Health & Well-being

Tesco helping people with autism cope

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See earlier post on this topic here.

Mike the Psych's Blog

Well done Tesco Burnley. Now how about a slow lane for older customers?

For more information on autism spectrum disorder (ASD) check out NHS info page

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Sickness absence rates don’t tell the whole story

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The number of sick days taken per person has fallen to its lowest levels ever recorded, according to the Office of National Statistics (ONS).

Last year 137 million days were lost which works out at 4.3 days per person – down from 7.2 days in 1993 when the government started keeping records.

That means a sickness absence rate of 1.9% compared to the 3.1% in 1993.

Public sector sickness absence rates were 2.9%, down from 4.3%, contrasting with the private sector rate of 1.7%.

Public sector rates have always been higher than private sector which has been attributed to its generous sick pay schemes.  The private sector rate is more like the rate in the US where until recently few workers got sickness benefits.

Within the public sector the NHS had the highest rate of sickness absence at 3.5%.

When I was a director of a large NHS Trust in the 1990s I was tasked with helping management reduce sickness absence (I had to convince the chairman that it was a line management responsibility which HR could support in different ways).

Carrying out quarterly surveys and publishing league tables I found that levels varied by occupation. Nurses had the highest rates of sickness absence, above 6%, whilst senior managers had the lowest at just over 1%. Admin staff were around the mean of 3.0%.

Taking that data alongside well-being surveys we carried out showed that nurses were the ones who smoked the most (and took off more single days) but managers drank more.

We introduced  “first day reporting of sickness absence, in person to the line manager” where possible, “return to work interviews” when the person came back to work. Monthly reporting of sickness for everybody so we could calculate days lost, number of spells (occasions) and see suspicious patterns around weekends and bank holidays.

We also introduced No Smoking policies, Healthy Eating options, Stress Management programmes, a staff counselling service, provided a gym, a physiotherapist and yoga classes. We also had an occupational health service and offered air miles as a reward to people who didn’t take time off work through sickness.

Despite this mixture of approaches it wasn’t easy reducing the levels. The latest downturn has been particularly dramatic since the economic crash of 2007 and the ONS suggests that job insecurity is a significant factor. Zero hours contracts, currently at a their highest level, can’t be helping and there are more people working as self-employed. Who measures their sickness absence?

Other factors include the opportunity for some people to work from home when they are unwell rather than actually take a day off sick. In fact the TUC believes that far too many people go to work when they are ill and shouldn’t. And that argument has been strongly made for health care staff in contact with patients and you can see the point. Would you want someone sneezing all over you as you lay in your hospital bed?

The TUC say that over the Winter half a million people went into work despite feeling ill because they didn’t want to let down their clients, colleagues, or employer.

Twenty years ago, when I was involved in helping to manage the sickness absence problem, national data, produced at that time by professional bodies, showed that older workers took longer spells of absence whereas younger workers took off more short spells. The new ONS data shows that that is no longer true.

Older workers (over-65s) now take the most time off sick whereas workers aged 25-34 take off the fewest days with a 1.5% rate. The fact that people are still working after what used to be the normal retirement age also says something about the impact of the 2007 slump and people’s needs to top up poor pensions and keep themselves active.

Older workers are more likely to suffer from chronic illnesses but not enough is done to adapt the work for them and lower productivity can be attributed to a lack of investment in training older employees.. BMW in Germany are a good example of what can be done to accommodate older workers and keep them productive,

As I said at the top of the post – there’s more to sickness absence than just the numbers.

Should we dumb down our smartphones to stop us becoming more stupid?

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Mike the Psych's Blog

Last September I asked on my other blog: Have we finally realised we need to unplug ourselves from endless apps and social media connections?

aansyq1I described the Light Phone and the fact that the old Nokia 3310 from 2000 was selling well on the internet. Now it’s been announced that the Nokia will be sold again with a larger colour screen but with only basic call and text facilities for around £49 in the UK.

It seems that the smartphone idea was being dumbed-down. Is that a bad idea?

Well in the Times Body & Soulsection last weekend they asked “is your smartphone making you stupid?.

