There's lots of companies and I mean lots where it's all, it's all a trick. It is all a trick. What they'll do is they'll, say that they care, but then they'll set you objectives that are impossible to meet, unless you are a workaholic.
Welcome to That Wellbeing At Work Show I'm Chris Taylor, your show host. Work-life balance we're told is a key component of employee wellbeing, but is the term really just a myth. My guest this week is certainly a sceptic former ad agency boss, Nigel Marsh, whose Ted talk on work-life balance remains one of the platforms most popular with some 6 million views, pours scorn on the idea that balance is achievable for millions of employees. Nigel also a best-selling author with fat 40 and fired and fit 50 and fired up amongst his works. This is a no holds barred, uncompromising, and sometimes explicit interview enjoy.
Hi Nigel now I'm going to talk to you a little bit about, cause I also saw your Ted talk, which I think was recorded in, was it 2010? and this is on, I think it remains one of the most popular ever. And this is, this is really on sort of work life balance. And I'm paraphrasing quite a lot here, but I think, you know, your statement about people doing jobs that they hate buying things that they don't need to impress people they don't particularly like, isn't going to be solved by wearing a t-shirt on a Friday. I was, I mean, that made me laugh out loud, but what I was thinking was actually, if you were recording that today and you were looking at, say the backdrop of the last two and a half years with all the pandemic and working from home and the hybrid flexible working and all the rest of it, do you think that you'd still have said the same thing? Do you think things have fundamentally changed?
Wow since I get, I mean, I've just done one actually a speech on this to Procter & Gamble, Latin America, as in all their Latin American companies on a zoom call. And my thesis, which, is, you know, it's a little bit unfashionable, but I don't care is nothing's changed nothing. It's all bollocks. Nothing has changed. It's made the fundamentals all the more important, right? So in life there's strategy and there's tactics. So of course, yeah. You know, we were struggling with COVID or there's a flood or there's a fire or there's a war. So it's, I mean, in the short term has changed, but fundamental human drivers haven't changed. So I suppose as long answer to say, I, I would, I wouldn't change a word of it.
Okay. Mean, do you think though that, that in a way that the pandemic has helped us sort of design our life a little bit better that actually we've kind of got over this sort of fetishization of being busy, that we have to be busy and we did have more time for nature and we did have more time to walk the dog and we'll actually, we enjoyed life a little bit more. Or do you think that now we're all just going to get back to the whole sort of, you know, the hamster wheel of it all again. And nothing has changed as you, as you allude to?
100% the latter. but I think that when I, when I give conference speeches about this, one of the things I say, and I can't remember if I said it in the Ted speech, but is doing genuine reflection, which is what you need to do if you're going to sort out your life in any area, whether it's drug addiction or work-life balance or being fit or, or whatever. There has been a silver lining to Covid which is, it has encouraged reflection. So in the past it used to be, you know, divorce or, or, or death or something. But now you go, well, buddy, I'm sitting, sitting at home, you know, working with you, but, and the second thing it's done, which is encouraging it is, or is helpful. It's it's legitimized action. So, if you are a woman and you say I'm pregnant, I'm going to have a baby so I'm not going to be in the office for the next month or so that that's a good excuse, you know, having a legitimate reason. So people that they don't say, oh, that's outrageous. They go good. If you were a man and you just say, oh, I just think my life's out of balance so I'd like to do one day at home. They think you've got rocks in your head, but then the pandemic comes along and lots of people have been doing that. And the world hasn't stopped spinning. So there are, when I say nothing has changed. Things have changed around the edge, but Chris, if you, aren't going to be balanced just a bit, like if the government increases tax on sugar, you can still be fat if you want, you just find ways around it and pay more for your, for your Coke. You know? So it's not, these are all, what can I say that they're sort of like enabling nudges around the edges. But if you haven't done the work yourself and made the decision yourself, then it doesn't, it makes no difference. No difference at all. There are people who are going to be miserable workaholics with empty lives, post-Covid just as there were pre-Covid.
