In the midst of a global recession, organisational psychologist Sir Cary Cooper is on the quest to solve the productivity puzzle by encouraging industry to adopt a more empathetic workplace culture.

What has happened to the UK economy since the 2008 financial crash? We have the longest working hours of any nation in the EU – nowhere more so than in the events industry – yet our productivity per capita (the goods and services produced per hour worked) sees us languishing at the bottom of the G7.

The productivity puzzle has been pondered by economists for the past decade, some argue stifling EU working regulations are to blame, others the lack in investment in skills and technology. However, Professor of Organisational Psychology Sir Cary Cooper, a leading light on workplace wellbeing, believes the answer lies on a human level. Simply, a productive workforce makes for a happy workforce: “We spend more of our waking hours at work than we do at home. Wellbeing is not beanbags and ping pong tables, it is how you treat human beings in the workplace. This is not airy-fairy stuff, this is a boardroom issue and it really can produce the godds.”

So how do we make people feel valued, trusted, and give them the sense of autonomy and control over their jobs? “The key is to be managed properly, by human beings with compassion and empathy,” says Cary. “It’s good for the economy, because if you get the right kind of people in managerial roles, who create the right kind of wellbeing culture, the research evidence demonstrates it will show on the bottom line.”

In 2008, Cary formed the University of Manchester spin-off company Robertson Cooper, helping businesses foster a more mindful workplace culture which puts people at its heart: “Around 2012, companies suddenly twigged: ‘hey, maybe if we had the right kind of culture, we could retain the millennials’, known as the ‘snowflake generation’ because they’ll hop from one employer to another if they don’t like them.

“Guess what, they’re doing the right thing. They’re more confident in themselves and want to work for a good employer, who values and trusts them, allows them to work flexibly and recognise when they do a good job. Talent retention is one of the key drivers for reducing sickness absence and driving productivity.”

However, for Cary absenteeism isn’t the real problem – in fact, sickness absence has halved in the past two decades. The real issue is presenteeism, a concept he defined 40 years ago, now an official OECD measurement, which sees employees showing up for work ill just to show face time, while unable to add any real value and infecting colleagues. Recent figures from Robertson-Cooper showed that presenteeism costs the UK economy £16 billion, while absenteeism amounts to merely half this figure: “I remember a journalist in the middle of the 1980 recession asked me why sickness absence rates were falling. When jobs are scarce, if you’re ill, would you call in sick, or would you come in out of fear that you’ll be in the next tranche of workers to be made redundant?”

In the midst of a global recession which Goldman Sachs predicts will be four times worse than 2008, Cary believes this insecurity will fuel a culture of workers putting aside mental and physical health problems to attend work to the detriment of themselves and their employers: “There are fewer workers taking on more work because employers are trying to keep their labour costs down. The long hours culture started with Thatcher adopting the American management style: ‘work hard and you’ll better yourself and the economy.’ But there’s no evidence that a long hours culture is a more productive culture. We recently conducted a meta-analysis of all the workplace absence studies in the world for the UK Health and Safety Executive and found that if you consistently work over 45 hours every week, you get ill, it’s as simple as that.”

“What we need is better emotionally equipped line managers from shop floor to top floor. Right now, you get promoted on the basis of your technical skill, not your interpersonal skills. But it’s crucial we bridge that parity as we enter the next phase and industry knows it – being successful at your job, but being a lousy line manager, is not what the economy needs.”

One of Cary’s major bugbears is managers sending non-urgent emails after 5pm. While he doesn’t believe we should go as far the French government, which championed the Right to Disconnect law, banning managers from sending emails out of office hours, he feels this is a step in the right direction: “Now, I don’t want to see that in a service-based economy like the UK, because from all the studies I’ve done, people want the flexibility, trust and autonomy to decide when and where they work. You can’t do what Volkswagen do and just shut the server down at 5pm. On the other hand, I like the intent of it, which says: ‘listen, don’t screw up your employee’s private lives.’ This is the perfect example of a lack of social skills, as is failing to recognise when people have unmanageable workloads or unrealistic deadlines.

