Just as Florence Nightingale said that hospitals should do the sick no harm, similarly work should be not only the means by which we feed our families and sustain ourselves but also a positive enhancement to life and to our communities. The responsibility of leaders and managers is to deliver on this and that is probably the most difficult leadership task any of us take on. The challenges of trying to balance the needs of individuals and the needs of the collective can often make this task a challenge and the many elements required to deliver a safe and healthy workplace requires thought and planning.
The statistics are daunting; The UK Chief Medical Officer reports that between the years 2009 and 2014 (the years of the most recent economic downturn) the number of working days lost to stress, anxiety and depression increased by 24%. We all expect so much more from our working lives than simply the absence of illness and the role of the employer becomes ever more taxing as life itself becomes more complicated.
So how do employers, managers and leaders lay the foundations, not only for financially prosperous organisations, but also for organisations that deliver more comprehensively to employees? The idea of the psychological contract captures a broader sense of the exchange. It summates not only the standard exchange of labour for remuneration but also the means by which people gain a sense of self-fulfilment and of self-worth. But is it achievable in a way that delivers positive outcomes?
I think there are many parts to the equation that delivers success. Here are just five of them:
- A mutual sense of responsibility
- Investment in managerial/leadership training
- Means for effective communication
- The acknowledgement of failure as a route to growth and as an organisational not individual issue
- The celebration of success
Both employees and employers have responsibilities. It is well known that people find it stressful to feel they have little or no control over what they do or over the decisions that are taken on their behalf. Employers know they have onerous responsibilities - some statutory, some corporate and some personal. Key in all this is the sense of exchange and mutual responsibility. It requires an understanding on both sides, which reflects the interwoven fabric of what’s expected by both sides and what’s delivered by both sides. The written contract of employment delivers on the ‘hygiene’ factors but it’s the nuances of the workplace influenced by management and by leaders that creates a platform from which the more challenging elements can be launched. These ultimately turn the ‘them’ and the ‘us’ into the team and the ‘we’.
It’s curious that even today there is almost a tacit assumption that leaders and managers are born not made. Yet even the local five- a- side football team, never mind the world class athletes we saw recently performing at the Olympics and Paralympics, have put in the time to make themselves as ready as they can be for the challenge ahead. So it must be with organisations. To create responsibility without also providing training and education for this most difficult and responsible of jobs is surely to invite disaster. As tough times approach the plan must be to train more not less so that organisations are fit for the future whatever that might contain.
Often considered the ‘Holy Grail’ of skills, effective communications is cited time and again as aspirant but not achievable. In spite of having communication structures in place, staff frequently complain about a ‘lack’ of communication as being unhelpful and stressful. Leaders have strong responsibilities to put effective communication frameworks in place, and employees need to similarly understand the responsibility placed on them to actively engage.
Sometimes things go wrong. Things, people and issues fail to deliver and sometimes it’s just that ‘stuff happens’. To genuinely have a ‘no blame’ culture, organisations need to work hard to appreciate and understand the causes of problems. Whenever possible, they need to utilise learning to avoid making the same mistakes again and again. But more than this, the whole approach to constructive criticism and evaluation needs to be predicated on the basis of appreciative enquiry. This technique encourages the building of ideas rather than their destruction and avoids games of intellectual skittles so beloved in some board rooms.
And finally we need to celebrate success, – so easy to say, so difficult to do well. In a busy world where time is pressured it’s so easy to move onto the next task and the next challenge without taking a moment to offer congratulations and appreciation for a job well done.
Is all this a recipe for success? Who knows? But somewhere in the fabric of all this one comes to the true essence of leadership. It’s that willingness to take a risk however small and to try something different, to reflect the inside out and the outside in and to try to create some sense of certainty in an uncertain world. In this we may find and experience wellness and use this to build a sense of personal as well as organisational achievement.