Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Wellbeing at Work – can we afford to ignore it?

I have been wondering of late, particularly as we continue to battle the ‘credit crunch’, how well employees are managing to cope with the increased pressures they are facing. Talking to people in the public sector I am told, anecdotally, that stress is up and that many more employees are struggling to cope than was previously the case. Colleagues talk of the need for more ‘emotional resilience’; a strategic approach to ‘organisational wellbeing’; the ‘happiness agenda’ yet I wonder how much of this is taking a back seat as budgets get even tighter.

“If I was starting out again, I would be a care worker!” laughed Miranda when I asked her how she coped with the high levels of pressure in her work. I looked quizzically at her, unsure whether this high-energy, no-nonsense business woman was serious or just ‘yanking my chain’ as they say on the telly.

“Actually,” she corrected, “I did start out as a care worker, over 30 years ago now. Low wages, shift work, a really challenging client group who couldn’t be left unattended as several of them would self injure – I was down the casualty department on more than one occasion I can tell you! Hard work, lots of pressure, but the team spirit was fantastic – I loved it!”

“Crikey Miranda....” was all I could feebly muster. “That’s a long way from being a director”.

“Is it?” she replied, absent-mindedly sipping her coffee.

“So which of your many jobs would you say caused you most stress?” I persisted.
Miranda stared at me like I had just stepped off the Star Ship Enterprise. “Caused me stress? How could a job cause me stress?” Clearly amused by my apparent confusion, she relented a little.

“Sorry,” she said “I couldn’t resist it! Seriously, though, I feel it’s way too simplistic to say that jobs cause stress. Of course, aspects of work can be incredibly challenging, particularly in the current economic and political climate, but we’re on a slippery slope if we start to believe that we do not have control over how we respond to events. If I believed that events, or other people for that matter, had the power to make me feel or behave in a certain way, then I would have given up a long, long time ago!”

I smiled ruefully at this, knowing full well the considerable personal and professional challenges this woman had overcome in her life.

“Look at it this way,” Miranda suggested helpfully. “The exact same event can happen to two separate people and they won’t necessarily respond in the same way at all. It’s not the event, but the meaning we each give that event that makes all the difference”.

I nodded, thoughtfully at this. She was right of course – well at least partially. Her comments made me wonder, though, whose responsibility is wellbeing at work: the individual’s, the organisation’s, government’s, everyone’s?

I needed to buy some time to reflect upon this further. “Another slice of cheesecake?” I offered helpfully.

Some facts and figures
Regardless of who is responsible for addressing wellbeing at work, one thing is for sure: this is an issue that cannot be ignored. For those of you committed to driving the wellbeing agenda, you may find the following facts and figures useful when compiling your business case.
• In a July 2008 survey of over 800 HR professionals in organisations employing 2.3 million people, just under one-third reported an increase in work-related stress compared with the previous year.
[Source: Absence management: Annual survey report 2008, CIPD].
• The total cost to UK employers of mental ill health among their staff is over £25 billion, equivalent to £1,035 per employee in the workforce.
[Source: Mental Health at Work: Developing the Business Case, Sainsbury’s Centre for Mental Health, 2007].
• According to Mind (2006) it is estimated that stress related illness is costing the NHS between £300 and £400 million every year.
• The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) estimates that 30 times as many working days are lost due to mental ill health as from industrial disputes.
• Mental health problems account for the loss of over 91 million working days each year, costing the UK economy nearly £1bn annually.
• Poorly managed mental health in the workplace is costing the UK economy as much as £9bn in salaries.
• It has been estimated that nearly 10 per cent of the UK’s GNP is lost annually due to work related stress.
[Source: Britain Under Pressure Report, Friends Provident, November 2008].

What does it all mean?
Mental health is not something that happens to ‘other people’ – it affects us all. Around a quarter of British adults experience at least one diagnosable mental health problem in any one year with mixed anxiety & depression being the most common mental disorder in Britain.

It may be helpful to view mental health as a continuum upon which we move back and forth at different stages in our life. We all have ‘mental health’ (which is not to be confused with ‘mental illness’) and the quality of this will be influenced by a range of factors such as relationships with friends and family, good health and community.

Mental health may be described as “a state of wellbeing in which every individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.” (World Health Organisation)

Work-related stress is defined by the Health and Safety Executive as “the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them. There is a clear distinction between pressure, which can be a motivating factor, and stress, which can occur when this pressure becomes excessive.”

Emotional resilience has been identified as being “a set of conditions that allow individual adaptation to different forms of adversity at different points in the life course”. (Emotional Resilience Steering Group, May 2009).

