Professor Sir Cary Cooper

Chris Taylor00:00

You're considered as one of the world's preeminent authorities on workplace culture, employee wellbeing, productivity, high-performing cultures and management structures. Professor Cooper how would you characterize the world of work in the UK today against the backdrop of sort of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity?

Professor Sir Cary Cooper00:17

Well, strangely enough, I think it's much more interesting than it was pre Covid. Covid itself and the pandemic and all the consequences of that. And that means, you know, it was a cost of living by the way, we have to throw in Brexit. Let's, let's throw in lots of things that have happened over the last believe me or four years. I cannot believe that the transformations that have taken place, but it's been good because it's accelerated what a lot of people wanted before. They wanted to look at the workplace differently. People wanted a flexible working pre Covid. There was tons of evidence, many more people were moving toward it, but there was a reluctance to engage with that by employers until they saw it actually can work. And by the way, can save them money and can maybe retain their people. But a lot of employees didn't take it because they thought by taking flexible working options, which many organizations, public and private sector had, they would be communicating that they were less committed and therefore didn't take it up even though they wanted to take it up. And so that's one trend we all know about. But it made us think about a lot of things, it made us think about, do I really like my job? Do I like the organization I'm in? Should I be doing something different? You know, I've been working at reflecting on these kinds of issues for two years in lockdowns and stage four two three, you know, every kind of constraint on your behavior meant that people could think through what they wanted to do in the future and really and that's employers as well. So employers who were kind of reticent to allow they had flexible working options, but were very reticent to action them. And I think another big issue that came out of all that is. You know, I don't particularly like my boss and that's the great resignation. I didn't, I think that came from several different strands of people. But if you looked at the great resignation and looked at the studies done on them, a lot of it was I didn't, I had a bad boss, I had somebody, I, you know, was either a bully or didn't value or trust me, micromanaged me, etc. So then that made us HR think more carefully about do we have the right kind of line managers from shop floor to top floor. And by the way, we're thinking about that pre Covid. I chair the National Forum for Health and Wellbeing at Work made up of 40 global employers. I co-chair it with Paul Litchfield, who was the former Chief Medical Officer of BT, and four years ago, when we formed this, of these 40 global employers, they said the really critical issue about health and wellbeing at work and stress and all that kind of stuff was the line manager, that what we tend to do is we tend to recruit and promote people based on their technical skills, not their people skills. And so we need more line managers with EQ, social interpersonal skills, dadadadada. What some people used to call in the old days, the Soft Skills but now they are the critical skills.

So now we get employers saying, hey, how do we recruit people in the future? And how do we ensure that we get parity between their people skills and their technical skills? And the same thing applies to promoting them within to managerial roles. So those are two issues, then it is what do we do about the Millennials and the Z generation? Because remember, those are the generations you're not keeping as an employer if you don't create the right kind of culture for them. They're not like their parents who would, because of their mortgages and school fees or whatever, they were committed to, you know, kept their jobs, even if they didn't like it. Those generations, which are called by the way in the media Snowflakes, because they hop from one organization to another, they don't do that because their feel entititled, they do that because they're not prepared to tolerate what their parents tolerated. I don't particularly like it here; it's a bullying culture; it's a long hours culture; they don't value me; they don't really allow me flexible working although they say they have it, or they say you can have one day at home and four days in or you can't have any days at home as an investment bank, recently said so no, I think that is another issue because we have a different workforce which has different expectations. Not that they don't want to work hard, they do want to work hard. But they don't want to burn out. They want some balance in their life. They want to be trusted and valued. And if they choose to work 60 hours, then they choose to work, but not forced to work.

Chris Taylor05:21

Well can I talk to you a little bit about flexible working? Because there's a lot of media attention that's been focused on civil servants. For example, or the lack of them being in the office and the effect that this may have had on productivity, creativity, the economy of city centres for example. Is it just and sort of an age old argument about presenteeism or do people like Jacob Rees-Mogg and actually, I think it was Luke Evans today the entrepreneur, do they have a point?

