Whistle while you work

Savvy employers are realising that happy staff are more productive. Some firms now offer advice on health, money and even love

Smile as you dial: Nev Wilshire, the hands-on-manager, with Kayleigh, one of the staff, in the fly-on-the-wall series The Call Centre. Photograph: BBC

Smile as you dial: Nev Wilshire, the hands-on-manager, with Kayleigh, one of the staff, in the fly-on-the-wall series The Call Centre. Photograph: BBC


Does your work make you happy? Are your colleagues content? Does it matter a whit? Employment experts from around Europe who converged in Dublin this week, for a conference, think it does. The title of their conference, organised by the Employee Assistance European Forum, was, Are Happy Employees Healthier Employees?

Surely so long as staff deliver the goods, their happiness and health are their own business? Not so for some employers. Going so far as to offer debt-resolution services and marriage advice, savvy bosses are realising that to improve their businesses they need to get stuck in to yours.

“If I had to identify one trend in the workplace at the moment it’s that employers aren’t just dealing with employees on professional matters. They are also looking more holistically at the individual,” says John Ryan, chief executive of Great Place to Work, a research and consulting firm.

But this isn’t just about HR organising an annual wellness day or wheeling in health insurers to give a talk. It’s getting more personal than that. “The employee’s relationship with their family, their partner or their personal finances, all of this can affect their performance, so employers want to help,” says Ryan.

Fans of BBC Three’s fly-on-the-wall documentary series The Call Centre will be familiar with the trend. Its boss, Nev Wilshire, takes the personal happiness of the 700 employees at his Welsh call centre, well, personally. From staff speed dating to one-to-one mental-health mentoring to baking them cakes, he’s not afraid to get involved in their personal lives to improve their performance at work. His efforts have meant that the call centre, on an industrial estate in Swansea, is swamped by job applicants.

According to Graham Randles, chief executive of the New Economics Foundation think tank and the keynote speaker at this week’s conference, two elements feed into good functioning at work. One is “organisational systems”: your relationship with your manager, your pay and rewards, and issues such as autonomy and trust. The other is personal resources.

“We strongly believe that personal resources, which is effectively what you bring to your job every day, are just as important,” says Randles. “If you come into work feeling unhappy there is a good chance that you might take that unhappiness and not be functioning terribly well. That unhappiness can be from a whole range of things that may or may not have anything to do with the employer.”

For employers adept at stepping in sensitively, and not giving the impression of meddling in employees’ lives, there are rewards, says Randles. He says research at the University of Bath last year found that the UK was missing out on the full capability of 20 million workers because they were not actively engaged in their jobs. The cost in lost productivity was estimated at €30 billion a year.

So how should employers go about tackling employee happiness? The German logistics company Kuehne + Nagel, which has 250 employees in Dublin, Cork and Shannon, is leading the charge.

“Happiness is huge for us,” says its HR director, Garry McCabe. “We want our people to enjoy their time in our workplace – being here shouldn’t be a chore.”

General discontent
But it’s not just about the work environment. Kuehne + Nagel pays attention to external factors affecting happiness, too. When the April 2009 supplementary budget and universal social charge created “general discontent” among staff, the company brought in a tax adviser to help staff sort out their tax credits.

“In two years we’ve returned €113,000 to the 130 staff that participated,” says McCabe. “If I’m honest I’ve had girls dancing around the place here, kissing people and saying thank you. We’ve had families that were able to go to Disney on their holidays and young people getting €800 or €900 back who were so excited about it. It’s given a huge feelgood factor.”

The company has since gone a step further. Since 2012 it has paid for a debt-resolution service for employees whose performance is being affected by debt worries.

“They’ve come to me and said, ‘I’m struggling at the moment. I’m afraid I might make mistakes that cost the business money’,” says McCabe. “In one example, an employee told me they were in dire straits. She said, ‘My husband has lost his job, we have a second property that we can’t rent, he’s depressed, I’m falling to pieces, my marriage is falling to pieces.’ Those are the kinds of stories we are hearing fairly regularly.” Providing an expert to negotiate with banks on behalf of employees is taking the pressure off.

