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Professor Sir Cary Cooper

"The biggest challenge is how we actually make wellbeing part of our everyday conversation."

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19th Jan 2016
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This is an interview with internationally-recognised wellbeing expert Professor Sir Cary Cooper, currently 50th Anniversary Professor of Organizational Psychology and Health at Alliance Manchester Business School. Sir Cary has just been appointed President of the CIPD: we caught up with him to find out his plans for the first year of his tenure, and his feelings on how UK HR can do better when it comes to workplace wellbeing.

Jamie Lawrence, Editor, HRZone: You've just been elected President of the CIPD. What's your overriding goal for the next year as you establish yourself in the role?

Professor Sir Cary Cooper: The CIPD has championed how employee wellbeing is key to building high performing, productive workplaces and I’m delighted to be given the chance to work with the CIPD and its members to move this important agenda forward.

This year I look forward to engaging in the wider wellbeing debate in conjunction with the CIPD and my University of Manchester spin-off company which I co-founded, Robertson Cooper, in order to put wellbeing at the forefront of each organisation and create more good days at work for everyone, everywhere.

Jamie Lawrence, Editor, HRZone: What is the biggest challenge facing UK HR and what needs to be done?

Professor Sir Cary Cooper: We all know that wellbeing is a challenge in itself. But for me, the biggest challenge facing UK HR is how do we actually make wellbeing part of our everyday conversation, instead of just an add-on because we know that we ‘should’ be doing it.

Sometimes the biggest blocker with this may be ‘readiness’ – the readiness of the organisation and its people. This was one of the key themes that emerged at the recent Good Day at Work Conversation event – held to address this exact challenge of making wellbeing part of everyday working life.

Readiness is about looking beyond your immediate surroundings and considering the evolving business – its culture, its direction and its context. All of these are critically important in any conversation.

Of course, there are a whole variety of factors that affect an organisation's attitudes to health and wellbeing that are completely outside your control.

But there’s no ignoring the fact that a business filled with people who are ready for wellbeing feels very different from one filled with people who are not!

So, even though this challenge feels very big, it’s important not to be discouraged.

Developing a deeper understanding of employee attitudes, your organisational culture and the factors in society as a whole that affect our health and wellbeing will help you understand what readiness looks and feels like for 2016.

Jamie Lawrence, Editor, HRZone: In terms of wellbeing, what do you think will define the debate in 2016? Will we still focus on mental health stigma?

Professor Sir Cary Cooper: Mental health will always inform part of the wellbeing debate. You just have to pick up a newspaper at the moment and you are confronted with mental health statistics and the government’s plans to help people cope.

I recognise the importance of mental health within the wellbeing debate and the fact that the mental health stigma does still absolutely exist.

In fact Robertson Cooper partnered with the global men’s health charity, The Movember Foundation – to address this and highlight the power the conversation can have in this important area.

Unfortunately, when it comes to their health, men don’t talk, men don’t act and men die too young.

In the UK over 5000 men take their lives each year – that’s 13 men every single day. This is unacceptable and given that the workplace plays such a central role in people’s lives, we have a unique opportunity to reframe expectations about health.

Through this partnership and many other wellbeing initiatives, I am hopeful that the debate in 2016 might have a slightly more positive framework, even if we are still broadly speaking about mental health. For example, if the government is dedicating resources to improving mental health, it presents an opportunity for businesses to get involved.

In 2015, wellbeing practitioners wanted to know how they can engage their senior leadership teams in the wellbeing conversation, and convince them of its impact on the bottom line.

But looking ahead to this year, we are seeing a maturity in the conversations around wellbeing – this sense that wellbeing is the right thing to do – and that it will start to be seen more as a bottom-line issue.

Jamie Lawrence, Editor, HRZone: Presenteeism is still a massive issue in UK workplaces. How should organisations tackle this?

Professor Sir Cary Cooper: Sadly, presenteeism is the biggest threat to UK workplace productivity. We know that nearly one third of staff persistently turn up to work ill and just 35% are generally healthy and present. Workers coming in and doing nothing is more dangerous for the UK economy than absenteeism.

And yet there is no research to support some senior managers’ belief that working longer hours makes people more productive.

It is the responsibility of organisations to prevent presenteeism, managers should reward people for the work they deliver, not the hours they put in. People should not feel obliged to work long hours to show their commitment.

If workers are sick, then they should be allowed to stay away from worker until they are well, for their own sake as well as the rest of the work force. In the long-term senior management investing in health and wellbeing across an organisation improves overall employee engagement and productivity.

Jamie Lawrence, Editor, HRZone: How do you feel the role of the HR function within the organisation is changing as we go into 2016?

Professor Sir Cary Cooper: 2015 was a huge year for organisational HR teams. For many companies 2015 was a year of growth.

Finally dealing with the aftermath of the recession, growth employment and retention became the focus.

This therefore meant there was a mammoth focus on HR tech, with 2015 seeing the rise of many disruptive HR technology firms. There was a massive replacement of licensed, traditional HRMS systems taking place.

Changes for HR teams will continue into 2016. This will be the POWER year for many organisations.

The promise of a Northern Powerhouse economy, the rise of the millennials, HS2, the US elections – the sheer force of these movements will impact businesses all around the world.

In order for us to maximise the possibilities this power year presents, we will need strong leaders at the helm of our organisations. Much of the research on what makes workplaces tick boils down to a similar conclusion. A powerful leader is a visible one, and organisations that make us work smarter give us a strong sense of purpose.

Research into the state of the banking industry by Robertson Cooper and the Bank Workers Charity gives one of the starkest illustrations of the power of an individual sense of purpose at work. Those employees with the strongest sense of purpose are also the most engaged.

The banking industry has been beset by complexity, regulation and media scrutiny in the past 24 months, so employees on the shop floor could be forgiven for having lost some of that sense of purpose. However, it’s more important than ever to rebuild trust and sustainable performance in the sector.

This is the year for us to embrace the opportunities the future holds, place wellbeing at the forefront of our organisations.

Wellbeing isn’t just the right thing to do, it should be part of our everyday language, conversation, management, practice and behaviour, from the bottom to the top of organisations.

Bring on 2016! 

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By Mick Timpson
17th Mar 2016 15:46

Prof Cary Cooper gets it right here. Its not about how many hours you put in working ‘hard’ its about finding ways to build and foster insight, creativity and productive flow.

In my experience all of these factors underpin wellbeing and deeper sense of purpose. When they combine in what ever you do an energised forward momentum is the result… you can feel it. Surely this is what any business needs to promote. To help people grow from the inside-out - creatively, rewarding for quality of output and depth of insight rather than just overflowing timesheets really arms business to respond to the changes the Professor mentions.

That is where real change happens. It does however need good leadership to make this shift. Towards helping others thrive.Ideas, creativity and the way they impact on productivity are available when staff are well. Stress is the obstacle.

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