But why are we encouraged though, to work like that? I mean, because I don't know what the things that have been like in Australia and I imagine pretty similar to what they are here, but, you know, there were the things that the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph people were saying, you know, you must go back to the office, you must do your duty. Almost in sort of like a war effort and another guest I spoke to a while ago, you know, there was sort of senior civil servants that were criticized for being on their Peloton at lunchtime instead of being in the office. And that whole sort of Peloton politics then came out. But there is this thing that you've got to be busy. Haven't you? You've got to be at work. You've got to strive. You've got to be successful. You've gotta have a load of money. You, And as you you say maybe we paused it for a few months, but it's coming back again. Isn't it?
Absolutely. You know, John Maynard Keynes, the economist, you know, whenever he gave a speech in 1930 in Madrid called the economic possibilities for our grandchildren, you and I basically.
And he said in that speech, that the biggest challenge facing humanity in 2030 so us in 8 year's time, is what to do with the oceans of free timethat will be filled up. Because no one on planet earth will be working more than 15 hours a week because of all the labour saving technological advances. And I mean, he's a smart bloke and he meant it. And everyone applauded and yes, yes, yes. Now I don't know many people at the height of their career who worked 15 hours a week. So it's a bit like COVID is technology. Obviously it saves, you know, labor. So we just do more labour. Yeah. I mean, it's so, so in some ways, but my message is quite encouraging and inspirational because what I'm saying is you've got to sort it out. It's not going to be a government policy or a pandemic or whatever, or technology or iPhone. You can use an iPhone. I gave a speech in the most of my speeches are in America, but I a speech to a law firm in California, 2000 people there. And I said, who here has ever looked at a work email on their iPhone during a family eating occasion? And they all put their hands up yeah, as you would expect that they would. And then I said, that's interesting. And then another question who here has ever watched a sporting occasion or a porn video during an important board meeting, or client presentation? I guess what no one put their hand up and you go It always goes one bloody way. Unless you've set the boundaries. It just, there's a remorseless drag like song to the sirens, so we're doing more, more, more, faster, faster, faster, and the point of life isn't speeding up, the point about isn't being able to be, and you need an epiphany and you don't get an epiphany until you've had reflection. And this doesn't mean not be ambitious and don't work hard, but the only person who's actually going to sort it out actually sort it out is yourself because you set the boundaries However nice your company tries to be they're always going to ask you to do more. And if you look at anyone Instagram feed or anything else, when people ask me, I have to be very careful cause I don't want to rub people's nose in it. I think I've got perfect balance, but that doesn't mean a perfect life or I'm perfect, but I'm very happy with the balance in my life So you know, how you going, mate? And I go, great. Are you busy? They want me to say I'm busy. I go, well, not really. I'm busy to the extent that I want to be. Yeah. That's, that's a terrifyingly confronting answer for them. I'm writing a book I'm doing, I'm not over busy, completely relaxed.
So is the sort of the wellbeing agenda then that actually companies are really sort of getting pretty involved in, in their employees lives now and making sure that they are healthy and that, you know, that they've got mental fitness and their resilient and all the rest of it. How do you square that then? I mean, because if that's their agenda, and actually you were saying, well, nothing has really changed. Why would they be doing that do you think?
Oh gosh, don't get me started. I mean, I, I think, I won't say most I'll say many, many companies are abatoirs of the human soul and the, the HR department, I mean, oh my goodness.
We're the gatekeepers of the abatoir right?
