Recently, I've seen yet more reports of low morale in the public sector. And today CIPD reports that 52% of public sector staff experience excessive pressure, compared to a 42% average, which is bad enough! (it seems they don't want to use the 's' word but that's what it is; see HSE's definition of stress).
It's no surprise, for the reasons you're all familiar with. And there's more and more outsourcing of support services. These are tough times in the public sector, no doubt. But I can't help thinking that the public sector causes a lot of its own stress.
A major problem (causing both individual stress - especially high demands and low control - and organizational costs) is excessive and overbearing bureaucracy. Public sector managers and staff are working very hard, but much of what they do is is jumping through bureaucratic hoops and form filling, using impossibly complicated systems, to meet so-called performance indicators.
What's worse, there is a huge disincentive to be creative, innovative and entrepreneurial. The powers that be talk a good game about the big society and social enterprise, but the reality is that it's still much too difficult and time-consuming for many managers to even contemplate. The bureaucracy involved stifles any entrepreneurial spirit at birth. I've seen this happen with friends and colleagues who were initially motivated and enthusiastic about 'breaking free'.
Part of this British [bureaucracy] disease is public sector procurement. It's grown arms and legs, and on it's own takes up a huge proportion of the public sector budget. It's difficult to do business with the public sector unless you are a huge consultancy that can play the public sector procurement game. So the procurement process effectively discriminates against individuals and small companies coming up with cost-effective, flexible and innovative solutions (including from within!). Many experts I know who could help reduce stress and costs, but won't bother trying because they know they don't have a chance.
Procurement seems to cause as much stress for public sector managers themselves. At one time, we trusted local managers with local knowledge and expertise to take decisions about what they needed to get the job done (control issue again). But now they cannot move a muscle without going through hugely time-consuming processes. I've lost count of the number of times public sector managers have recounted stories to me of being refused permission to make a 'small purchase' because 'they are not on our approved list of suppliers'. This despite the fact that buying it 'from IKEA' was '75% cheaper'.
So yes, there are real and major challenges for the public sector, leading to low morale and 'excessive pressure'. But maybe we should really grasp the stress nettle, especially re control. How about making it really easy for local managers to come up with local solutions. How about making it genuinely attractive to set up social enterprises. How about utilising the huge amount of talent in our populations of experienced middle managers and support professionals. And most of all, let's take another look at the procurement industry. Couldn't we get rid of 'procurement' all together, and get back to local decision making? I know there would be risks, but I'm convinced would save billions at a stroke - and dramatically reduce stress both for public sector managers and those who provide them with services.
If you're a manager, empowering others and encouraging them to have a voice is usually a good idea. It fosters a sense of control, which minimises the risk of stress, particularly that associated with risk to health. It also heights trust, strongly associated with improved well-being and employee engagement.
There is though a critically important 'Yes But'. And that is you'd better mean it, because if employees believe It's a sham and you're not genuine about giving people a voice (so-called 'pseudo voice') it will almost certainly backfire horribly.
Not only will employees keep their views or concerns to themselves, it appears to increase the likelihood of conflict at work. For details, Please check out this excellent blog from BPS Occupational Digest on Dutch research from a healthcare organisation.
So don't do a survey or put out a suggestion box unless you're genuinely prepared to act on what you find.
It's shouldn't be a surprise. The trends have been going this way for while and the current climate is difficult to say the least. But what was notable and new about the recent announcement from CIPD (you can read the news story from People Management here) was that stress is now the number one cause of long-term cause for both non-manual and manual workers.
As ever with stress stories, there was a lot of media coverage, including national radio phone-ins like that on radio 5. Understandably but frustratingly, the coverage mainly seems to focus on individuals / employees and whether they are really stressed or 'playing the stress card' and malingering.
Of course, it's true that some employees will do that (though most people off work with stress would far rather be at work and doing a good job - being off work long-term is miserable; it's bad for your mental health and doesn't do much for your future job prospects either!). And recently I have even come across alarming evidence of serial 'stress litigators' who will play the stress card in a mercenary, manipulative way in one organization after another to their own, very considerable financial advantage.
However, this completely misses the most important point for employers and managers, which is around organizational risks and the massive costs associated with the poor management of stress. The evidence is abundant and clear that these risks and associated costs can by hugely reduced by concerted organizational action. I've been fortunate to be able to see this graphically illustrated in data gathered from very similar organizations in the same sector.
Those organizations with the lowest stress and better quality of working life had massively lower absence, especially long-term absence. And other important well-being outcomes such as staff turnover, attraction of talent and employee engagement showed similar, hugely significant differences. Action to prevent stress and improve well-being has, it turns out, an enormous return-on-investment.
This doesn't happen by accident. It never does. High performing organizations had leaders and senior management teams that got together and deliberately set out to create a culture and working environment that promoted well-being at work.
What sorts of things did they do? Well, usually, lots of things, large and small, over a period of years; all the things that improve the quality of working life. They looked at physical working environments and made improvements or built new ones. They improved communication in multiple ways (vertical and horizontal), including steps to improve openness and transparency so everyone could see what was going on. They improved organizational and management behaviour through OD and management development. They made sure all employees could develop, personally and professionally. They improved and raised awareness about support structures, so if people had problems they knew where they could go for help. And a whole host of other things that made a difference.
There is perhaps an element of luck, if it is luck, with regard to the having a team of people at the top at the same time willing to work together, over several years to create the kind of organization they really want.
So the real story, certainly the one I want to tell, is about the competitive advantage that comes from taking co-ordinated and concerted action to prevent and reduce stress and improve the quality of working life.
Business Psychologist, Alan Bradshaw, is a specialist in the fields of stress management and the management of wellbeing at work.