Professor Sir Cary Cooper05:46

No I don't think they have a point because okay let's take a look at our productivity per capita okay? Where is it? In the G7 we're at the bottom tied with Italy. In the G20 we're 17th on productivity per capita. That those are the figures pre Covid, by the way, we've dropped even below Italy now so we're rock bottom on the seventh at productivity per capita. So something wasn't working then. Yeah show me the evidence that working in a central office and working the number of hours we did because we had the longest working hours in the EU by far. And second, only to the US in the developed world in terms of working hours. We know that working hours creates ill health. We don't know as much its impact on productivity. Although there's increasing evidence that is having an impact. If they're getting ill, they're not as productive in any case. And we know if you consistently work long hours, because I did a med analysis for the Health & Safety Executive many years ago, where I looked at every study in the world. And we found, if you consistently work long hours, you will get ill. Right. So we know that's damaging. Now yes by the way, do people want to work a hundred percent from home? No. The vast majority want to do what makes sense. Look at HR. What's HR about it's Human Resource Management, it's not Personnel.

Why would you say a 3 plus 2 is what we want to do? Why 3? 3 days in the central office, 2 days at home. Why 5 days in a central office? Why 1 day? In other words, you leave it up to the individual in developing a psychological contract with you the organization that works for them and works for you. And then the manager's job is to work on that and make it and make it work. So I say, look, I'm going to come in for X, Y and Z types of meetings and events. I may come in just because I want to socialize with my colleagues and not just team build, but develop relationships because we have to work together and everything else. What do you expect of me as the organization? Well, we expect you to be in for A, B, C, and D, right? It's not a big conversation. These are human beings. We can have these conversations. The people you're operating with are the people who know what your role is, know when you need to come in and you do too, but you might decide because you're young, out of university within the last two years, I want to come in 5 days a week. Well that's fine. That's not a problem. And I don't understand why we can't have that, develop that psychological contract? Otherwise let's just go back and call ourselves Personnel.

Chris Taylor08:42

Yeah. I mean, I'm a big fan of the psychological contract and I think, but are there certain sectors or roles that are really incompatible with that sort of working? And I'm thinking that if you're looking at sort of white collar jobs, then, you know, you can say, well, investment banking or, or, you know, working for NHS as a doctor or something. But, I mean, if you were working as a security guard or a care worker or a supermarket, you're working in a supermarket in retail, you have no choice, but to do you?

Professor Sir Cary Cooper09:09

I agree, I totally agree. And in my view, what should happen there is I'm going to get in trouble for this, but let me say it. I think we ought to be going for the 4 day working week for people who have to be at the coalface. Now, see, cause I think it's an irrelevance the 4 day versus 5 day working week if you're talking about everybody, because a lot of people in professional services, white collar people can work much more flexibly, right? But a lot of people in blue collar jobs, bus drivers, paced assembly line workers, we go, it goes on nurses, doc, you know, et cetera. And I think for those people, we ought to have a 4 day working week or some variation on it. We have to find a way of enabling them to have some time off. And, and I think that would kind of work well. Incidentally, let's go back just to the civil servants again, because I think that is an issue. Civil servants some of them will have to deal with policy issues, have to deal with ministers and things like that. That's fine. That's the nature of the job. Why shouldn't the psychological contract apply to them? Why do you say 5 days a week? Why would you waste people who live in London having to commute in an hour and a half in an hour and a half out every day, why every day? And if you're going to say that is what you have to do, you better have the evidence to prove that that actually works and makes people more efficient. The evidence I've looked at shows the absolute opposite.

Chris Taylor10:42

Okay. And just looking at sort of the focus that organizations have now on wellbeing and sort of the evangelism surrounding it and employee assistance programs and all of those things, is it just really being boiled down to the retention and attraction of talent and overall business performance, or is it something else? I mean, if an organization says, look, we really care about our employees, what do they actually mean? And do they care more about me as an employee or do they really care more about the shareholder return or can you care about both?

Professor Sir Cary Cooper11:12

Well, yeah, I think, I think you can care about both. I think you can care about the bottom line. Look at it, if it's not delivering to the bottom line, we've got a problem there too don't we? We've enough productivity issues. We have problems because of Brexit. We have problems because of the cost of living crisis and the cost of energy. Hey, we need to, do both!. There'll be people who are passionate in HR and occupational health about the health and wellbeing of people, even if it doesn't hit the bottom line right? Exactly. But incidentally, the research evidence is that tends to hit the bottom line. So when Steve Bevan and I did our book, we tried to show that and there's more and more research, which is showing it's, it will enhance our productivity, our performance, less sickness absence, less presenteeism, all of that kind of stuff. So, we've known about that for a long time, but hard-line productivity we need more and more evidence on. But there'll be people who feel that this is good because it hits the bottom line. And particularly by the way, the big one is talent management and talent retention, particularly I'm again, going back to what I said earlier about the Z generation and the young millennials. The problem there is you have to create the right kind of culture for them wanting to stay. That's not becuase they're entitled again. It's because, you know, life is too short. They saw what their, think about that generation. They saw what their parents went through during the massive recession of 2008 to 2015, the financial crisis. Right. They saw how people were discarded by their employer at that time when they needed to keep their labour costs down right? So now they're saying hey! You know, life is too short. I want to have a life outside. I want to work hard, but I want to feel trusted, valued. I want recognition when I produce the goodies, I will deliver for you, but just let me do it my way.

