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It’s National Stress Awareness Day and it falls in the middle period between post-summer work surge and pre-Christmas work panic stations. Just as when the supermarkets close for 24 hours at most for Christmas Day and everyone goes wild as if they will never see the inside of a supermarket again, work goes into hyperdrive at the mere thought that people will down tools for a few hours to spend a bit of time with their family – or, more likely, in bed with the flu.
So National Stress Awareness Day is appropriately timed. Research from Britain’s Healthiest Company (BHC), by Vitality, Mercer and The University of Cambridge shows almost three quarters of employees in the UK suffer from at least one dimension of work-related stress, with time pressure being cited as the biggest contributing factor.
It does not take a genius to realise that this is not good for anyone. Long hours and working under increasing time pressure often combine to make for exhaustion and, as any parent knows, you don’t function at your best when extremely tired. Not only are you more tetchy, but your short-term memory implodes and you spend all day just dreaming about sleep. Of course, for those managers who measure these things, you might still be there in body – if you have not had to take days off due to stress, but being there is not a good gauge of productivity.
It is therefore a much better idea to create working conditions that make it easier for people to perform well.
Yesterday night at Workingmums.co.uk’s Top Employer Awards we celebrated organisations that do just that. Winner of the overall Top Employer Award was the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service. It has seen a remarkable turnaround in its fortunes since it implemented smart working. In 2010 the Public Accounts Committee declared it ‘not fit for purpose’, citing unacceptably high sickness levels; low compliance by staff; and poor management information system. In 2014, after a complete overhaul, including a move to smart working, it was assessed as good with outstanding leadership by Ofsted and had doubled its productivity rate, reduced sickness rates and increased staff health and well being. For a sector which can be very rigid and paper-based, this is a huge transformation and Cafcass’ entry also demonstrated how necessity can breed invention and that its new more mobile way of working not only benefits the organisation and its employees but also the young people it works with who are able to engage more interactively with their social workers.
It can be hard, though, for senior managers who are focused on the short term to take a step back and look at the broader picture. Cafcass had its back against the wall and perhaps had nothing to lose. Change seems risky, but research backs up the benefits that can accrue. And what if, in the long term, not changing is actually riskier than change? Sitting slap bang in the middle of the long hours culture is a massive elephant called care. Not just care for children, but also care for the elderly. As our population ages and services to support them diminish it will fall to their relatives – most of them employees – to look after them. While not all employees will be parents, they are all somebody’s children, even if they don’t retain close ties. It still, of course, falls mainly to women to do the caring work, but that is changing for a range of reasons, one of which is that families can no longer afford to have only one person working.
So those who put their heads in the sand and think this is not an issue for them or one which they will address on an as and when basis are possibly taking the riskiest path. In Sweden some employers are trialling six-hour days and say that employees are more focused as well as happier. Could that work in the UK where low productivity despite long working hours is a consistent concern of employers? Maybe. It’s certainly worth thinking about.
*Mum on the run is Mandy Garner, editor of Workingmums.co.uk.