Why focus on wellbeing?
In recent years there has been a growing interest in the wellbeing agenda though the extent to which the public sector as a whole is addressing this is unclear. There are undoubtedly pockets of good practice in all sectors that we could learn from, and the current economic climate could perhaps be viewed as an opportunity to get our own house in order, so that we can better serve the wellbeing needs of our children and communities in the future.

Research undertaken by Friends Provident (2008) showed that almost two thirds of Britons felt more stressed, run down and prone to illness than they had in the preceding three years, and over 10% reported that the majority of stress they experienced was coming from work.

In a survey of employers undertaken by the CIPD and KPMG this year, 50% of respondents said that individual staff workloads have increased as a result of the credit crunch, along with a rise in employee stress levels.

According to Paul Farmer, Chief Executive of Mind:
"Considering how much time we spend at work, it is hardly surprising that it can have a huge impact on our mental well-being. A bad work environment can be damaging and can trigger a wide range of problems from exhaustion to depression, while having a good working life is proven to be an asset for our overall mental health. Employers and employees have a responsibility to recognise that mental health is an issue in every workforce and make sure they are doing what they can to promote a healthy workplace."

Some practical solutions
As caring employers we want to provide healthy working environments where employees are encouraged to reach their full potential. Providing healthy workplaces is not just about minimising risk, it is also very good for business as we have already discussed. In terms of what we can do in our workplaces, there are a number of areas we can explore now.

Where possible, we should build upon whatever initiatives are already in place in order to minimise the organisation’s feeling of overload. Having a senior sponsor take a lead on wellbeing is a good way of encouraging organisational buy-in as is making explicit the links to other strategic agendas and integrating wellbeing within all aspects of the organisation’s work.

Management development
Line managers have a key role to play in ensuring positive mental health/wellbeing of employees in the workplace, and there is ample evidence to suggest a link between manager behaviour and employee wellbeing (e.g. HSE, 2007; Foresight Group, 2008; Dame Black’s review of the health of Britain’s working age population, 2008 etc.) Rather than creating an additional layer of management development, it should be possible to include responsibility for promoting employee wellbeing into existing processes such as managers’ job descriptions, competency frameworks, existing development programmes etc. Managers can also be held accountable for demonstrating their commitment to employee wellbeing through the organisation’s existing performance management frameworks.

Awareness raising
Raising awareness about the nature of mental wellbeing (rather than ‘mental illness’ or ‘stress’) is important both in terms of minimising the stigmatising effects of ‘mental illness’ and also in terms of providing individuals with information about where to go for help and support, should they need it. Again, awareness-raising can be incorporated into existing induction and training programmes and within competency and performance management processes. A focus upon mental health rather than illness will also encourage employees to see this as an issue affecting everyone, and not something to be ashamed of or feared.

Effective policies and support structures
Too few organisations have adequate mental health policies in place. Employers who wish to create a healthy work environment will understand the need to create effective mental health policies and procedures with clear and measurable targets that are monitored.

A number of organisations already have employee assistance programmes in place and this, coupled with HR staff trained to support and coach managers in wellbeing, will go some way to changing the culture in organisations. Working in partnership with trade unions and other staff representative/network groups will also impact upon organisational culture and contribute to changing working practices.

Healthy working environments
Employees spend a considerable amount of their lives at work so it is perhaps obvious that consideration should be given to creating healthy working environments. This is more than just an issue of work space and job redesign it also relates to actively promoting positive lifestyle choices amongst employees (e.g. healthy eating, smoking cessation, regular exercising etc.). The organisation’s leadership also has a key role to play in promoting wellbeing through positive role-modelling. This includes demonstrating their own personal commitment to work-life balance and looking after their own physical and mental health.

Creating a culture of openness, respect, teamwork and effective communication where personal contribution and performance is recognised and valued, is also important.

Wellbeing case studies in the public sector
There are currently a number of wellbeing initiatives being undertaken in the public sector with some good work being done to tackle poor employee attendance and, perhaps more critically, to introduce a culture of wellbeing into organisations. The following is an example of what is taking place and readers may wish to explore these case studies further to see if there are any learnings that can be captured for their own organisations.

Public Sector People Managers Association (PPMA)
The PPMA is a member-led organisation committed to sharing best practice within the public sector, and has created a number of lead officer roles to help achieve this aim, in a number of key policy areas including wellbeing.

The PPMA recognises that there are a number of excellent wellbeing initiatives taking place throughout the UK and seeks to publicise best practice, for example through the HR awards, and to build a network of HR professionals committed to promoting wellbeing.