Chris Taylor13:09

Now you see this is, this is it. Cause this is what a positive workplace culture and a real focus on wellbeing is not just about a juice bar or casual clothing is it actually is how much control, discretion and autonomy an individual has over their work isn't it?

Professor Sir Cary Cooper13:26

Absolutely. Listen, this is not about bean bags. This is not about ping pong tables, sushi at your desk or the wellbeing day, where you get smoothies and your massages. It's not about that by the way, it may have started that way in some organizations and in some sectors right? And, you know, mindfulness at lunch and things like that, but it's morphed over the last seven years into something more substantial. Now organizations, many of them in the public sector and the private sector have a director of health and wellbeing reporting to either the HR director, chief medical officer, or in some cases, the CEO. So that I think is really important. If you look at the NHS by the way, do you know that every single board of a, an acute or any trust has now a non-executive director who's responsible for health and wellbeing?

Chris Taylor14:24

Right. Okay.

Professor Sir Cary Cooper14:25

By the way, they're way advanced than the private sector. Because my own view is we need a NED, a non-executive director on the board of all UK companies, all of them, no matter what their size. Who's responsible for the health and wellbeing employees. Why? Because if the evidence is right, that will enhance the productivity in the end, reduce sickness absence and if we know from the HSC, 57% of all long-term sickness absences for stress, anxiety, and depression. So mental health is a big issue. It will save a lot of their organizations, a lot of money cause will prevent people being off ill and for a long time with a mental health issue.

Chris Taylor15:09

Okay. But do you think this role should actually then maybe report into the Chief People Officer or the HR Director? Because some people would argue that HR have been the enablers of the very issues that have created the problems and stressful you know, toxic workplaces in the first place. Can HR be trusted with that?

Professor Sir Cary Cooper15:26

Oh, that's a good question. I guess it depends who the HR Director is. I think that's really important to think that through. Is the HR Director just wanting to control that person or enable that person that I think is, is the fundamental issue for me, I can think of various organizations where it goes, where the Director of health and wellbeing actually reports directly to the CEO. Right. I personally think it should be that just like, by the way, many Chief Medical Officers do that, by the way. So they report directly to the CEO in many cases, although in some organizations it's through, through HR. That I don't think there's one size fits all. If you've got the right kind of HR Director who has, by the way, influence with the board, influence with the CEO, then I think it could work. And, and that person is an enabler rather than a controller. I think it could work, but I don't think there's one size fits all in all sectors. But I do think we need a NED non-executive director on the board of public and private sector bodies like the NHS has done, whose responsibilities to hold the organization to account. When they see that the stress-related or mental health sickness, absence rates are rising every year. When they see that the labour turnover is very high and it's increasingly getting higher and in certain parts of the business, and it says to the org, it says to the CEO, what the hell is going on here? Sort this!

Chris Taylor17:02

I mean, that's really interesting about the NHS, because actually I did an interview a year or so ago with an academic from Leeds University who looked at the, sort of the dark side of workplace behaviors. And he said that actually the NHS in particular often had a real issue with toxic work environments and that might be attributed to the very nature of the stress of the job and the role and everything else. But he said, if you look at employment tribunals, you'll often see the NHS more than any other organization.

Professor Sir Cary Cooper17:30

By the way I did a big study years ago, a bullying study with the TUC, the CBI, and we did a study of a million workers of 85 organizations, which employed about a million workers. And then we looked at depth at five and a half thousand people. We were funded by the British Occupational Health Research Foundation. They were brilliant. And we did this big study and we had our meetings in the House of Commons and everything, and we found that roughly 1 in 10 people were suffering from from being bullied, persistently, demeaned and devalued and so on now, here's, what's interesting. When we looked at, by occupation, we found the healthcare was one of the worst, Teaching was also pretty bad. Yeah. The public sector tended to be worse than the private sector, but we had it in the private sector as well, in IT and a range of other organisations.