“I talk to a lot of senior executives, and they’ll say: ‘I do send emails to people on a Friday afternoon, but I always tell them to leave it until Monday morning.’ So I ask them, ‘so why do you send it?’ Think about when you were younger in your career and you received an email from your boss – you’ll try to get it on their desk when you should be spending time with your family.”

Cary is no luddite, but believes technology has led to a shift towards inflexible remote working and data-driven methods to quantify employees’ progress, which ultimately gets in the way of good management: “We don’t want technology to manage people. You should be given objectives, but when, where and how you fulfil them should be left up to you, as long as you deliver.

“Home working is great, but nobody wants to work 100% remotely, because they’re not having their social needs met. Plus, how can line managers notice when somebody isn’t coping? In the office, you saw Fred was socially withdrawn at the meeting when he is usually buoyant – a Zoom call is not sufficient to gauge wellbeing.”

While for many, back-to-back meeting schedules may be nothing new, yet Zoom has undoubtedly proliferated this ‘catch-up’ culture. Does anything ever actually happen as a result of the endless hours spent in conversation? “With rising job insecurity, people are scheduling in more and more meetings to prove they’re doing something. Many of those are unnecessary and are draining people. Zoom is more tiring than face to face meetings because you’re having to be more attentive, but without the cues. When we’re face-to-face, we can look at facial expressions and gestures and determine whether that individual understands or is sympathetic to what we just said. On Zoom, there’s no way you can pick up those cues from multiple tiny faces on the screen. People are so exhausted, they just sit there in a daze. You do need a lot of eyeball to eyeball – it’s very important for human beings to have effective nonverbal forms of communication, much of it is very subliminal, but very significant.”

Although the American business model has seemed to follow the US-turned-UK national from his birth nation, Cary hopes this prevailing wisdom will be overturned by a more compassionate approach to working life: “Everybody thinks American business is fantastic and that the command and control style really delivers. But they don’t have anything like redundancy or maternity pay – they just fire you with two weeks’ pay even if you’ve been there for 20 years. Getting fired is a normal part of life for Americans , and it probably makes them more resilient. But it’s a model based on insecurity, a kind of fear culture. We still have a way to go here in the UK, but we can often fail to appreciate what we have here.”

Cary offers his top tips to help you develop mental resilience while working from home…

  • When you’re working from home, try to have a routine like you’re going to work – wake up at the same time every morning, don’t stay in your pyjamas and finish no later than 6pm.
  • Ensure you get a break for lunch. Leave your house and take a walk outside to get some full spectrum light. Otherwise you better take your vitamin D – it’s going to be a long winter.
  • If you’re in a managerial role, check with your direct reports frequently on a one-to-one basis. Don’t talk about work, ask them how everything is at home, or if they watched the football last night – anything to find out how they’re coping personally.
  • Tell your line manager when they’re giving you unrealistic deadlines. Don’t keep your mouth shut, and if your boss isn’t a very empathetic person, let HR know and if you have an employee assistance programme, use it.
  • Make sure you do adequate daily exercise. At 7am, my wife and I take an hour-long walk along the Macclesfield canal. We do it every single g-ddamn morning, no matter the weather – we take a lot of Zoom calls during the day, so we need the energy!
  • Minimise the number of meetings you have and if you think it could be done in half an hour, let your colleagues know beforehand and don’t let it drag on. Make sure you factor in breaks if you need to go on longer.
  • At Robertson Cooper, we’ve developed a free psychometric tool called i-resilience – over 200,000 people have filled it in so far. It gives you a comprehensive understanding of personal resilience and examples of how this could impact on your responses to demanding work situations. Your personal report helps you build on existing areas of strength, and also allows you to manage any potential areas of risk.