To read the public sector wellbeing case studies, to join the PPMA’s virtual wellbeing network or to contact the PPMA’s Lead Officer for Wellbeing, visit their page at:

Local Wellbeing Partnership
Since 2006, the Young Foundation has been pioneering an innovative ‘Local Wellbeing Project’ which is a partnership between the Young Foundation, Professor Richard Layard at the LSE Centre for Economic Performance, IDeA, and three leading local authorities: Manchester City Council, South Tyneside Metropolitan Borough Council and Hertfordshire County Council.

The aim of the programme is to support local government in driving forward the wellbeing agenda, both through practical trials and also through the adaption of mainstream services. The programme is now having an impact on how wellbeing is integrated into key policy areas, such as:
• Promoting emotional resilience within school curriculums.
• Emphasising patient experience and wellbeing within healthcare.
• Emphasising parental wellbeing as well as children’s wellbeing through refocused parenting programmes.
• Promoting activities with strong connections to wellbeing, such as neighbourliness, volunteering, exercise and work in older age.
You can read more about this project at:

So finally...

....back to Miranda and her insistence that individuals should develop the mindset and emotional resilience to control their own responses to life events. As someone who has journeyed the afore mentioned mental health ‘continuum’ with family, friends and at times on my own over the years, I understand how important it is to take personal responsibility for what happens to us. In my map of the world, life is not just a series of accidents that happens to us, but a series of rich challenges through which we can grow and develop. Like Miranda, I refuse to believe that I have no choice, and I do not believe that others have the power to make me feel something I choose not to feel.

In addition to transforming our workplaces into healthy, productive environments where people can work, develop and thrive, I believe that there is still substantial work that needs to be done at an individual level. Supporting individuals to develop their own effective wellbeing strategies and assisting them in taking personal responsibility is a good start.

Developing individual resilience and a positive mindset is something that needs to occur from an early age and I believe it is critical that we work with young people, now, to help equip them with the appropriate skills and personal resilience so that they can make their full contribution to healthy communities of the future.

But more on this later...!

Friday, 2 July 2010

From ‘Dynamic Director’ to ‘State Scrounger’: a Case Study

Greig McNeish has always been a ‘workaholic’. An ambitious, hardworking and dedicated professional who is passionate about making a difference in the world. ‘Work-life balance’? “Nah – that’s for wimps!” Greig would scoff. As a director working for a well-known UK charity, Greig was happy to work evenings and weekends in his ‘pursuit of excellence’ and drove himself and his team hard. In fact, for Greig, working a 50 hour week was regarded as a ‘slow week’ and he regularly forfeited his annual leave in order to complete vital projects.

In a career in special needs education spanning over 30 years, Greig had an exemplary record of attendance and it would take something as serious as kidney stones to make Greig even consider taking time off sick. Even when he broke his ankle, he managed to hobble into work, personally paying for taxis to take him to and from his place of employment. On the few occasions he had ‘free time’ he chose to spend this ministering to those who were in the final stages of terminal illness, both in their homes and local hospices.

Before embarking upon his long career in special needs education, Greig had served in the Navy and was the proud recipient of a campaign medal for his work in the Falklands. Greig was raised with a really strong work ethic and according to an ex-colleague, “when he commits to something, he commits 110%”. Greig has never believed in claiming benefits and has not been unemployed since starting work at the age of sixteen: he has 36 years of full-time employment under his belt, and work has always been his life.

Now, I am certainly not advocating this as a desired way of working. However, as a recovering workaholic myself, I understand the desire to do work that is really meaningful and rewarding and I certainly remember the excitement, many years ago, of finding a job that allowed me to make a difference.

However, over the past few years I also came to realise the impact that this way of working can have upon our long term physical, emotional, mental and even spiritual wellbeing. Focussing 99.9% of our efforts on work at the expense of other key areas of our life such as family, health and finances, is neither a healthy nor sustainable place to be.