Ah, they're just awful it's about efficiency and standardization. My wife worked for a large international company whose name, I can't mention Dentsu, who like their HR things called People Matters. And it's, it's an automated system and it's called People Matters! I mean, you couldn't, it's like a George Orwell novel. You go I've got a HR issue, go on People Matters and you won't talk to a person. So that there's a whole people that sometimes I get, I hired, I, again, I can't mention the name American Express. I got hired to talk the talk in Las Vegas where had this briefing and they go Nigel, we, we, you know, you need to be seen to be doing something about work-life balance. So, you know, you're seeing your Ted Talk come over and talk to them about, you know, global sales conference, lots of people there. But the guy said, but we don't want anyone to work less hard. What the hell are you hiring me? And anyway, so, so there's lots of companies and I mean lots where it's all, it's all a trick. It is all a trick. What they'll do is they'll say that they care, but then they'll set you objectives that are impossible to meet unless you are a workaholic. Yeah, so they go, oh, oh great news, Chris, you can take two days off a week or whatever else but by the way, you've got to hit a hundred sales calls or whatever it might be and you go, well, I can't do it. But the thing that's more scary mate, is obviously there are lots of companies and lots of HR departments that do mean it. And I would say the one I just did last week, Procter & Gamble, across Latin America. And they had a really, really interesting challenge and they got all these policies in place and they're sincere and they're genuine and the staff don't follow through. So they hired me because they go, well, we've got all these policies in place. You can, you can, you can take all this time off, you can do all this stuff and people don't do it.
Why? Are they frightened to do it?
Yes, they go. if I work slightly less hard than you work harder than you will get on the A stream and I'll be on the B stream or I might lose my job or whatever else. So people are rightly cynical. They don't know whether their company means it or not. So it's all about, and, you know, wow! So if I come on to where the question that you asked about how, what is the role of the employer in this is, I think there are three very, very clear roles and, and companies overstep the mark and they should stop.
But, you know, their purpose is making, you know, cars or shampoo or whatever it is and doing it profitably. And they just stick to their you know, the main business and do that. They're not, you know, they aren't the church or people's parents, they're a commercial organization to sell whatever they make and that's fine. And they should own that.
Sure. But if you looked at, let's say, I dunno, if you went back 150 years and you looked at, you know, Bourneville or Port Sunlight or whatever it was, and you had those really, really in a bit sort of Victorian or Edwardian entrepreneurs, and they were building villages and putting parks
I go to the Quakers every Sunday. Absolutely. But for me, I don't think employers should do whatever they want. I think they've got three roles and they should stay in their lane. So they should be good at whatever they're doing and do it well and profitably, or they go out of business. And then in terms of wellbeing, there's three things they need to enable.
They need to model and they need to nudge. So enable is what Procter & Gamble in Latin America do is they've got all these wonderful policies. So if you make the decision to be a balanced human being with a rewarding life that isn't just mono career. You are able to do it because they have enabled you. They don't force you to do it. They don't say you must not come in on Friday. They had a wonderful thing, where they meetings on Friday afternoon, you go well that's rubbish. Some people want to do them, but, but if you don't want to do a meeting on Friday, that's fine. So, so be a company where you are reasonable and you enable, if someone says, oh gosh, no one wants to take paternity leave or maternity leave or I want to do part-time. So you enable people to do it. The second thing is you model, you have people at the top of your company who model the right behavior so that your employees realize that you aren't lying. So, I, I don't know if you know Tim Cook the CEO of Apple lovely bloke. I heard that he starts work at 3:45, I think bloody hell. That's pretty impressive. That's I mean, the day is almost over, you know, and he's a billionaire and you're no, no, 3:45 in the morning you got 3:45 AM. So it wouldn't really matter what you say, what policies you have to anybody. If you work for Apple. You go the way this gaff works is you get up at quarter to four in the morning and it Jeffrey Immelt, he used to be the CEO of General Electric, brags in the Harvard Business magazine that he worked a hundred hour weeks for 24 years straight.
But this is what I mean. This is sort of the Gordon Gekko. You know, the greed is good and, being as i said the fetishization of being busy. And when someone said to you the other day or whatever it was and you said no I'm not really busy at the moment. I'm not busy and that person didn't know what to say, because it's like, when you say to someone that, you know, you're feeling well and people go, yeah yeah even when they're not, because actually you don't want to hear that people aren't feeling well.
