Too ill to take time off?

Ill-health and a culture where 'illness equals weakness' is hitting organisations across the engineering sector. According to new research by the Chartered Management Institute, lack of care for staff is taking its toll in terms of productivity, commitment levels and lower motivation. 

In our report "The Quality of Working Life: Managers' Health, Motivation and Productivity", almost half of engineering managers claim that sickness levels have gone up in their organisation over the last 12 months.

They also say that many managers do not take time off when they are ill and feel they would not be treated sympathetically if they had to take time off. The result of this culture is seen through declining performance, waning enthusiasm and increasing levels of suspicion. In the current climate, where change seems to be the only constant, engineering managers and their employers need to better understand the connections between health, motivation and productivity. 

Clearly, engineering companies operate in a business environment which is highly susceptible to change. Indeed, in the research, 54 per cent of engineering managers said that their organisation had undergone major organisational change or restructuring over the past year. Just under half of these individuals had experienced a cultural shift, while one-in-five had to cope with redundancies. Left unmanaged, changes such as these can decrease individuals' morale, feeling of job security, loyalty to the organisation and increase the number of hours that managers' work. In fact, 88 per cent of engineering managers in the research regularly work over their contracted hours. To counter these problems, employers have to be more adept to the issues surrounding change and should consider implementing health benefits and policies that can keep individuals motivated and productive during periods of adjustment. 

The Institute's research found strong links between individuals' health, well-being and how effective they are at work. Indeed, when asked about the impact on sickness at work, over two-thirds of engineering managers said that it reduced their productivity and enjoyment of the job. This is reflected in the fact that only 40 per cent of engineering managers are currently working at peak productivity. 

The survey demonstrated how ill-health and poor well-being is associated with lower levels of motivation. As an example, 37 per cent of those suffering from constant tiredness felt de-motivated, compared to only 12 per cent who had not suffered. The impact of specific aspects of ill-health on productivity were also highlighted: for managers who suffered sleep loss, 45 per cent felt they were under 80 per cent productive, compared to 23 per cent who did not report suffering from sleep loss.

Your flexible friend

Looking at how to address these health issues, there are a number of benefits that engineering organisations can offer managers to address the problem of poor health and low productivity.

According to the research, the most commonly used benefits in engineering organisations are private healthcare insurance, flexible work options and leaves of absence to help work-life issues. When asked about benefits that individuals would like to see offered, engineering managers opted for work-life balance programmes and the option to get extra holiday time or leave. This clearly indicates that managers' are motivated by benefits that help them integrate their personal and professional commitments. The long-hours working culture is a reality for the overwhelming majority of engineering managers and they are likely to look to their organisations to help manage this.

When considering which benefits and policies will particularly boost managers' health and engagement levels, organisations need to ask themselves what motivates their staff. What do organisations need to offer managers as incentives to avoid them becoming disillusioned and, as a consequence, less effective within their role? One example highlighted in the research was that managers will be more driven to succeed in their role if they have a clear idea about how they fit into the organisation as a whole. By receiving clear direction and having an understanding of what they contribute to the business, managers are more motivated to achieve their goals in pursuit of the overall business objectives.

Another factor which impacts on individual's motivation at work is the level of autonomy they receive. Having the trust and confidence of a more senior manager, and the power to make their own decisions, was found to be a significant motivator in the research. Indeed, how much control an individual has over their work and making their own decisions has a direct impact on their psychological well-being and levels of stress.

Overall, the results found that those who felt trusted and respected by their managers, and were given the power to make their own decisions, demonstrated a higher level of motivation and output for their organisation. 

Other motivators highlighted by engineering managers included their commitment to delivering a high-quality service and gaining the respect of their peers. The overwhelming majority of engineering managers cited these as more important than performance-related rewards and promotion prospects, which was only rated as important for motivation by about half of the survey's respondents. 

It is also clear from the findings that an organisation's culture and values will have a significant impact on individuals' productivity. Where communication is open, and individuals are empowered to work together towards a common goal, there is likely to be higher levels of motivation. Where management styles are authoritarian and the culture is more bureaucratic, then individual's enthusiasm within their roles is likely to suffer. 

It is, therefore, a concern that according to the Institute's research, that rather than creating innovative and trusting environments, the most widely experienced management styles in the engineering sector are reactive (35 per cent), bureaucratic (26 per cent), or authoritarian (25 per cent). Worryingly, all three have become increasingly common; the top two have increased by 6 per cent since 2004, with authoritarian leadership also rising by 5 per cent. 