Perhaps there are some lessons for us here regarding our expectations of employees during the current economic downturn. As we are all painfully aware, the recession is having a significant impact upon public sector jobs, particularly when the demand for our services is likely to rise in some areas rather than reduce. Public sector jobs are already under threat and the situation is likely to worsen in light of the ‘emergency budget’ and its intention to freeze pay in the public sector. Recruiting and retaining the talent needed to help our economic recovery is going to prove a significant challenge. How long can we continue to put our employees under this level of pressure and job insecurity? How long can a hardworking and loyal employee cover the work of one or even two other colleagues? There is only so much stretch in an elastic band before it snaps…

For Greig, the elastic band snapped in 2007. Driving home late one night after a gruelling 6 day work schedule, he ran his car off the road. No-one else was involved, he was just physically and mentally exhausted. It took the emergency services several hours to detach his car from the tree it had hit, and by all accounts Greig was lucky to be alive. For nearly a year, Greig ignored the pain to his lower back and legs and continued to work as before, albeit he did notice he was becoming more and more exhausted. However, the deterioration to his spine became increasingly disabling and after a further year, he was dismissed by his employer on the grounds of incapacity. No redundancy, no pension, just his regular notice period. On top of all this, he also discovered that he had contracted an inherited type two diabetes, and later discovered he had vitamin B12 deficiency complications as well.

Greig was, for the first time in his life, entering the system as a client rather than as a service provider and recalls with great sadness how his life was suddenly turned upside down.

“If I ever treated a client in the way I have been treated, I would have been instantly and rightly dismissed!” says Greig “There is a complete disregard for me as a rational human being and all decisions regarding my care seem to be made without any involvement from me whatsoever. Sometimes I feel as though I have ceased to exist as a human being and am now a mere statistic. I have always been passionate about creating client-centred services so feel immensely disillusioned with the attitude and approach of some of the staff I have come into contact with. I find it disturbing how completely oblivious some staff are to how depressed I have become and how this, in turn, affects my ability to cope. Quite frankly, as a trained psychologist myself, I do not understand how so-called ‘professionals’ can be so ignorant of the impact that becoming disabled can have upon a person’s emotional and mental wellbeing.”

Since becoming disabled, Greig’s life now revolves around his medication schedule which includes lyrica and morphine for pain control and a vast cocktail of other drugs for both the side effects of the medication and his diabetes. Greig is now claiming disability living allowance (DLA) and is struggling to get the higher level of benefit he desperately needs. Greig’s disability is permanent and degenerative, and he will not suddenly get better. Denying him benefits will certainly not get him back into the workforce any quicker. If he could, Greig would return to work tomorrow, as claiming benefits and being dependent upon others in such a disempowering way is a humiliation he cannot tolerate.

I spoke with Greig recently about the impact of the budget upon his experience as a disabled person.

“Quite frankly” says Greig,” I have had enough of being treated like a scrounger or a fraudster. I have worked all my adult life and never claimed benefits before, and as such have been penalised for this. Regardless of this, I am forced to continually prove my disability despite the numerous medical reports already produced about me, and x-rays and MRI Scans. In my opinion, the budget is a disaster and puts disability rights back several decades. Introducing a new medical assessment for DLA is a nonsense and a further waste of public money that could be better spent providing real job opportunities for those disabled people who can be reintegrated into the workforce.

“From 2013, those of us seeking DLA will have to go through a strict new medical assessment that the Government says will help ‘reduce dependency and promote work’. Don’t the politicians understand that DLA is not an ‘out of work’ benefit, but a benefit to off-set the cost of living with a disability? I cannot make ends meet now and I rely on, and am grateful for, the good will of friends who anonymously send food to me, and I really fear for my future. Unless something radically changes, my house will be repossessed this autumn and then I really don’t know what I’ll do. I am becoming so depressed by my situation that sometimes I just don’t feel I have the energy to go on”.

Greig, who was once an active student of Bushido Karate, has not left the house for several months as he can no longer afford to maintain his car. Living in semi-rural Gloucestershire, his car is his sole means of transport and his increased isolation is contributing to his depression. Even if he could afford to fix his car, the pain he now experiences when attempting to drive a manual car is a major problem. He has been actively seeking funding to have his car adapted for his disability, but so far has had no success.

Greig’s experience of being trapped in a flawed system is not unique.
You only have to follow some of the conversation threads on disability websites to discover how fearful people are of losing their benefits and how deeply hurt people are at being labelled ‘scroungers’ or even ‘fraudsters’.

Particularly in the current climate, it is essential that we don’t lose sight of the fact that it is people i.e. real human beings that we are talking about. We live (I hope) in a civilised society that values all its citizens regardless of their diversity. Disabled people are a vital part of our communities and if this fact is not enough for you, then let’s not forget that disability, in one form or another, will come to most of us if we live long enough.

