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Shifting sands: a changing working landscape?

24 Feb 2012 | Ben Moss and Sophie Armond

This is an abridged version of an article from Well-Being, Good Work and Society - Time for Change, the annual report of the The Business Well-Being Network founded by Robertson Cooper.

Wellbeing Good Work and Society

Work is fundamental to a balanced and fulfilling life. Whether you enjoy it in its own right or see it as a means to an end (e.g. to feed and clothe your family or to send your kids to university) few would disagree with this. So if we accept the central role it plays in our lives and society, our willingness or reluctance to get out of bed and go to work in the morning is hugely important. The implications of how we feel about our work are numerous and far reaching. It impacts on us as individuals, the success of the organisation we're working for, the economy and our communities.

As with everything else, our working landscape has continually changed over the decades. But a number of factors have been combining in recent years to signal the potential for a more fundamental shift, causing many to pause and reconsider our priorities - in government, business and individually. 2011 saw an unprecedented focus on well-being, as David Cameron initiated the development of a measure of national well-being. The government has realised that it is no longer sufficient to rely solely on hard productivity metrics like GDP as a measurement of the UK's success and this has spurred activity to find a more holistic and meaningful package of measures. 

The riots in the summer of 2011 also sparked a national dialogue about education, unemployment and the materialistic nature of our society - the importance of opportunities, training, sense of purpose (collective and individual) and community became acutely apparent. And the success of our organisations obviously has a vital role to play here. At the moment many organisations are trying to consolidate their position and find their way in a new, and often tougher, environment. Similarly, individuals are trying to accept and adapt to a more insecure environment. 

Well-Being at Work

The importance of measuring employee well-being, and the drivers behind it, is well established. Its influence on business and individual level outcomes has been repeatedly demonstrated and the strategic importance of well-being is now broadly accepted. The number of organisations implementing well-being programmes is on the rise, but in many organisations the programmes focus primarily on physical well-being. We don't want to underestimate the importance of this, but to see fundamental and sustainable impacts on performance, psychological well-being also needs to be managed in an integrated and strategic manner. The state of the art has now moved beyond stress management and ensuring you are not taken to tribunal by staff. The model is much more preventative, but more than that, it is about actually realising the sustainable benefits of positive psychological well-being. 

Encouragingly, some leading organisations are starting to realise these benefits and show how a real focus on well-being can go hand-in-hand with commercial success, not to mention attracting and retaining the best talent. Zappos, for example, has made employee well-being their central goal, and company founder Tony Hseih has started the Delivering Happiness movement to share their message in the US. In companies like this, well-being is comprehensively 'mainstreamed' in to a range of activities from recruitment and induction to leadership development and employee appraisals.

The economic climate since 2007 has also shone a spotlight on new areas - for example the relationship between well-being, engagement and resilience. As employees struggle to do more with less, and risk a subsequent drop in morale, personal resilience has been an increasingly desirable trait - and we've seen a greater focus on training and development in this area. 

Income and happiness

Over the years our incomes have increased, as has personal borrowing, but this doesn't seem to have made us any happier. Eurobarometer surveys show that in fact, life satisfaction has remained fairly constant since it was first measured in 1973 - regardless of the state of the nation's economy. Of course, we do need a certain level of financial security to meet our basic needs, but higher incomes do not seem to bring relative improvements in quality of life when you look at whole countries. In fact, pay has less of a relative impact on happiness and productivity than other factors such as working relationships and control, as long as people perceive that they are fairly rewarded for the work they do. We need to restructure our beliefs about the relationship between money and happiness - and factor in the value of family, friends, sense of community and meaningful work. As others have started to say, maybe a life well-lived should be our real goal.

Unfortunately there are those in organisations that still see well-being as a 'nice to have', which gets axed as soon as times get tough. They just do not fundamentally believe that this is as important as, say, a focus on cost management or sales training. But these things should not be seen as mutually exclusive. We don't have to choose between happiness or money, employee well-being or profit; it is possible to change the way we do business to include a more human element, while also seeing financial returns on investment in well-being. 

Working life

As the type of work we do is changing, so is the composition of organisations. In 1911, one in seven were managers or professionals, almost 100 years later that figure was one in three. As organisations, and indeed jobs, have grown and become more complex the increasing layers of hierarchy have brought the need for many more managers. This means that a large majority of workers not only need to be good at their job, they also need the people skills to bring the best out of others. While academically we know a lot more about the impact of leaders and managers on their teams, managerial skills and training still has some way to go.

Perhaps surprisingly, working hours have remained fairly constant, which could be partly a result of legislation, but are still high compared to other nations. And other sources suggest that recorded working hours may not tell the whole story: according to research from Aviva: "Workers are putting in a staggering 26 million extra hours in the workplace each day...six in ten employees regularly work beyond their contracted hours, putting in an average of 1.5 hours overtime a day. Nearly one in four claim they work an extra 2-3 hours daily. 79% of these hours are unpaid, which means workers are providing around £225 million worth of 'free' hours each day for employers."