“I just couldn’t put a word on it,” says McCabe. “I’ve had conversations with staff who have said we’ve saved their marriage or we’ve saved their mental health. It’s been a phenomenal success.

“We’re a logistics company. We move product for large blue-chip companies in Ireland, but we don’t have trucks or planes or ships. All we have is people,” says McCabe. “Our success is down to them, so we need to make sure they are content and happy. Then they give us more. Absenteeism here is less than 1 per cent. We don’t have staff turnover worth talking about.”

Guidance on love
Whatever about money advice, surely no sane, litigation-fearing employer would stray into doling out guidance on love? Brendan Madden, chief executive of Relationships Ireland and speaker at this week’s conference, says that’s exactly what some employers are doing.

“Romantic relationships, ranging from casual dating to marriage, have enormous potential to affect people’s mental and physical health and, in turn, their job performance,” says Madden. He told delegates how by offering support and advice to employees, through professional assistance programmes, they could improve employee wellbeing and happiness.

“There is a spill-over effect between work life and home life that is well established,” says Madden. “Stresses at work have an impact at home, and stresses and pressures at home have an impact at work.”

He says relationship flashpoints affecting employee happiness and productivity include working mothers who face a “second shift” once home, new fathers stressed by limited paternity leave, or the difficulties of working couples in negotiating a fair sharing of the domestic burden.

“Employers are recognising that employees in demanding jobs could benefit from support and information that will help them balance out the competing demands in their lives,” says Madden.

But making the professional personal is also about a grander design, according to Graham Randles. He says that with world economies not performing as expected, people are questioning traditional economic systems. “What we really need to do is restructure things in such a way that a well-functioning economy serves the happiness and the wellbeing of the people, and it should serve society and the environment.”

That the UK’s GDP has doubled since 1970 but people’s satisfaction with life has hardly changed proves his point, he says.

Randles says business leaders in global companies such as Unilever and Marks & Spencer have cottoned on to the happiness effect.

“They are looking at the purpose of business in more depth and saying that business is not just about shareholder return. It’s about an engaged and happy workforce, how the business impacts on the community and on the environment.”

A focus on employee happiness doesn’t have to damage shareholder returns; in fact, the opposite is true. “If we look at Marks & Spencer’s engagement approach, their stores which have improved employee engagement deliver £62 million [€73 million] more sales to the business every year than those stores that had declining employee engagement,” says Randles.

“There are opportunities for really positive loops where improving the wellbeing of employees can improve the performance of companies and improve the economy generally. If companies don’t take that seriously, they could be in a downward spiral. Performance suffers as a result of employees not being engaged.”

Here to help: How are employers making staff happy?

The business-software provider SAP Ireland runs an employee health support programme that uses heart rate to indicate stress-related health risks and gives tips on work-life balance.

Genzyme, a Waterford-based biotech company, enlisted a clinical psychologist to give staff a resilience-management course, to improve their psychological and emotional wellbeing, regardless of whether issues were related to work or not.

The property company Merlin provides a staff back-to-education allowance. All staff with children in full- or part-time education are entitled to a contribution from the fund.

Staff at PepsiCo Ireland are asked to name one thing that could make a difference to their work-life balance. Managers provide support on objectives such as not attending meetings on Friday afternoons, changing start and finish times to facilitate school runs, and working from home.

“Happy people sell, miserable bastards don’t,” says Nev Wilshire, the boss in The Call Centre, the BBC’s fly-on-the-wall documentary series. Wilshire makes employees sing along to the Killers song Mr Brightside. He believes that enthusiastic, happy people will sing; miserable people don’t make the cut. “We have a motto here: happy people sell. Smile as you dial. I would sack somebody for not singing. ”

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