41-epxoutyl-_sx309_bo1204203200_They thought it was – if you count a fleeting attention span, a poorer memory, and a more passive intellect as signs of increasing stupidity.

Arianna Huffington‘s book “Thrive: The third metric to redefining success and creating a happier life”

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The robots are coming to take your job

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business_people_line_door_1600_wht_9932Insurance company Aviva has asked its 16,000 staff whether or not robots could do their jobs better than they can.

Now some of you might think you are dealing with a robot when it comes to making an insurance claim but this is serious.

With predictions by Oxford University that robots could take over 35% of jobs within twenty years with insurance under-writers at the top of the list, it’s no laughing matter.

Aviva has promised that any employee who says that their job would be done better if automated will be retrained for another job within the company. What kind of job that would be is not made clear but they will probably be less skilled, less rewarding and lower paid.

The idea, proposed by their American finance chief, is to “remove the robot from the person, not replace people with robots”. Nice soundbite but what does it mean when the company is planning to replace people by robots?

A White House report last year concluded that almost 50% of all American jobs could be automated and 80% of jobs paying less than $20 an hour. And the governor of the Bank of England has warned that 15 million British jobs are at risk (just under  50% of the UK workforce).

There are some jobs robots can’t do – yet. They can do administrative, clerical, and production tasks like building cars. They can make coffee and flip burgers. The former Chief executive of McDonald’s has been quoted as saying it’s cheaper to buy a $35,000 robot arm than employ someone who is inefficient at $15 an hour. Our local McDonald’s has just introduced touch screen ordering so no queuing to give your order to people.

Robots can even do surgery and may be better than humans with certain procedures but when it comes to selling, developing business ideas, or similar jobs relying on human interaction maybe not.

However online companies manage to sell an awful lot of stuff without any human intervention, and robots are being developed as companions for the elderly.

Stop trying to be perfect

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competition_corporate_ladder_1600_wht_6915Employees who put pressure on themselves at work by pursuing perfection are putting themselves at risk of extreme stress and burnout. According to UK research at York and Bath universities.

Perfectionists have high personal standards and are highly self-critical. The personality trait is often associated with conscientiousness (a strong predictor of success), virtue, and high achievement.

However far from giving themselves a competitive edge, it can lead to poorer performance at work.

The trait is also closely associated with burnout –  a syndrome associated with chronic stress which manifests as extreme fatigue, perceived reduced accomplishment, and eventual detachment.

I once coached a person who was such a perfectionist and who worked in a PR role for a company that was about to go public. There was a lot of pressure on her so her boss gave her an assistant who was a graduate but had a poor grasp of English grammar and spelling (why does that not surprise me these days?) The result was that she increased her workload double checking all the work done by her new assistant. End result – burnout. She left the company and eventually found satisfaction working as a freelancer.

In work setting where poor performance has negative outcomes perfectionist tendencies can be exacerbated. “Rather than being more productive perfectionists are likely to find the workplace quite difficult and stressful. If they are unable to cope with demands and uncertainty in their workplace they will experience a range of emotional difficulties” said Andrew Hill, associate professor at York St Johns.

His co-researcher at Bath, sports lecturer Thomas Grant, said “As a society we tend to hold perfectionism as a sign of virtue or high achievement. Yet our findings show that perfectionism is a largely destructive trait. Instead diligence, flexibility and perseverance are far better qualities“.

Perfectionists need to have better work-life balance and less pressurised working environments together with a greater acceptance of failure in order to mitigate the negative effects associated with perfectionism.

Leave your work at work before it kills you

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laptop_mail_pc_1600_wht_2103Taking work home these days doesn’t necessarily mean a briefcase full of papers. It’s more likely to be a digital connection in our “always on” culture.

Once upon a time you could go home and work couldn’t interfere. Now you have your laptop, your phone, your tablet: you are connected. So you are always on whether you like it or not.

This is the first generation that has had to deal with the ramifications of that” said a director of AXA PPP Healthcare which supported the study. (Professor Cary Cooper spoke out about this in 2015 – as I posted here.)

As a result home has become more stressful than the office according to a recent survey. This has linked the problem of making yourself available 24/7 with cardiovascular disease.

