. Work is spilling over into home life, which means that people are not spending enough time with their spouses or children. And it’s not just the hours they work at the office - they check their emails and Skype at home.

We have become the workaholics of Europe. It is damaging family life, and technology is making it ten times worse and it was supposed to help us. I remember Harold Wilson in the 1960s talking about the ‘white heat’ of technology and how, in the year 2000, this would mean we would all be working just a 20-hour week.

A survey I did with the CMI on the quality of working life found that management work 52 to 55 hours a week, every week. It’s not good for family life. The irony is that technology could enable us to work more flexibly but, in my view, it doesn’t.

Q How true do you think the old cliche about ‘people join companies but leave managers’ really is? What can companies do to ensure that they have decent managers in place?

A Why do we have problems? My theory is that we don’t select managers with high social and interpersonal skills, we select on task competence. When you study for an MBA, do you learn how to manage people? No.  We train them on knowledge of HR and of operational management, but don’t select on interpersonal skills. So if business schools aren’t doing it and we carry on hiring in the same way, then we will carry on getting the wrong people in.

In tough times, you need people with great social skills. We need a two-pronged attack: select with social skills as a significant feature of recruitment and, if they are already in a job, then train them - there are some people who are trainable and there are some who are not.  Bad managers can lead to high turnover and lower levels of job satisfaction. People could leave, physically or psychologically through presenteeism.

Q Is the same true of leaders?
A Leaders are people who set a vision. Managers build teams and work with people. Visionary people often have good interpersonal skills, but not all of them - look at all the things coming out about Steve Jobs.

Q The phrase ‘employee engagement’ is a hot topic in HR, but a lot of employers think that they’ve got it covered with a yearly tick-box survey. How can you achieve true employee engagement?

A Everyone thinks employee engagement is a magic bullet for all our problems, but it’s not. HR will say ‘our employee engagement has gone up from 75 to 76’ but cynically say that they don’t see any improvement in morale.  Engagement is great, but let’s make sure good work-life balance is there, we manage by praise and reward and make sure employees are clear about what is required of them in their jobs.

Q Alongside employee engagement, employee well-being is something that many companies seem to be talking about. What exactly should this encompass and what practical steps can HR people take in this area?

A The government’s Foresight programme is trying to find out, from birth to death, what enhances our mental well-being and capital. A big section of that is work. Wellbeing - having little stress and a lot of satisfaction and contentment - is down to how you’re managed, how you’re paid, whether you are trusted, valued and whether you have good relationships.  Things that take that away well-being are a bullying boss, an insecure job, long hours, lack of clarity about job role, lack of flexibility and poor work-life balance.

Q Why is well-being such a big issue right now?
A A lot of companies don’t like to talk about stress or be perceived as a stressful organisation so they talk about well-being. Well-being is about reducing stress and being positive and giving hope.  If you’re an organisation that manages people really well but say to your workers “if we don’t get this contract the Chinese will wipe us out”, that is a negative statement and causes stress.  The Bank of England, the government and opposition - everyone is saying that the current situation could go on for 10 or 15 years, but they are forgetting that people rely on hope - you have to deal with problems, but if you just focus on the negative, if you continue to talk in this way that undermines people’s hope, then you’re creating real problems.  You need positive psychology - get rid of negatives and create positivity about hope, and make people feel good about where they are. Pride and hope are important.

The driver for well-being has been for organisations dealing with stress. Sickness numbers are dropping, but what we are dealing with instead is presenteeism. People are frightened of taking time off sick, but a good manager can see someone who’s not well.  A good manager with social skills will tell someone to go home or ask the worker who’s been off sick a lot if there is something bothering them. Instead they think that someone turning up like that is good because it shows commitment.

Q What do you see as the role of HR in the workplace?
A HR does employment surveys but doesn’t get into well-being: they have a couple of questions on stress, but they need to do well-being audits. It’s even recommended by NICE.  Some HR people are frightened of doing that and finding negatives and worried about being seen as responsible for those negatives. But take an audit using psychoanalytic tests and then most importantly, do something about it. The cost benefit of that is huge. If you put £1 in, you will get double back. So I think HR needs to do four things: 

  1. Fight for flexibility for everyone, not just those people with kids
  2. Recruit people on their social skills
  3. Audit well-being/stress in companies and then bring employees together to solve the problem. You might get someone from outside to do the audit but it’s important to get employees to decide what to do. You wouldn’t want to walk into your GP’s surgery and find they’ve already written you a prescription before you open your mouth. So you need to find out what’s wrong and do it in an anonymous way
  4. The biggest thing we can do for the UK is get women in senior operational management jobs, not on the board, because you need to get senior and middle managers who are going to move into those jobs. Women have higher EQs generally so, in manager roles, have more natural social skills.

