Introduction

“Credit crunch”, “Euro crises” and “age of austerity” have become familiar phrases over recent years as organisations grapple with the challenges of operating (and, in a number of cases, surviving) in a continuing tough economic climate, where high levels of unemployment and low levels of consumer confidence seem to have become the norm. The impact of a sustained period of pay constraints and freezes has led to a squeeze on household budgets as families seek to manage increasing costs with no corresponding increase in income levels. The significant reductions in the level of public sector finances have created particular challenges across local government and other public services, with many implementing programmes of service and organisational restructuring, workforce reductions and redundancies.

These difficult conditions inevitably have an impact at both an organisational and individual level. While organisational change has become a continuing theme for some time now, the pace and pressures of this appear to have increased in recent years. How does this impact on the quality of our working lives and on organisational productivity and performance? How are managers and organisations coping in these tough conditions? What actions are organisations taking (or should they take to support employees in maintaining and developing health and wellbeing, and how effective are these?

A recent report published by the Chartered Management Institute (CMI), in partnership with Simplyhealth, The Quality of Working Life 2012, Managers’ Wellbeing, Motivation and Productivity, considers these and other related issues. Based on research led by Professor Les Worrall, Coventry University, and Professor Cary Cooper, Lancaster University, it provides a range of valuable insights into, and statistical data on, these important issues, with more detailed analyses considering the impact within and across different organisational sectors. It also aims to stimulate debate and critical reflection among those responsible for developing organisations, crafting leadership development programmes or designing and implementing change programmes, with a range of recommendations for both managers and organisations to consider. It does, perhaps, make particularly uncomfortable reading for the public sector where “negative indices” seem particularly high across a range of measures.

Deborah Moon, HR Consultant, summarises the key findings of the report and considers what lessons public sector organisations can learn from these.

Background to the report

The 2012 report is the seventh in a series of CMI research reports looking at the quality of managers’ working lives. Beginning in 1997, the series ran until 2001, and then again in 2005 and 2007. Given the scale and impact of the changes that have occurred in the intervening period, it was considered timely to run the survey again in order to measure managers’ current perceptions of their wellbeing, motivation, productivity and working lives more generally, and compare these to the 2007 pre-recession findings and, where possible, data from earlier surveys. The report considers the impact upon managers individually and on overall organisational performance.

A key focus of the 2012 report, and a change from previous surveys, considers what the report identifies as three critical issues:

  • the factors that drive/suppress managers’ sense of wellbeing in the organisations they work within

  • the effects of different leadership styles on managers’ wellbeing

  • the key relationships in the workplace, eg with the line manager, that impact on managers’ wellbeing.

Context

This section of the report considers a range of issues relating to organisational growth/decline and change, and the effects on managers and organisations.

The research found that there had been a marked change for the worse in organisations’ economic health and in operating conditions since 2007, with a reduction from 53% to 34% in managers working in growing organisations and a noticeable increase, from 21% to 34%, in managers working in declining organisations. This was particularly the case in large organisations employing over 1000 people and in the public sector, where 46% of managers said their organisation was in decline, compared to 18% in the not-for-profit sector and 19% in the private sector. The rate of decline was most marked in the central/local government sector, where 52% of respondents reported their organisation was declining or declining rapidly. As the report points out, with the government’s continuing “austerity agenda”, this is likely to remain the case for the foreseeable future.

Previous surveys identified the impact of organisational change, usually “intensifying”, ie working harder and faster, and “extensifying”, ie working longer, on managerial work. The 2012 findings continue this pattern. Change is an extremely common experience, with 92% of managers experiencing at least one form of organisational change in the last year. Organisational restructuring and cost reduction were the most common forms of change cited by respondents.

The scale and variety of change was highest in the public sector, with 98% of managers experiencing change. The public sector also recorded the highest incidence of change on several measures, including cost reduction, organisational restructuring, voluntary redundancy, changed terms and conditions, culture change, compulsory redundancy and delayering, with the use of voluntary redundancy and changes to terms and conditions particularly prevalent compared to other sectors. However, as the report points out, this does not mean that there has not been a significant level of change in the not-for-profit and private sectors. Nonetheless, as the report identifies, the pace, variety and scale of organisational change within the public sector has been considerable in the last year, with central/local government and the uniformed/emergency services worst affected.