Chris Taylor18:23

Okay, but I mean, stress and pressure is also part of the recipe isn't it to drive, let's say high performance. And I was sort of reading something by, by Leonard Bernstein. He said to achieve great things, you need two things, a great plan and not quite enough time. I mean, when does workplace stress sort of what's the tipping point when it becomes into something a little bit darker and a bit more pernicious?

Professor Sir Cary Cooper18:45

I think there's a difference here Chris between pressure and stress. Pressure is stimulating and motivating, but when pressure exceeds your ability to cope, then you're in the stress arena. How do you know that? Behavior change. Normally when you're very affable, positive kind of person you know, creative, et cetera, you stop. You become more socially withdrawn, more or more aggressive in meetings. In other words, where you see behavior change. When normally your X but now you're starting to show Y behaviors, right which are counterproductive. That's the first sign that you've crossed the line between pressure and stress. Then if that pressure continues to increase and is excessive, then you get into health behaviors. Like you start to drink more, smoke, more, take less exercise, work, long hours. You start to see behavior change, and then you get real ill health. And then you get heart disease or auto-immune diseases or something like that, which indicates that you know, that you haven't dealt with the sources of that problem. That's driving the excessive pressure. So it's excessive pressure because pressure is great. I mean, for most people they want a certain amount of pressure to achieve great things to achieve great things like Leonard Bernstein said, he's absolutely right. You need a certain goal and motivation to achieve things. And you know, it, if you don't want to have, you want to be totally laid back and have nothing to do, not being under loaded is as much as source of stress as being overloaded.

Chris Taylor20:26

And you mentioned Stephen Bevan, your friend earlier, and he remarked on a podcast episode I did with him recently that if you're looking at measuring things like you know, stress or absences or sickness or anything like that, but a lot of the organizations that sort of put wellbeing initiatives in place, they don't measure that, what they're measuring is who takes up the new, you know, wellbeing initiative. Do you agree with that? That many organizations measure the wrong thing?

Professor Sir Cary Cooper20:56

Absolutely. They, they don't measure the right. I mean, it's like an EAP for example. I did a big study for the Health & Safety Executive on all EAPs in the UK many years ago. Every, every one of them. And what they were reporting back as well, 12% have taken this up. Okay. But what if, but when we did our studies, by the way, we actually collected data. So what is their sickness absence rates? Does it have an impact? Does it reduce their sickness absence rates? By the way, we tended to find in some that the turnover rate increased which in a way was good because the counseling service was, had discovered working with the individual employee, that there was a mismatch between what they wanted and the job they had in the organization they were working for. So labor turnover in that case could be good. Could be a positive if it's saying to somebody you're in the wrong job. Yeah. And it helps them confront that. We have to collect data all the interventions we do. So say, we say that the line managers important. And that we're hiring the wrong ones in. Okay, so now we're going to have a new system, a new recruitment system where everybody's going to go through a range of tests and we're going to ensure that there's parity between their people skills and their technical skills. We're not going to recruit somebody just based on their technical skills okay. Collect data. Do those people stay? Are they, are they people that actually hit the bottom line with our employees or they, do their direct reports actually produce things? Is their productivity and performance higher, et cetera, et cetera. So you have to look at the evidence and there are a range of organizations collecting it all the time, by the way. So the good news is the people who see health and wellbeing as a strategic issue at the senior leadership team level and even the board level are the ones who are delivering because they're collecting data on all interventions, all wellbeing, interventions that are taking place and looking what the impact is.

Chris Taylor23:00

Okay. I mean, I, I totally agree with you with the, particularly with the relationship between the employee, the employee and their line manager, and actually how that, you know, is probably the biggest effect on people. You know, the age old adage that people don't leave jobs, they leave managers, I think is 100% true. Why don't they teach some of these what they would call in the, you know, previously some sort of soft skills, why don't they teach this at business school? Cause you get, you get taught how to read a balance sheet, but you don't get taught how to sort of engage with people.

Professor Sir Cary Cooper23:28

No, we have a real problem at business schools and, my National Forum said this and we got together and I got together with Dame Carol Black, a number of years ago in the DWP. And we brought a number of business schools together, the directors of business schools together, a dozen. And we said to them, what are you doing in this space? Why aren't you doing experiential training or some training that gets people to understand their personality and the impact they have on other people.

