It’s always interesting when research confirms what one is seeing on a day-to-day basis. Most representatives I’ve trained over the last couple of years have stated to me that health and wellbeing is near to, or at the top of their hot topic list. In its latest research commissioned by Access - A hybrid working nation: How It’s Working Out – the University of Nottingham, have revealed the degree to which this issue is affecting UK workplaces. It does not make for comfortable reading.

Prior to Covid-19, around 12% of working adults said that they worked from home on a regular basis. Remote working then became the norm for many office-based employees for 18 months from April 2020. At present, the proportion of adults working from home at least some of the week has more than tripled. We have been aware for some time that this has had a huge effect on work/life balance and not always in a positive manner. Some employees state that their productivity has improved, and that employee engagement has increased. Others, however, have reported that their employees have felt disconnected and isolated from their colleagues and have missed the “water cooler conversations”.

Hybrid Working

Some organisations have not handled hybrid working effectively and this has become a source of stress and division within their the workforces because of the way people in different age groups, income brackets and job roles experience it. It is not easy to make strategic decisions about hybrid working and impossible to accommodate everyone’s individual needs – in the phrase work/life balance, the word “work” must assume equal importance. However, where organisations have been more prescriptive by insisting on a set number of days that employees have to attend the office or site rather than an approach based on needs and productivity, the rigid policy has contributed to the Great Resignation and its consequences.  

The study by the University of Nottingham offers a number of statistics that should make every organisation in the UK step back and consider whether its hybrid working policy is as effective as it was intended to be. On the positive side, the study revealed that just under 59% of employees in the different organisations said they were generally happy with their working arrangements. However, 41% of those surveyed reported feeling depressed most or all of the time. While it is difficult to quantify that in monetary terms, it is almost certain that those 41% would have issues around performance, productivity and days lost to sickness. The effect of this on quality of life would be equally damaging.

Training Employees

Half of those surveyed stated that “they felt worthless”. Whether they actually are deemed worthless by their organisation or whether it is a perception, that statistic shines a glaring light on how people are being managed and communicated with. Simply training employees to be more resilient will not address an issue as fundamental as this. If 38% of the employees surveyed are losing sleep due to worries about work and 45% feel under constant strain, strategic thinking is required to redress the situation rather than a single tactical intervention.

There is no simple or quick solution but those organisations that have effective voice mechanisms and well-trained managers will at least have a chance of improving the situation. I have argued for many years that the skills required by managers and representatives are close to identical. The ability to manage and represent people requires an ability to empathise, communicate and contribute to problem-solving. Amongst trade union representatives there are some who have developed themselves as counsellors and mediators and there is, I believe, a strong argument that they should be utilised as designated Wellbeing Representatives. The success of union learning representatives proves that a defined role can produce numerous benefits to employees and organisations alike. In the same way that managers and union representatives were trained together on a subject like Job Evaluation, joint training for them on how to engage people in the workplace would be invaluable.

Staff Forum

There is no reason why a representative on a staff forum could not do the same. Some forums already have designated roles in the same way that trade unions have and, although union and staff representatives have very different roles on some subjects, the wellbeing of employees is not one of them.   

Anecdotal evidence strongly suggests that this problem is not getting better and will not do so in the near future unless organisations act now. We have known for over ten years that organisations need to adopt the four enablers of employee engagement and that, if they do so, employees will feel less worthless and less prone to stress. What organisations may not know is that union and staff representatives are a potentially rich resource to improving its culture and to ensure that their employees do not have to face dealing with the feelings expressed by so many of the study participants. We all need to start by listening.

Derek Luckhurst, Training and Development Director, IPA

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