Professor Sir Cary Cooper CBE talks to HRreview about the most pressing issues in organizational psychology today. He provides a fascinating analysis of the impact of modern work culture and technology upon phenomena such as presenteeism and techno-stress, venturing to answer the paramount question, ‘How can we facilitate work cultures that produce healthy and happy workforces and, by association, increase productivity?’
Lets start at the beginning of your career. What attracted you to the study of psychology and specifically to the study of organisational psychology?
I didn’t actualy do an undergraduate degree in psychology, I did an undergraduate degree in economics at UCLA, management economics in the Graduate School of Business at the University of California, Los Angeles. But I took courses in psychology and became interested in it. At the time I was also a social worker in the city of Los Angeles. I worked in a variety of contexts as a social worker in the main city, mainly with indigents in the city centre and the black community of Watts. There I got a lot of experience of deprivation and people losing jobs. I decided that I was interested in that and, later on, I came to the UK to do a PhD in the field of organisational psychology. I wanted to find out what organisations were about. What sort of impact do they have on people? If they lose their job, what’s the impact on them? What’s the impact on them generally in the workplace? What stress levels do they experience and what satisfaction? So, it was in my early experiences of working while I was doing an MBA at UCLA that I realised how work was affecting people. Somehow, that stuck with me. It affected my whole career and what I wanted to do later on.
It seems like you understood from the very start that psychology has an integral connection with human resources and the work environment.
Yes, and my question was how do we create organisations that develop people, that don’t burn them out, that don’t stress them, that don’t get them ill? What is it in a work place that can be energising and can make that part of their life flourishing rather than a nightmare? That’s how I morphed into HR. HR is about that. It’s called Human Resource Management. How do we manage people to get the most out of them, to not get them ill, to make them thrive, to make them want to come to work motivated and produce?
You’ve been talking about how the environment is really important as a way to make people feel valued. What is the best way to make your employees feel valued?
I think there are several ways.. One way is to create the right physical environment for them, so to make sure they have really nice office accommodation, that it meets their needs. They feel valued the more you invest in that. Given that more of our waking hours are spent at work than at home, that environment is very important, so they need that to be comfortable. It can meet their needs as an individual, make them feel that they are being looked after. The other thingto make them feel valued is to trust them. The way you trust them is if they want to work flexible working arrangements and they can, let them. You want to trust them to give them more autonomy and control over their job rather than micromanaging them. You want to manage them by praise and reward, not fault-finding. When they do something wrong, you give them constructive feedback rather than punitive feedback. That is the kind of thing that makes people feel valued, and you stretch them, and you develop them. So, if they feel they need stretching, you give it to them. You don’t impose it on them. Then they feel, ‘This person really thinks I can do that, and do you know what? I’m going to have a go and do that.’
Okay. So, the term that Staples has come up with for their research report is ‘vocation frustration’. It’s the idea that employees are frustrated in the roles that they’re in and they’re either looking for the next workplace or that there is a general feeling of frustration of where they are. What would you say is the solution to this phenomena?
Well, I think it’s very disturbing to see 89 per cent of people are thinking of switching their jobs. Yes, there will be some who will do it for promotion purposes or whatever, but there will be a big chunk of people just not happy there. That one in five of this survey said that they were actively looking for another role is quite disturbing. Organisations can’t afford to lose people. I think the solution to it is to create the right physical environment and the right psychological environment that people feel valued and trusted in. One where people can feel not only developed, but one where they will feel recognised. If they’re doing a good job, they will get promotion, they will have a career there, a proper career.
What would you say to people or, sort of, employers that were saying that they don’t have the inclination to make that kind of investment, that there isn’t the spare budget to do that?