In other words, if you think about what we do in business schools, it is basically communicating cognitive information from us to them. It is not emotional information, it's not information that would help them actually manage a team. It's information about HR, you know, some of the leading theories in HR, in marketing, in economics, in, in every accounting and finance and so on, but it is all cognitive. It's all intellectual. It is not experiential. You're not finding out if these people, because you're training them to be managers, but what you're not doing is you're not getting them to understand their own behavior and its impact on other people. And unless you do that, we're back in the same rut we were before. So we have a challenge here and incidentally, that's what the British Academy of Management which is I founded about 35 years ago. And, and that's the leading body of all the lecturers and professors in all the business schools, not just here, within Europe as well, in many European countries as well.

And what we're now working on is how do we get business schools and let's do some experiments. And I know the FTs interested in this taking place as well, because they think that that there's a gap here. The gap in the market is we're not training people to manage other human beings and to do that, they have to find out what they're like as people and unless, they are more introspective and more and learn how to be more empathetic and find out more about themselves and how other people perceive them it won't change.

Chris Taylor25:39

Okay. And let's say that I'm creating then a new organization and I've come out of a business school you know, and I've, I've got my training, my technical skills. It's possible then to hardwire or bake-in from the start isn't it? This culture whereby it's employee centric, isn't it. And if I, if I want to do that, how do I go about it? And what would you put in place first?

Professor Sir Cary Cooper26:03

Okay well, first of all, I put in place, I guess we have a problem here because some people will still get recruited by employers, right? Based on their technical skills. We do have a problem here. They will get jobs. If you graduate from London business school or Manchester business school, or, you know, Oxford or Cambridge, and one of the really top places, guess what? You're going to get a job, regardless of whether you have the good in a managerial role, maybe at the bottom, obviously it's a bottom rung, but you're going to get a job. Regardless of your people skills or not. So I think it's important that number one, they recruit people who have, even if they don't have the, a good people skills, they are potentially trainable and that when you recruit them, you can get them, you can start to train them up on more kind of empathy training that kind of stuff. You can do that. You, we can develop people's social, interpersonal skills. There are people who you might not be able to develop. And we have a problem. I think if we looked at a particular organization, now we probably find 40% of managers from shop floor to top floor have the natural people skills. 40% to 45% are trainable - need the training to develop their social interpersonal skills and 10 or 15% are probably untrainable and should be kept in a technical role. And please keep them away from everybody. But if you're technically good, keep them in a technical role, just don't give them a management role. And I think that's what we need to do. So if you're coming out of university, you don't have the training because the business schools are not providing it for you to the extent they need to, but they will in the future, I promise you. Then, you say this guy has real potential; I'm kind of worried about his people skills, but you know, we can deal with them. Cause I think he's trainable. He's somebody who I think we can develop his social interpersonal skills and we'll do that in his first year.

Chris Taylor28:11

Okay. So do you think then that therefore, that this, this sort of inability then of managers or lots of managers not, no, not all of them by far, but a large percentage of managers to be able to engage with their, let's say that their employees, their workforce. Is that the major issue that we find here?

Professor Sir Cary Cooper28:30

Yeah, it is the, in my view, it's THE issue. When I formed the National Forum for Health and Wellbeing, we, we had, we then were meeting quarterly. We're now meeting every six weeks because a lot of it's online, but we met at a headquarters of BT or Rolls Royce or the BBC or wherever we met, because these are really big global employers. They said the biggest issue. Cause we, we brought in experts in to help us understand what the big issues on wellbeing were. Their very first one, they said, we need to look at is the line manager and they're still saying it today.. And we've done quite a lot of work on that too. Trying to figure out how we're going to do this, how we've talked to the business schools about it. We've talked to the DWP about it. We've talked to a range of employers as well. So I think that is the big issue because they are the people who are going to recognize when somebody is overloaded, has unmanageable workloads, unrealistic deadlines, et cetera, et cetera. They're going to manage. They're going to be able because they have the social interpersonal skills to identify somebody who's not coping.

They are the people who will better team build. And importantly, in the future, they are the people who are going to manage remote teams or hybrid working much better than people without these skills. And if that's the future, And that, and we're going to have a much more agile, flexible world. We need this kind of person in place. Otherwise we're going to be in real trouble.

Chris Taylor30:00

Okay, guys, you've heard it here first. It starts with the line manager. Professor Sir Cary Cooper thank you very much indeed.

Professor Sir Cary Cooper30:06

Thank you Chris.

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