That's exactly right. So what I'll give you an example of, cause I I'm, it sounds like I'm, anti business, which I'm not that there are people who do it very well. So you've got some of the people that I mentioned and Marissa Mayer who used to run Yahoo who boasted of doing 130 hour weeks, which if she worked five days a week is a 26 hour day hilarious. But there were other people I, one of my clients was the CEO of Microsoft and she was down here a few years ago, and wonderful. She would leave early on a Friday afternoon and not say, oh gosh, I've got to pick up my children or I'm, or I'm going swimming. She just would leave early on a Friday afternoon, every single Friday. And she wouldn't answer any emails over the weekend.
So she's modeling that behavior.
But the secret is which I love. And Tracy Fellows she's called is obviously if her boss in New York, sent her an email on a Saturday, she might reply to it, but she just wouldn't tell you. So what she's doing is she's showing the right behavior. So if you were an employee and you sent her an email on, on a Saturday, you get reply on a Tuesday. And if you were the CEO yeah, you might get one on the Sunday, but she wouldn't tell anyone she was doing that. So it's a choice to model, now now, I mean, I promise you this story is true. I've got twin daughters and two sons, but they go to a girl's school. And the new headmistress of the school, was back at her desk, breastfeeding her new second baby, eight hours after giving birth. And I thought that was a joke or whatever, no no, and she was there and she was interviewed in the press. And it was because I need, I want to be a role model for the girls at the school. And, you know, face palm and you go, we're going to hell. And I use that, I've got a picture of it. I use that example. You go, you either think that she's heroic, go girl, breaking the glass ceiling or a moron. You either get it or you don't get it. Is that where we, I could fax my orgasm to my partner whilst I'm doing the board minutes, absolute, total rubbish. But the third thing so, so you've got to enable, you've go to model and the third thing is you've got to nudge. And if, do you mind if I mentioned buddy boost?
I don't mind at all.
Okay, good. Okay. So, so there's that, there's this thing I've set up a, a nude swim in Australia an ocean swim, and it's obviously it's a nudge to make people happier. You know, it's not going to solve their body insecurities, but it might help if they do that in the world doesn't doesn't collapse. They might think, gosh, well maybe I should stop worrying so much. I did a thing called Earth Hour, where you turn the lights out for, for an hour and it's not going to save the planet, but it might make you more environmentally aware if you do, but taking action. So buddy boost, but it's just as, I love things that are created from nothing that make things better, where buddy boost is this scheme, where you do 26 minutes exercise and you track it and blah, blah, blah. But it's a nudge, obviously that's not going to solve your life. But if you did it for a month and it made you better, then you might then on your own merits, go off and do more exercise in your own life. So, so, so like Valentine's Day, if you send a rose to your lover one day a year, and you're horrible to her, the rest, but that's not really going to help, but it might be a useful reminder every year. Hold on. Perhaps I should up my game romantically or whatever. So on the nudge thing, the buddy boost just doesn't mean, I mean, there are other examples, but it's a great example where if you were an employee. And you go, I have all the right policies as in maternity, paternity, flexible working, I model the right behavior. And every now and then I put in a loving nudge. So I say, Hey guys, we're doing buddy boost in September or whatever it might be, or, hey, we're all entering the team into the 10K , you know, London race or whatever it might be. Then I say, they've done enough. And if the it's the employees of that mythical company that I've just described are running around with their hair on fire going I'm so unbalanced, I've got no wellbeing, well sort your bloody life out. It's not to do with poor old Procter & Gamble or British Airways or whatever it is. You just can't run your life. And, and, and, you know, life is hard and challenging, but it's when did commercial companies and I, and I get your point about Cadbury's and Bournville, and I love all those stuff, but even in those situations, there'd be people living in a village built by Cadbury's still having a crap life.
But you're focused on balance is not sort of it's, it's small changes, isn't it? That you, that you say that people need to make? It's not a huge, great, big change. It's the small things that people can do, because I think that in, in your talk, you describe about, I think you'd leave work and you take your, take your son out and you go to the park and you're on the swings. And then you go for a pizza and then all those sorts of things. And actually, as you say, you didn't buy him a PlayStation. You didn't buy him a trip to Disneyland or anything like that. But he said it was the best day of his life. And it's that small stuff that you did, right?
