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The insidious problem of men not taking parental leave, resilience and the mental stress of Brexit

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21st Jun 2017
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Professor Sir Cary Cooper is Professor of Organizational Psychology and Health, Manchester Business School. We caught up with Sir Cary at this year's Good Day At Work Conversation. He was previously Distinguished Professor at Lancaster University and Chair of the Academy of Social Sciences. In June 2005 he was appointed head of the Sunningdale Institute, which, managed by the United Kingdom National School of Government, brings international academics and industry figures together to advise on issues facing UK public sector organisations.

Jamie Lawrence, Editor, HRZone: What will crack the insidious problem of men just not feeling able to take parental leave or even admit to employers they want to spend time caring for their children?

Sir Cary Cooper, Professor of Organizational Psychology and Health, Manchester Business School: It’s a really big issue. Men don’t apply for parental leave or flexible working as much as woman do and that is a real issue.

And the reason they don’t - I’ve done a big study funded by the Lottery fund and I did it with Working Families and a colleague from Lancaster - and we looked at both a large public and private sector body and tried to find out why men don’t do this.

And the answer was "it will adversely affect my career." Yet women apply - they also feel it will adversely affect their career but not to the same extent that men do.

Because for men it’s about them feeling that the organisation will think they’re less committed - and they’re not, and won’t be, they are just trying to engage with their family and participate and be ‘new mannish’ and get some good balance between work and life but what inhibits them is the fear that taking flexible working and parental leave will adversely affect their careers.

I don’t think things are changing that much on this front. I think they are when it comes to parental leave, because it’s a shorter term.

When it comes to flexible working, I don’t think it is, because it’s longer term and they definitely think if they say to an employer they want a schedule that fits in with family life, they think it will adversely affect family life.

The vast majority of companies have no guidance on the use of emails on weekends or when people are on holiday.

Jobs are still insecure from the recession, we’re about to hit Brexit and with all the concerns and questions that Brexit raises about jobs men are also thinking ‘will I be first in the firing line if we have to let people go because I work more flexibly?’

With the rise in freelancers too, men will think that there is a cabal of people out there who would be ready to take their jobs too.

Jamie Lawrence, Editor, HRZone: Assume we've solved the mental health stigma, made people resilient, and helped people control technology rather than letting it control them. What's the next wellbeing battleground?

Sir Cary Cooper, Professor of Organizational Psychology and Health, Manchester Business School: The third one is the thing they haven’t dealt with at all. Technology is there to enable us. It helps us work flexibly. And it allows a knowledge-based economy to allow people to work flexibly. But that’s not the issue.

The issue is that technology is still damaging people in their private lives. So the big issue for me, for example, is emails. The French have just passed a law that a manager cannot send an email outside of office hours to a subordinate.

People are going out for dinner with their families and everyone is looking at their phones: parents are emailing and the kids are sending texts. We must learn to clock off.

Now you can’t enforce that, but it’s sending a message. We have no laws like that, no control over when managers are sending emails.

The vast majority of companies have no guidance on the use of emails on weekends or when people are on holiday, no guidance on CCing or even sending emails to people in the same office as you, which is not meeting our social needs by people sending emails but not meeting face-to-face.

So how do we get better work-life balance and less stress by managing the technology? We don’t want to throw it away, but we need to control it and it’s damaging our productivity and social lives

People are going out for dinner with their families and everyone is looking at their phones: parents are emailing and the kids are sending texts. We must learn to clock off.

I run the National Forum for Health and Wellbeing and 22 of the major employers - we’re talking companies like BT, Shell, BP, Marks & Spencer, Tesco, GSK, Rolls-Royce, NHS etc - the two factors that are causing people to get ill says these companies are socially-unskilled line managers and emails.

Jamie Lawrence, Editor, HRZone: Eresilience is a growing area, but the amount of technology we need to use every day at work is growing. Is resilience the right solution here? Or do we need intervention?

Sir Cary Cooper, Professor of Organizational Psychology and Health, Manchester Business School: First step organisations can do: they have no guidance.

They need to offer guidance e.g. you don’t CC people in unless it’s essential. You don’t do it to cover your back. Not sending emails to someone in the same building too.

I think we already have fewer people doing more work feeling more job insecure even before Brexit.

We can say to people, "you do not do your emails at weekends or on holiday or at night unless absolutely essential - do it the next morning." At Volkswagen they close their email at 5pm and open again at 9am.

So companies are having to try to control it because they think it’s damaging peoples’ health and productivity.

Jamie Lawrence, Editor, HRZone: What's keeping you up at night in wellbeing at the moment?

Sir Cary Cooper, Professor of Organizational Psychology and Health, Manchester Business School: My worry over the next two years with Brexit and I mean this seriously.

I think we already have fewer people doing more work feeling more job insecure even before Brexit.

There is a lot of insecurity out there over what the impact will be on peoples’ jobs and whether they will even have them if trade deals aren’t done and the magnitude of the change and the impact on peoples’ jobs.

It’s so uncertain: that is what worries me. We aren’t thinking about the national health and wellbeing of people with this major, major event that will have a dramatic effect on the workplace.

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