The report then considers the effect of these changes on employees within organisations. As in 2007, change was perceived to have a considerable effect, eg a decrease in job security, loyalty, morale and motivation, and wellbeing at work. Managers were also strongly of the view that organisational change had increased the pressure on employees to work harder, to increase the amount and pace of work, and to work longer hours.

In terms of the effects of change on organisations, managers were not positive about this, eg in relation to the speed of decision-making, amount of flexibility, levels of productivity and profitability, suggesting that change is not delivering the desired, or intended, outcomes. A particular concern is the loss of key skills and experience, a concern that has risen sharply since the research began. This has particular implications for workforce planning and talent management activities, for example, within the public sector, where there is a need to secure and retain the talent needed to drive forward organisational change programmes, and develop, implement and secure new operating and service delivery models.

Organisational change is also described as a much “blunter instrument” in the period since the original research began, with cost reduction having significantly increased as a major driver of this.

The report also provides an interesting analysis of respondent perceptions by organisational level, with directors having a much “rosier” and more positive view than other, more junior, managers, perhaps reflecting their role as agents rather than recipients of change. The report identifies a particular concern at the increasing “perception gap”, referring to this as “unhealthy” and suggesting that directors are becoming even more distant from the reality of the organisations they lead. This would appear to reflect similar concerns that have been voiced in recent times concerning the levels of executive remuneration relative to rates of pay within the workforce more generally, stimulating the debate about perceived unfairness in pay ratios and a need for greater transparency in the determination of senior management reward packages.

Again, managers in the public sector were more negative about the impact of change and the effect of this on their experiences at work. This was particularly marked on the industrial disputes/strikes measure, with 47% of public sector managers indicating strikes had increased, compared to only 5% in the not-for-profit and private sectors. This would appear to reflect the increasing incidence of industrial action that has been taken across the public sector, particularly in response to proposed pension changes but also in respect of broader workforce reduction measures, pay and changes to terms and conditions.

Public sector managers were also most likely to report increased absence levels as a result of organisational changes. While the issue of higher absence levels within the public sector has been a theme of other sickness/absence management surveys, the effect of organisational change does appear to be having a particularly negative effect across this sector.

Managers and their work

The report goes on to look at job satisfaction and employee engagement, finding there has been a marked decline in:

  • job satisfaction

  • confidence in senior managers with regard to the management of change and in promoting employee wellbeing

  • perceptions regarding fair treatment by the organisation

  • views on the organisation as a “good employer”.

The report expresses concerns about the direction and scale of change in the survey responses, particularly in relation to the promotion of employee wellbeing by senior managers. Many organisations appear to have taken a “step backward” on measures that are generally seen as desirable and indicative of good management practice.

As with perceptions about organisational change, attitudes toward the organisation were also related to seniority. Directors were most positive and junior managers least positive, which once again demonstrates the gap that appears to exist between different hierarchical levels.

Interestingly, in spite of these findings and the difficult economic conditions, motivation has increased from 51% of respondents in 2007 who said they felt motivated to 60% in 2012. However, motivation levels were lowest in the public sector where 55% felt motivated, compared to 67% and 63% in the not-for-profit and private sectors respectively (although the public sector figure does represent an increase since 2007 — up from 48%).

Perhaps not surprisingly, there was a very strong relationship between the extent to which an organisation was growing or declining and motivation levels and personal productivity. Again, managers’ perceptions varied by type of organisation, with managers in the public sector least positive about their own productivity, particularly in central/local government and the health and social care sectors.

Considerations surrounding the achievement of an appropriate work–life balance have become increasingly important in recent years, and the report provides some insights into this area. The overwhelming majority (90%) of managers employed full time regularly worked over their contracted hours, although this figure is virtually unchanged since 2000. However, there has been a noticeable increase in the percentage of managers working 2 hours or more per day over their contract hours, from 38% in 2007 to 46% in 2012. The average manager worked around 1.5 hours per day over contract, roughly equal to 46 working days, or over 9 “free weeks” per year.