Yeah, you're right. Thank you for listening to and watching the speech, but, but it's these, the small things over time, and this is something where we tend to overestimate what we can do in a month. And we underestimate what we can do in a year. And, and my message to people. I can be quite harsh because people want some sort of magic answer that's a shortcut to happiness and balance is not about being a corporate athlete or spending equal time on the golf course. And in the office, it's about living a life that you find meaningful. People is look at the, looking down the wrong end of the bloody telescope, but it's every job and profession has category norms. So if, I don't know if you're a doctor, you're going to see blood. So, if you don't like blood, you shouldn't be a doctor. If you, if you hate children, you probably shouldn't be a teacher. If you're scared of heights, you probably shouldn't be a pilot, blah, blah, blah. And so I've talked to these, I've talked to every single category of profession in the last 15 years, horse vets to the army. But if you work out, what is the category norm in your industry. Yeah? So, so you go, I don't know, you're a long distance lorry driver. Well, you're probably not going to be home for kid's tea yeah? So I've seen some people setting themselves up for failure because they choose things that are completely incompatible with the profession that they have chosen.
But let's say, let's say you want to go into investment banking, right? And you want to work for Goldman Sachs because it looked good on your CV. And you know, that they pay, you know, shed load of cash. clearly a lot and you'll, you will know that actually you will be expected to work 80, 90 hours a week. That's what you, is that what you say that you are buying off on?
100%. Now that doesn't mean you can't work in finance and have a meaningful and rewarding life. But if you're going to go and be a currency trader or whatever, the highest pressure thing is, and every single other currency trader works an 18 hour day, why would you be so moronic and arrogant to think that you would be the one that wouldn't perhaps you should be a part time librarian? Yeah, you got to find the other option, but come on either, I'm going to be a boxer I'm not going to be punched in the head. So sometimes people they are, but this again comes down to the small changes is they're setting themselves up unrealistically for failure. So I'm going for me, you know, 4 young kids being the CEO that requires naturally and reasonably, certain time inputs from me that after a while I wasn't prepared to give and that's completely fine, but there's, there's no law that says I have to run an ad agency and there's no law that, you know, you go, they should have someone who does want to take clients out four nights a week and does want to work 12 hour days. And you know, and that involves well sure as hell I'm not gonna be picking my kid up at three o'clock at the local school. So don't, don't choose things and then this is where I'm different to most of them, you know, I didn't, I don't know how to describe myself, but commentators or whatever in this area is I will admit that certain lifestyles and certain professions are completely incompatible rather than thinking, you know, the government's going to sort it out.
The government's gonna say, yes, you can be a billionaire hedge fund manager and only work part-time from home and do six hour days a) it's not the government's job and b) they can't. You're going to be very careful where my mantra is, decide don't slide. So it's about being mindful and conscious choice. So I wouldn't say that anyone should have my lifestyle. It works for me. So if you sit down and you say, do you know what I want to be really, really rich and have lots of status. And throughout my twenties and thirties, I'm going to work very, very hard and get to be a partner in the law firm, or, you know, run the hedge fund or whatever it would be, great if that's what you actually choose. It's not about forcing a particular answer on people. It's about being honest. So if I was, I mean, I've given example, I mean, I don't, I mean, in my old industry, there's a bloke called Martin Sorrell who used to run a very large media company and then he, he leaves that media company, I don't know the age of 70. And, and I'd go brilliant, go and buy an island and put your feet up. He does it all over again. Then I go, yes with S4 you're, I'm not sure how your listeners know any of these companies but anyway, so, so big multinational company and you go, what are you on mate? But you go, no, I would recommend that's what he does because clearly that's what he is like. And that's what gives his life meaning. But you haven't got to take on his life. Just like he hasn't got to take on mine and this whole area needs honesty. I tell you a story about a Spanish company. I mean, I, I want to tell you who they are but I won't, but when I was in a worldwide board meeting, and we were you know, being harangued by the worldwide CEO, because it was all the country heads were there