Looking specifically at management cultures, the figures go on to show that where negative styles prevail, individuals were substantially less happy and motivated to fulfil their role. For example, an authoritarian style reduced individuals' trust and confidence in managers by 32 per cent to under one-in-four, their feeling of empowerment to make decision by 31 per cent to just over a third, and their belief that the organisation is committed to promoting employee well-being to almost half what it would be under a non-authoritarian style of management. 

Empowering management styles are also most associated with growing businesses. More than one-in-three (37 per cent) of organisations performing well are cited as having 'accessible' management teams, whereas 56 per cent of declining companies exhibit bureaucracy and 25 per cent engender a 'secretive' environment.

An open and trusting culture which aims to boost employees' health and motivation is also more likely to ensure that when individuals are sick, they do report it and take time off to recover. Managers have a crucial role to play when it comes to improving their own health and the quality of the working environment. Organisations will not be able to take positive action on health issues if incidents of ill-health are not reported. At the same time, managers need a better understanding of how persistent yet relatively minor symptoms can take their toll and impact on their performance at work. 

Understanding sickness

It is clear that sickness at work does not always translate into sick leave from work. For example, more than half of those reporting symptoms relating to stomach bugs in the past year did not take sick leave and only 4 per cent suffering from stress took time off from work, despite one-in-three claiming that they had experienced the symptoms of stress and 13 per cent reporting they had experienced depression.

Managers need to have a better understanding of illness and its impact on their work. This covers not only the usual physical ailments but also psychological well-being as many managers experience debilitating symptoms such as tiredness, insomnia, irritability and mood-swings as a result of their working environment.

Although our survey only covered managers, these negative moods and emotions are likely to have a considerable knock-on impact on managers' teams and colleagues. As such, it is important that managers take more personal responsibility for improving their health and may need to consider investing more time in health and fitness activities. Improving personal skills in time management and prioritising will also need engineering managers to avoid overload and minimise risks to their health and motivation levels in the workplace.

In today's long-hours working environment, the reality of a 'sickness equals weakness' culture can be difficult to dispel. But organisations can help by making sure that there is a clear message to managers that they will be judged on their output and achieving their personal goals and objectives; not by how many sick days they have taken or how late they are staying at work. 

If individuals are working excessive hours then managers need to assess their workload and make sure that the targets they have been set are clear and achievable. It may be that they are not clear on what their priorities should be and, as a result, are spending too much time on tasks which hold too little value. Perhaps there is a development issue which could be addressed.

Building new skills in a certain area would allow the individual who is working too many hours to get tasks done more efficiently. These issues should certainly be looked at before long-hours have a negative impact on individuals' health, motivation and performance.

In the context of a tough and highly competitive business environment, organisations need to be asking themselves particular questions when it comes to workplace health and well-being. Not just 'how will this benefit or policy reduce the amount of time staff take off sick?', but also 'how will this benefit or policy boost individual's performance and help achieve the business' strategic goals and objectives?'. Indeed, looking at the extra hours that most managers work on a regular basis, they give roughly 40 days per year in excess of their contracted hours. This gives a very positive picture compared to the three-and-a-half days a year sickness that the average managers takes.

This is not to say that absence should be ignored. Indeed, the Institute's research found that particular health benefits can have a positive impact on manager's absence levels.

In the report, benefits including nutritional advice, health and fitness coaching and private healthcare insurance were all found to reduce managers' average absence levels. But analysis of these benefits needs to be taken a step further if organisations are giving serious consideration to implementing them. 

The Institute's research drew out a number of recommendations. Employers need to consider the impact of business change and restructuring. Too many often benefits offered to managers fail to reflect the effect that badly-managed change can have on the social and cultural environments of organisations. Employers also need to ensure that, where benefits and policies are in place, they are supported by clear communication and training for those who will be using them.

Effective reporting

We know from the Institute's research that combining the right combination of health benefits and policies, from flexible hours to ergonomic or nutritional advice, will reduce absence and, more importantly, boost individuals job satisfaction and productivity.

More effective reporting of health issues will also put employers in a better position to implement policies which make a tangible difference to the bottom line.

In an era of cost reduction, employers need to be more aware of the positive effect of investing in health benefits and policies in the workplace. 

Health and well-being policies should be driven by the understanding that improved health and well-being can generate significant employee productivity benefits resulting from higher levels of motivation, over and above crude indicators such as reduced cost from cutting absence.

'The Quality of Working Life 2007: Managers Health, Motivation and Productivity', by Professor Les Worrall and Professor Cary Cooper, October 2007, published by Chartered Management Institute in association with Simplyhealth. For further details about the full report, see [new window].

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