In terms of the impact of working longer hours, this appears to have had a significant effect on many aspects of managers’ personal and social lives, including stress levels, psychological and physical health and, for parents, on relationships with their children. These negative effects were more likely to be cited in respect of personal rather than work issues such as morale, productivity and relationships with colleagues.

Managers’ health and wellbeing

The report sets out a range of data relating to average sickness absence levels among managers. This shows a marginal increase from 3.46 days in 2007 to 3.65 days in 2012. More detailed analysis is provided by gender, organisational level and business sector/type. Managers in the public sector reported the highest absence rate of 3.88 days compared to the not-for-profit and private sectors. In terms of business type, the health and social care sector had the highest absence rate at 6.7 days.

Managers were also asked to rate their overall health. Generally, managers were positive about this, with 42% rating themselves as being in good, or very good, health. However, a substantially higher percentage of managers felt their health had got worse rather than better over the last three months, an increase on the previous survey.

Again, differences in these health ratings are provided by management level, gender and sector, with managers in the public sector showing the lowest rating. Interestingly, the percentage of managers reporting good or very good health was high in the uniformed/emergency services and in the health and social care sector (despite the latter’s high absence rate). The lowest assessments were in education and central/local government. This latter group were also one of those most likely to report their health had deteriorated over the last three months.

The report also provides information about managers’ experiences of a range of health problems. Of the 13 measures used, managers reported slightly worse scores against 12 of these than in the 2007 survey. In particular, there had been an increase from 35% to 42% suffering from symptoms of stress and an increase from 15% to 18% suffering from symptoms of depression. Again, there were differences by gender, management level and business sector. Four business sectors were found to have relatively high proportions of managers who reported suffering from symptoms of stress, including central/local government, uniformed/emergency services and education. Perhaps, this is not surprising, given the nature and demands of the work and services provided but, nevertheless, it makes for worrying reading, particularly when looked at along with other indicators.

Managers’ health was generally worse in declining organisations, particularly so in respect of certain health problems, eg respiratory problems and depression.

As the report recognises, experiencing some type of ill health does not necessarily result in absence from work, the incidence of which will be affected by a variety of other factors, such as the nature and circumstances of the individual and the organisation. The report provides a breakdown of the percentage of managers taking time off work by symptom, showing that, with the exception of influenza, the majority seem to “struggle on” regardless. A number of commentators have expressed concerns about a growing trend of “presenteeism” and the report’s findings suggest that the propensity for this among managers is on the increase within organisations.

The report then goes on to explore managerial physical and psychological wellbeing in more depth and how this has changed since 2007. This is measured against a range of 17 symptoms, eg constant tiredness, insomnia/sleep loss, headaches, difficulty concentrating, mood swings. Respondents reported an increase against 15 of these symptoms, with sleep problems, muscular tension and insomnia/sleeplessness remaining the “top three” experienced by managers. Of particular concern is the increase against those measures which affect managers’ performance and behaviour in the workplace and the resulting impact this can have on personal and organisational productivity.

Again, the report provides a more detailed analysis by gender, management level, organisational growth/decline and sector. Worryingly, managers in the public sector sustained the worst scores across all 17 measures.

With regard to the impact of ill health, the two major reported negative effects were on enjoyment of the job and on productivity.

Finally, this section of the report explores the links between absence levels, motivation and productivity. Poor levels of wellbeing (particularly psychological, rather than physical) tend to be associated with poor levels of motivation and low productivity, suggesting that “causality” is more likely to flow from the job and the organisation. This highlights the need for further consideration to be given to the relationship between factors such as leadership style, job design, workload and the management of change, and managerial motivation and psychological wellbeing.

Organisational support

The next section of the report considers a number of issues relating to the impact of a range of organisational factors influencing managers’ wellbeing, of different management styles and the extent and effectiveness of organisational health and wellbeing policies.

The report explores what, in terms of an organisation’s culture, most affects managers’ sense of wellbeing. Respondents were asked to score a range of factors and whether they were seen as having a positive or negative effect on wellbeing at work. The analysis identifies some clear “drivers” for improving managers’ sense of wellbeing, eg respect from peers, role autonomy, sense of achievement and the ability to deliver high-quality services, as well as those which act as “inhibitors”, eg amount of work, remuneration, amount of pressure to do the job, and lack of feedback from their manager.