It seems more than 50% of the 550 workers surveyed at a London-based French bank are more stressed at home than at work as they try to relax while still thinking about work.

This researchers used wrist monitors to measure changes in heart rate and the results led the researchers to believe that it’s the spikes that are dangerous. “Dealing with work while at home is pernicious to health and is directly linked to cardiovascular disease. That is now measurable and before it was not”.

Stress levels were found to be dangerously high until about 2030 when young children went to bed but some people’s levels remained high until after midnight. A smaller number of them, over 25, woke up between 0300 and 0400 and some of them even started working during that time.

The research was sponsored by an insurance company which now plans to monitor staff in high pressure jobs to see if their ability to perform has been damaged by an inability to switch off. This is likely in the next three years.

No wonder some countries like France have banned e-mails after working hours and Japan is urging workers to take time off to go shopping and reduce “death by overwork” or karate.

We’ve known for decades that working over 50 hours a week is bad for men and their hearts, and more recently it’s been found that senior women suffer stress too.

Why people still put ourselves through this when they know (or should know) the health risks is hard to fathom although there is some US research which found that some people found work less stressful than being at home.

So is it job insecurity? Addiction to work? Fear of missing out (FOMO) or being off-line (FOBO)? Whatever it’s surely time to rethink our work-life balance and stick two fingers up to the American idea of work-life merge.

Millennials earning less than their fathers

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relaxing_cash_1600_wht_7397Recent research has shown that by the time millennial men reach 30 they are earning about £1,500 a year less than their fathers were. The same doesn’t apply to women.

The Resolution Foundation think tank has warned the government that they must respond to the pent-up frustration of this generation which earned less than Generation Xers (born 1960-80).

The long-held belief that each generation should do better than the last is under threat. Millennials today are the first to earn less than their predecessors“.

It’s not so surprising when you think about. Although the think tank blames the shift to higher skilled roles that’s not the only factor at work.

Globalisation has meant many jobs are off-shored or contracted out to low-cost countries, structural change and the reduction in traditional male jobs in manufacturing, mining, and steel, better educated women competing in the job market, and of course increased automation – of which there is more to come.

Another factor has been the loss of middle management jobs through de-layering thereby reducing opportunities for promotion, exacerbated by older workers staying at work longer, either to eke out their pensions or to keep themselves active. again slowing down job progression.

So it is what it is. Damian Green, the work and pensions minister told Age UK that a generational war was futile. Everyone gets old some day and “ultimately you don’t help young people by impoverishing older people”.

Maybe we just have to recalibrate our thinking and modify our expectations.

It’s true, working too hard can kill you

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CNV00004_1It seems a life-time ago when stress management courses were de rigueur and people, including me, were making a living from them. (Now it’s either resilience training or mindfulness but that’s another story).

There was plenty of research about to back up what we were doing. The famous Whitehall studies which showed that the more senior you were the less likely you were to die early. In industry after industry it was the same story. Employees at the bottom of the hierarchy suffered more ill-health than more senior ones.

One of the factors contributing to this was the amount of control people had – over decision-making and the way they spent their working day. The more control or autonomy people felt they had, the less stressed they tended to be.

Now a recent study in the US has confirmed once again that people in stressful jobs with little control at work were more likely to die.

The research followed more than 2,000 Americans in their sixties over a seven-year period.

Those in low demand jobs reduced their death risk by 15% and those who were able to set their own goals and had flexibility at work were 34% less likely to die.

They also found that the people in the higher risk jobs were heavier. Comfort eating? Less time for exercise?

26% of those who dies were in front-line service jobs and 32% worked in manufacturing – both sectors with high demand and low autonomy.

55% of the deaths were from cancer (linked this week with high levels of anxiety and depression), and 22% from circulatory system diseases.

Erik Gonzales-Mulé at the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University said employers didn’t need to reduce demand on their workers but should allow them more flexibility in how jobs were done. “You can avoid the negative health consequences if you allow them to set their own goals. set their own schedules, prioritise their decision-making and the like”.

I’m having deja vu here.This is like re-inventing the wheel. We knew all this decades ago. Remember autonomous working groups? Have American businesses forgotten about US contributions to organisational psychology and research on motivation? In America most workers still don’t get sick pay or maternity pay and have minimal holidays.