Well, what I’d say to those employers, if you really want to retain really good people, and you want to attract really good people, you’d better make the physical environment good one, so that people say, ‘This is a great place to work, physically.’ You want to make the psychological environment a great place, which means you have to have more people managements at all levels of the managerial hierarchy. You have to have people who have good EQ, emotional intelligence, who can build teams, who can resolve differences quickly, who can develop people, who can understand and be socially sensitive to other’s needs and meet them as much as they can. That’s the way you retain and develop people. There’s an input to do this, a financial input, in creating the right physical and even emotional environment, because you have to train your managers, you have to make sure you select the right mangers who have this EQ, but in the long run, it will really pay off. The evidence is it does pay off. It pays off in reduced sickness absence, but more importantly in reduced labour turnover. If you lose people, it’s very, very costly. You’ve invested in them, you lose them, you have a recruitment cost and you have a training cost again. The more you keep repeating that and the more you have labour turnover, the worse it is.
A recent statistic estimates that presenteeism costs the UK economy £15.1 billion per year. How do you think we can fight the battle against presenteeism at work?
Presenteeism is double the cost of absenteeism. Unfortunately, absenteeism just rose massively, it was reported by the HSE last week that 57 per cent of all sickness absence in the UK economy is for stress at work. That is very worrying, because a lot of people don’t want to go off with sickness absence because they know it will go on their personnel, HR records, they’re frightened to death of it. So, they turn up to work ill. They turn up to work job dissatisfied. They are unhappy and frustrated at work. They still turn up, but what they’re not doing is delivering added value, because they’re not happy there. So, I’m worried about presenteeism. I think that could be enhanced by creating a culture where there’s not excessive pressure on people, where they’re given more autonomy and control and can work more flexibly; where they have the right kind of managers in place; where people can openly talk about, for example, their mental wellbeing. This is really important, since the leading cause of absenteeism is for the common mental disorders of anxiety, depression and stress. Having conversations and making it acceptable to talk about this in the workplace will highlight why people aren’t coping, and the fact that they aren’t coping, and then they can be helped and supported.
The next thing we wanted to look at is around productivity. The question that I wanted to pose to you is, what can be done to help drive the productivity agenda?
Okay, productivity agenda can be helped in several ways. Let’s take the way in which most people think it can be helped. The government says the way you increase the productivity is infrastructure. So, you make sure you have the right rail network, or you have fast moving broadband. Its all about IT and the right kind of equipment. That’s what the government has been banging on about for the last ten years. Yet, our productivity per capita is 7th in the G7 and 17th in the G20. So, it hasn’t really helped that much. The most important thing, in my view, is creating the right kind of culture in the work environment, having the right kind of line managers, having the right kind of physical environment. All of that, in my view, is as, if not more, important than what governments have in the past worked on, which is infrastructure. Yes, it would be nice to get the best equipment, but that’s not delivering the productivity changes. Therefore, it’s about man management that needs to deliver it. More of the EQ managers are the things we need.
So, if that’s achieved and we have these EQ managers to help drive productivity, what would you then say is the next issue we’re going to be looking at to tackle wellbeing in the work sphere?
I think that there is another thing that we haven’t tackled, which is techno-stress, in other words technology is going faster than individual employees can cope with. Emails are devastating. More research is showing they’re actually interfering with people’s private life. People feel they have to be on 7/24. We need some kind of controls on that so that people can get better balance in their lives. The next technological issue is going to be AI, artificial intelligence. What is the individual relationship with AI robots? What is that going to mean in the future? We haven’t even dealt with simple technology like emails and social media, and they’re overwhelming people in the workplace. How the hell are we going to cope with much more sophisticated technology which is about AI technology?
That’s really interesting. Yes, it’s going to be the next thing to address, as it comes in.
It’s the next big thing.
Professor Sir Cary Cooper CBE is the 50th Anniversary Professor of Organizational Psychology and Health at ALLIANCE Manchester Business School of the University of Manchester, President of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, President of the British Academy of Management and President of the Institute of Welfare. He is the author/editor of over 170 books and 350 scholarly articles on organizational psychology and HR topics. He has seven Honorary doctorates and is Honorary Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians. He is the first port of call by the national and international media on workplace health and wellbeing. He received a CBE from the Queen in 2001 for his contribution to occupational health and was Knighted by the Queen in 2014 for his contribution to the social sciences.