The report identifies the following items as most strongly associated with overall job satisfaction, providing a clear indication to employers of the key organisational issues they need to focus on if they wish to improve employees’ sense of wellbeing and job satisfaction.

  • Prevailing leadership style.

  • Sense of achievement from the job.

  • Extent to which they felt trusted to make decisions.

  • Potential career prospects.

  • “Achievability” of objectives.

  • Feeling part of a team.

  • Line manager praise and recognition.

  • Autonomy.

  • Developmental feedback.

  • Level of resource availability.

As the report notes, “reward and remuneration” does not appear in this list.

As is widely recognised, the quality of the line management relationship is critical to feelings of job satisfaction, levels of employee engagement and overall quality of working life. This is reaffirmed in the report’s findings, which explore the nature of the line management relationship and how it has changed in the period between the 2007 and 2012 surveys. The findings indicate that, in all but one area, views of line managers are less positive than they were in 2007, eg in relation to trust in line managers, in the provision of regular feedback and in being proactive about their employees’ wellbeing.

The survey also asked managers who they considered was responsible for employee wellbeing. Perhaps, somewhat predictably, 63% agreed or strongly agreed this was the responsibility of the HR Department, although managers did also see themselves as having some responsibility in this area. This would appear to indicate that HR professionals still have some way to go in developing line managers’ understanding of their role and responsibilities in relation to their staff and in recognising that good people management practices are an integral part of managerial effectiveness.

Having identified the importance of leadership style on job satisfaction, the report goes on to explore in more detail respondents’ views on this issue, again considering changes since the 2007 survey.

While overall management styles remain broadly similar, the report also identifies some changes. Senior managers’ management styles appear to have become more risk-averse and bureaucratic, less accessible, reactive and empowering. However, there were huge differences in the perceptions of directors and all other management levels, with directors having a much more positive view than senior, middle and junior managers. This finding would appear to echo those in earlier parts of the report in relation to this type of “perception gap”.

There were also huge differences in perceptions by sector, with 65% of respondents in the public sector seeing management styles as bureaucratic, compared to 30% in the not-for-profit and private sectors. Indeed, the public sector scored worst on the majority of measures, with management styles seen as the most authoritarian and least accountable, empowering, innovative, trusting, consensual and entrepreneurial. As commented on earlier in this article, at a time when the public sector is undergoing radical transformational change, with a need to explore and develop different and innovative forms of service provision and delivery arrangements, these findings must raise concerns about the skills and abilities of managers to respond to these challenges.

The report then considers the effect of management styles on job satisfaction, engagement and wellbeing, finding that certain styles, eg being authoritarian, have a significant negative effect. In particular, it looks at the impact on employee engagement, demonstrating the detrimental effect of being managed by an authoritarian manager, comparing this situation to one in which there is mutual trust, accessibility, a concensus approach and a sense of empowerment. At a time of increasing interest in and appreciation of the importance of securing and maintaining high levels of employee engagement, these findings send a clear message to organisations in terms of leadership skills and development programmes.

Having considered issues relating to managers’ health and sickness absence, the report then looks at organisational attitudes to sickness absence, eg whether employees felt they were treated sympathetically by their manager if they took time off work. While 50% agreed or strongly agreed with this statement, this was a slight decline from 2007. Public sector managers were least likely to feel employees who took sick leave were treated sympathetically by their managers compared to the not-for-profit and private sectors.

The report also looks at the issue of “presenteeism”, with the findings suggesting this has increased markedly since 2007. Central and local government were one of the three sectors at the top of the “presenteeism league”, a significant change since 2007 and, perhaps, reflective of the pressures managers working in these organisations now feel under.

The range of health benefits and policies and the effectiveness of these are then considered, with the report identifying a range of possible benefits which may be made available by organisations. The public sector was found to have relatively high levels of provision, particularly in a number of key areas, such as the ability to take leave of absence to help with work–life issues, and access to flexible work.

In terms of the perceived value of the benefits offered, the top three initiatives all related to “time”, ie flexible work, the option to take extra time or leave, and leave of absence. This demonstrates the value of initiatives that enable managers to improve their control over the allocation of time between home and work responsibilities — an interesting outcome for the public sector, which would appear to be particularly strong in this area. However, are those employers maximising the potentially positive effects the availability of such arrangements may have?