Q The UK workplace has changed, for example, moving from hierarchical to flatter management structures - how would you characterise these changes and what direction are we moving in? 
A I don’t think that we have got that flat a structure: The reward people get promotion. We should forget the traditional work pyramid and look at it as a square: If you’re a teacher, why shouldn’t you get paid as much as the head? Why shouldn’t a good chief engineer earn as much as a CEO?  The UK has taken out a couple of levels of management because it had to save some money but, once growth happens again, that may well change. The best reward is giving people a share of the action in the business, like The John Lewis Partnership.


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By carole spiers
02nd Aug 2012 11:57

Carole Spiers, Author of Show Stress Who's Boss! Motivational Speaker and BBC Guest-Broadcaster. Contact her [email protected] or + 44 (0) 20 8954 1593.

Businesses need to create healthy workplace cultures which will mean taking an entirely fresh view of the talents of everyone in the workplace and deploying them more effectively. Organisations have to move away from an over-reliance on systems and processes, and adopt attitudes that are more successful in actually engaging employees. 

It is vital for managers to fully engage with their teams, but it has to be recognised that they cannot always be ‘all things to all people’. Whilst they need to be firm but fair, they must always strive be a ‘good listener’.    Creativity is the lifeblood of any organisation. It leads to innovation which in turn leads to a competitive edge. All too often, however, creative thinking is seen as the preserve of departments such as Sales & Marketing or R & D. However, everyone has the capacity to come up with good ideas, but this means being prepared to dispense with the often outdated methods of communication via numerous layers of management.  Nothing can be more important than giving praise for a job well done. Regular appraisal identifies strengths and weaknesses and allows for assessment of CPD and on-the-job training. Being valued and recognised is an important element in the business operation and almost as important as the monetary reward on offer. Recognition and reward have to be commensurate with the task, but undervaluing skills at all levels can lead to low productivity and poor morale. Organisations are enriched because of the wealth of cultural differences there are within them but again, this needs to be managed in a way that this richness can grow people within the business. Organisations need to develop Healthy Workplace Ambassador champions who will live and breathe the culture of the organisation and who will bring sustainable success to the business. It is not complicated to grow a healthy culture but it does need to be a priority in the minds of senior board members to ensure that it is followed throughout the business.    

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By Jeremy Thorn
03rd Aug 2012 03:10

I have long admired Prof Cary Cooper for his deep insight into OD issues and his practical common-sense.  If I could start my career again, I'd love to do what he does, even half as ably!

However, I am not at all sure that his ideal model based on this interview would define the sort of organisation I want to be served by.  Warm interpersonal skills are great, but as a customer I want to talk to somebody who knows their product, will go the last mile for me, understands my needs and has products/services I really want to buy, delivered reliably, and can make all this happen with mandated authority.

I have no issue with creating a vibrating enthusiastic organisation to deliver all his, stress-free, equality-sensitive and EQ-loaded, but could we not also focus on satisfying customers too as the first priority?  I have never seen a 'happy' organisation short of work.  And even in the public sector, which might never have to fight for 'work', I have never seen a fulfilled  workforce with disatisfied users. (Ask around if you are not sure!)

I am certain that Cary Cooper might say that customer satisfaction comes from happy employees - and if he wouldn't, I would.  But the reverse is not necessarily true.  And the sooner HR departments understand that, most especially in larger organisations who may be most distant from their employers' clientele, I would suggest the more successful UK plc might be, in a very competitive international world that is eating our breakfast, right now...

But then, I am sure the wonderful Prof might have said all this if asked?  HR can be great at Process, but what about Outcomes?  |That's what your Board most wants, by the way, and your customers and stakeholders too!)

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By Clare Casson
07th Aug 2012 17:56

Prof Cooper says, the problem is, 'We don’t select managers with high social and interpersonal skills, we select on task competence'.  Should we be thinking more in terms of appointing team coaches, rather than team managers?   

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