Japan has its own problems with employees working too hard (see recent post)

And we aren’t much better in some respects in the UK with the worst sick pay in the EU!

Recently experts and members of parliament have expressed concern about working conditions in call centres and on-line distribution centres. Sports Direct and Asos have been criticised for having Victorian working conditions. Some of these places are like “warehouses” on the edge of towns with no windows for natural light, just like giant container units.

Perhaps I should brush off my old notes and get back on the road again. Why do businesses never learn how to get the best out of people?

Working too hard? Go shopping

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nickel_and_dimed_1600_wht_6554The japanese government are worried about people working too hard and killing themselves from overwork, called karoshi, from which 200 people died last year.

Its chief spokesman Yoshihide Suga said Japan must “end long working hours so people can balance their lives with things like raising a child or taking care of the elderly“.

Almost 1 in 4 Japanese employees work over 50 hours a week compared to 1 in 8 in Britain and the US and 1 in 12 in France. On average Japanese workers take only half their paid holiday entitlement as taking time off is considered an “inconvenience to their colleagues”

So they’ve introduced Premium Friday. On the last Friday of each month employees will be encouraged to leave the office at 1500 and make an early start to the weekend.

The purpose is two-fold: to enable people to recover from working the longest working hours in the world and to give the retail sector a much-needed boost by encouraging people to go shopping. It’s been estimated that if everyone takes advantage of this it could generate £900 million extra consumer spending every month.

The Japan Business Federation (Kaidenren) is urging its 1300 members to take part and the Trade Minister has promised not to make any appointments on Premium Friday afternoons.

However Mitsubishi Electric is currently under investigation for allegedly forcing its staff to work excessive hours and it’s not known how many people will break the habits of a lifetime in a period of economic uncertainty and job insecurity.

Also people might just go home to rest or shop on Friday instead of Saturday. After all if they are cutting down their hours they won’t have the money they earn with overtime to spend will they?

Getting work-life balance right is never easy when people have to work long hours to maintain their standard of living.

Japan has the longest lived people in the world and also the most rapidly ageing society with a quarter of the population over 65. This is not without its problems.

Because of the declining birth-rate this proportion will increase to 40% by 20160.  However scientists have now declared that for healthy people old age should be classified as 75, not 65. 

So will the government delay pensions and extend people’s working lives? They probably will otherwise there will be no-one working and paying tax to support the elderly in future years.

Being busy makes you look good

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business_go_huddle_500_wht_12067It’s the latest status symbol according to US business schools.

Bragging about your success by showing how much you can afford to relax doesn’t cut it anymore. You have to demonstrate “conspicuous consumption of time” to show how important you are.

Asking people to rate others’ status by reading Facebook accounts the researchers found that those people who said how busy they were rated higher than people leading a life of luxury. They were also considered more respectable.

The same results were found when people were asked to rate a fictitious person who worked either less than 7 hours a day or  more than ten. The hard-working version was rated higher on social standing.

So forget showing off your designer clothes and accessories. People don’t rate them any more particularly as they have become more affordable.

A note of caution: these results only seem to apply to the US. In the Italian version Giovanni was rated higher when he did less work. What does that tell you about the differences in work ethic?

Living too long and retiring too soon? Has anything changed in 2016?

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Has anything changed since I first posted this at the end of 2015?

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elderly_man_holding_a_custom_text_sign_12871Sounds good to me. But then I thought I’d retire at about 55 and buy a cheap property in Portugal. Didn’t work out for me and I suspect it doesn’t work out for lots of people despite what Baroness Altmann the former pensions minister and tsar for elderly workers (until this year) might have believed.

She was worried that too many baby boomers are retiring too early and depriving the economy of their input.

She wanted to encourage more people to stay on in work and “not write themselves off”. 

I’m not sure that all of them are doing that. If you’ve been made redundant in your 50s it’s tough to get a job but even those who’ve retired by choice are probably looking after the grandchildren thus allowing their kids to work and contribute to the economy (at no cost to the government for childminding) or even looking after their aged…

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