and we'd all flown over because none of us were as successful as the Spanish CEO, his office had, you know, 35% margin was doing really well. And, and I spoke to him afterwards and said, how, how do you, how do you do it, mate? And he said, fear. I mean, you what? He said fear. I go blimey! Well, why could you explain ? He goes yeah fear. I pay not one, not one penny, more than the lowest wage. I don't give any employee benefits. If anyone looks at me funny, I fire them on the spot and I go, but, but mate, the morale must be awful. And he looked at me like I was an idiot. So? I mean, that can't be a long-term strategy. He went what are you talking about? I've been the CEO for 17 years. Have you seen the unemployment rate in Spain it's 35% I just churn and burn. Anyway I mean, so the thing that people don't like is, and I see this all the time, it really drives you up the wall Chris, is they talk about wellbeing and HR and all that stuff. And at the end they can't help themselves. They say, because at the end of the day, it leads to a happier workforce that leads to more productivity that leads to more margin and you go, oh, so that's why you're doing it. Yeah, you should do it because you want to do it because you're nice. Not because it's going to lead to better profitability because the truth is it doesn't. When I was running firms I'd like to think they were successful and happy and I could have made more money, but I chose as in the firm, but I chose not to. The 15% margin could have been 17 if I'd fired a few more people, but I didn't want to. And so it's core motivation. Again, it's like agency sorting yourself out is actually, if you want firms to be more profitable, I could go into any firm and say, start charging for the toilet paper, you know, give less holiday, you know, whatever. You just make it more profitable, but I don't want to be like that. But there's lots of people they talk about this issue and they just look through the wrong end of the telescope. When I used to run companies, I had this thing, people product profit, and I put it in that order, but that's the reverse order to a public company. So that's why you shouldn't hire me. I'm unemployable for a publicly quoted company because you go, what do you mean ,what do you mean people, product profit. You've put profit at the end you idiot! You go, you know, I know I have, I still deliver a profit, but it's not the be all and end all at the expense of other things. So having a good maternity, paternity, flexible work, the truth and other people won't say is, it will cost your company more to be nice. And you should be happy because you want to be nice. It won't, remember the Spanish bloke he will be making more money and you go, well, good for him, but he's going to hell and I don't want to live like that. No, it's a personal choice, mate.
And finally, I was just thinking that, is there any difference with the people that are coming through the workforce now? So the gen Z, as the Americans would say, and the generation alpha, and actually they're really, really strong on purpose. You know, they want to work for firms that look after them, that, you know, that don't have a toxic workplace environment or toxic work culture. And I wondered whether actually firms will eventually will just have to, all of us will have to, as you've put, you know, put profit last and put people first?
what I'm, I mean, I'm a long range, optimist mate, and I think humanity tends to solve problems. You know, the arc of justice is long, but it bends towards the light. So whether I don't know slavery environment, terrorism, I, I sorta think we'll sort it out. So I, I, I have to believe that we'll end up, you know, in a world where it isn't just going faster, faster, faster, busy, busy, busy. And if there's a whole influx of the workforce that refuses to work like slaves, then that will have an effect, but the trouble is I go back to the Procter & Gamble Latin-America example where, you know, humans are humans. And I think the thing that I would, I would leave with you is, is people who take this issue seriously should be very, very, very careful who they listen to because lots of the people that talk about it are trying to sell you a book, or they're trying to sign you up to an online course, it's how they make their living. I just stand with my jaw slack with amazement at some of the people I see on stage talking utter platitudinous repetitious rubbish for the benefit of their book sales, whether rather than genuinely helping people. Yeah. So the advice, hopefully it came across in my Ted speech, give it is, is take responsibility yourself for it. Look around, choose a company that actually you think genuinely means it, but then like getting fit or losing weight, hold yourself to account. Don't ask what the company can do, you know, just sort your own life out first. And then if you're doing everything right and making the right decisions and being mindful and the firm isn't, I'll go back to those three, enabling you modeling or nudging you leave!
Nigel Marsh. Thank you very much, indeed.