In terms of the existence of health and welfare policies, the percentage of managers reporting their organisation as having such policies in place were highest in the public sector, eg managing absence and return to work, occupational illness, stress management, and drug and alcohol policies. Yet, despite the presence of these, absence levels remain higher in the public than private sector, inevitably raising questions about their effective operation and how well understood and utilised they are.

The report also looks at the extent to which policies were backed up by training, communication and clear accountability for their delivery. By comparing absence levels in organisations that had policies in place but no training with those that had both, absence levels were found to be lower in the latter and higher in the former, suggesting that the provision of training, communication and setting clear accountability for the delivery of policies boosts their effectiveness. Is this perhaps another important message for the public sector?

Lessons for organisations

Although the survey report appears to paint a mainly bleak picture, it does also recognise that there are organisations that are growing, where managers enjoy a good quality of working life and where good practice is occurring. It goes on to consider the key differences, particularly from the perspective of junior and middle managers, of what differentiates such organisations, highlighting:

  • a positive management style

  • high levels of employee engagement and the factors that contribute to this

  • the quality of the relationship with line managers

  • high trust.

This provides some valuable lessons for organisations, identifying the importance of people-orientated, critically aware managers to both effective, organisational performance and in developing and maintaining a positive sense of wellbeing in staff.

In terms of conclusions, the report identifies a number of key themes arising from the survey regarding the management of UK organisations, including the following.

  • Managers are being put under more pressure as a result of economic conditions and organisational changes.

  • Managers are less positive about their organisation, and levels of job satisfaction have declined.

  • Working hours have increased.

  • Illness levels have increased but so has “presenteeism”.

  • There is a loss of trust in senior managers.

  • The “perception gap” between different management levels has widened and those at the top of the pyramid seem out of touch with reality as experienced by others.

  • The most prevalent management styles in the UK all have a negative impact on employee health and wellbeing, whereas more positive management styles are in the minority.

But, in spite of this, managers appear resilient in the face of these changes and pressures — satisfaction may be down but motivation is up.

The report goes on to pose some challenges and questions, including the following.

  • Can organisations change their managerial style?

  • Can directors and junior managers learn to understand each other better?

  • How can good training make a difference?

  • How can work be managed more effectively?

  • How can managers boost (or maintain) their sense of wellbeing and build resilience?

  • How can managers create innovative, creative solutions to the challenges of recession and stagnation?

The report concludes by making a number of recommendations in relation to:

  • managing your own wellbeing, eg develop better awareness of the costs and consequences of actions; create an environment which balances work and home commitments

  • managing team wellbeing, eg listen to your people and understand the perspectives and experiences of others; create the right conditions to motivate your managers

  • managing change, eg ensure open communication and participation and develop skills in planning and implementing change

  • promoting health, eg measure employee engagement and wellbeing by utilising appropriate metrics; invest in health and wellbeing initiatives.

No one can doubt the very difficult environment organisations are currently operating in, with many tough choices and decisions having to be faced and made. Organisational change has become endemic within our society and, while there are often many good reasons for this, the report paints a compelling picture of the impact of that on individuals, their wellbeing, and their motivation, loyalty and commitment. In particular, it sends a clear message to leaders of organisations regarding the need to think much more carefully about the management of change, the pressures created by this and how, done badly, it impacts upon the quality of working life, on individual and organisational performance, and on productivity. It also highlights the importance of management style and of investing in employee wellbeing, seeking to create an open, empowering, entrepreneurial and high-trust environment and providing appropriate support, training and development to foster and promote these conditions.

Further information

The Quality of Working Life 2012, Managers’ Wellbeing, Motivation and Productivity, July 2012, available here.

A number of checklists and factsheets with advice on how to improve the quality of working life in organisations are also available on the CMI website.

Author

Deborah Moon is a Consultant in Human Resources and is a regular contributor to Croner-i HR for Local Government. Croner-i HR for Local Government is an online employment law and practice reference source designed specifically for HR Managers and their teams in local government.

Last reviewed 6 August 2012