What's most important (and currently not accounted for) is that we measure the impact this has on people's lives. In some roles long working hours are a well known aspect of the industry and not of concern to employees, it might even be something they like about their role. For others overtime means a boosted income, and in some organisations staff rely on extra hours. Whether too many or too few, it's when people are really troubled by their hours that problems arise, but that is seldom measured by well-being and employee engagement surveys. 


When pressure becomes unbearable and challenges insurmountable, workers are at risk of stress. According to HSE statistics, incidences of work related stress have remained fairly constant over the past decade. However, this year for the first time stress became the most common cause of long-term illness for manual workers and it maintained its position as the leading cause of absence for non-manual workers. Sometimes it can be easier to think that if something isn't going up we don't need to do anything about it, but this is not the case. The issue still cost 10.8 million working days in 2010/11, not to mention the impact on individuals and their families.

Of course physical health also has a part to play. Happily this is an area companies are able to tackle more visibly, with initiatives like the Global Corporate Challenge helping to contribute to improvements in employees' habits.

Our relationship with work

Over the past century, right up to the present, employees have been moving up Maslow's hierarchy of needs with regards to their relationship with work: starting with the need for employment to deliver money for food, clothing and shelter; moving through to a position that's healthy, safe and relatively secure; and then onto Generations X and Y, who wanted something fulfilling. These increasing expectations from employees have meant employers have had to give greater consideration to the treatment of their workforce - a good thing!

This has not just been 9 to 5 paid employment in the traditional sense either as we have seen the rise of flexible and home working, both of which have been based on a more trusting and dynamic psychological contract than ever before. Another example is the way in which voluntary work can bring an enormous sense of purpose and feel good experience: indeed, studies have shown how the amount of volunteering undertaken is a contributor to increased happiness. This is an example of how greater 'mindfulness' rather than material gain can contribute to our happiness.

A big part of the challenge is the acceptance that we are unlikely to have one job or career (and certainly not one employer) that defines our identity and self-image. Looking ahead we will all need to be comfortable with the idea of career fluidity and personal flexibility, in order to be able to deal with changing responsibilities and movement across industries and sectors. We each need to adapt to get a deep sense of purpose from doing a variety of good work - some paid, some not; some short term and some longer. Nor does it need to be a contribution that changes the world. Making a difference in our communities can also be enormously satisfying and in some cases the output will be more tangible than the tasks we undertake at work.

In this new economy there is a risk that high levels of youth unemployment coupled with an increasingly competitive job market of highly educated people will allow employers to take advantage of those setting out on their careers. There have been many tales of long term unpaid internships in recent years. So we must make sure that we don't slide back to a situation where people are so grateful for work that they will tolerate anything. And companies have to take the long-term view: a tempting, short-term cost saving strategy will result in high staff turnover, a diluted talent pool and lack of loyalty as the best people leave when better opportunities come along.

What next

Well-Being is an enormous, multi-faceted topic that is starting to drive some seismic changes in our working lives and non-working lives. Keeping track of the impact of health, finance, education and day-to-day working life on our well-being - and then taking action to make improvement - is certainly a challenge for those in positions of responsibility. Whether they are HR professionals, CEOs, MPs or the Prime Minister the challenge is big, but we've made huge progress; now we need to keep the momentum going and make sure the benefits can be consistently and sustainably reaped by all of us. 

This is not just something for 'them' to do either, we must each review our own priorities and take responsibility for our actions and the environments we help to create, whether as an individual, manager or well-being professional.

It will take a brave government to lead strongly on the well-being/happiness agenda through these uncertain times - one that aims to build a society that is defined as much by how good and how resilient it feels as by what it has. Economically things look like they will get worse before they get better - but it would be a mistake to see this shift in culture and mindset as something that could only be addressed in the good times. That would perpetuate the myth that all things happiness and well-being are luxuries that we address when all other basic needs are fulfilled (i.e. our need for money). 

Actually, this is about changing our goals - accepting that a happy, well lived life is the aim and that money won't necessarily guarantee that for us. These are the perfect times to start to make the change - the evidence that the old ways weren't sustainable is staring every single one of us in face. If we can't see it now, maybe we never will. We need to take this as the impetus to make the change, to start building a concept of what our new partners at the Work Foundation refer to as Good Work and let the benefits of this flow out into our societies and communities.


About the authors

Ben Moss is the Managing Director of Robertson Cooper

Sophie Armond manages the Business Well-Being Network

Wellbeing Good Work and Society

This article is taken from Well-Being, Good Work and Society - Time for Change


Action for Happiness


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