As a master practitioner of NLP (taught by the great linguist, John Grinder himself) I have a deep fascination with language and the impact that language has upon our values and beliefs. Language is not used accidentally, and politicians and the media know this very well. In my model of the world, referring to people as ‘scroungers’, ‘work-shy’ or a ‘drain on the system’ is completely unacceptable. This sets neighbour against neighbour and only serves to reinforce divisions and resentments, as people are led to believe that their problems would suddenly evaporate if only a particular group wasn’t scamming the system. Unfortunately, this ‘divide and rule’ strategy can be very useful during times of economic or political unrest particularly when we are searching for someone else to blame for our predicament.

In terms of how a civilised society treats its disabled citizens (and voters), let’s not forget what the ‘social model’ of disability taught us way back in the 1980s: most of the time it is not the person’s condition that is disabling but the attitudes of those they come into contact with, along with the disabling environments and contexts created by those in control. Whether or not these barriers are consciously or unconsciously created, doesn’t matter. They still serve to exclude people who would otherwise be more independent and more fully engaged.

It is my belief that people’s attitudes are one of the biggest barriers to disability equality, and this contributes to people’s lack of creatively when exploring the potential for ‘reasonable adjustments’. Language and imagery emerge from our attitudes and beliefs, and are a reflection of how we view the world. Labels such as ‘benefits’; ‘welfare’; ‘incapacity’; ‘disability’ are, in my opinion, outdated terms and focus on a person’s limitations not strengths. I believe that it is time to stop viewing disability as a ‘problem’ (and disabled people as a burden), and time to effect change at the macro level.

I had the privilege of working with Birmingham City Council in the late 1980’s, early 1990’s when the Council introduced a radical programme of disability equality training. Unlike other equality awareness programmes at that time, their programme was challenging, thought provoking, and at the same time, totally inspiring and fun! The sessions were facilitated by two highly talented and charismatic trainers (one was also a ‘stand-up comic’ and the other a musician). Both also happened to be disabled. With their help, we unpacked the medical model of disability, looked at imagery, art, culture, music, language and attitudes around disabilities. We also looked at real and constructed barriers and what we could do to eradicate, or at least reduce, them.

For me, this training was transformational. Up until this point, the only disabled people I knew were the clients that I worked with, and this was the first time I understood that disability was part of the larger equalities agenda. Another key feature of the training was that it was pitched at senior managers who could influence council policy and service development. If we want to effect change, we need to ensure that people have both the awareness and the tools to get the job done, along with professional support and strong leadership.

The training programme in Birmingham took place over twenty years ago, and I am wondering what impact such a training programme would have upon central government today, as it considers its approach to people with disabilities. I am also wondering what sustainable progress has been made since this time, in the public sector overall.

I’m sure there are lots of good things happening out there that we could all learn, come on colleagues, let’s pool our ideas! If you have any case studies you would like to share with other public sector organisations around disability (or any other aspect of diversity) then please email them to me and I will publish them on our website.

Remember... together, we can make a difference!

Saturday, 24 April 2010

Addressing the language needs of local communities - part two

PART TWO: some practical solutions

How can the public sector best serve communities that speak a multitude of languages especially when it comes to the delivery of front-line services?

• Each organisation will need to come up with a sensible plan that meets the specific needs of its local communities. They can utilise existing data sources (e.g. public census data) to determine current and future demographic trends. They can also utilise existing community consultation mechanisms to find out what the communities’ specific language needs are and focus their resources appropriately.
• There may be the opportunity for several partner organisations (local authorities, health, voluntary sector etc.) to pool resources in each region. This could take the form of joint funding of a translation service (even joint funding a dedicated interpreter role); sharing staff who speak community languages; jointly setting up and promoting English language courses in the community.
• It is likely that the sector will still need to spend money on external translation services even if they develop the language skills of their own staff. Therefore they could investigate more cost-effective resources such as on-line translation and telephone translation services.
• Language skills should be viewed by organisations as being as important to the business as any other core competence and the need for languages should be incorporated within their workforce development plans. Organisations can then proactively recruit front-line staff with the necessary language skills, listing the ability to speak one or more of the most commonly spoken community languages as a desirable criterion within all customer facing job profiles. Where appropriate, the organisation could also develop additional language skills amongst its front-line staff to provide a more positive experience for non-English speaking customers. This approach could also be applied to those customers who communicate using, for example, British Sign Language.
• Again, using existing demographic data, the organisation can take the lead in actively promoting English language courses. Even if these were provided for free, there is likely to be a substantial saving in the overall translation bill. The organisation can work closely with community groups, doctors’ surgeries, libraries etc. to promote English language courses as of benefit to the individual and the community. If they really want to build strong communities, local authorities and other public sector organisations could encourage native English speakers to help support the learning of their neighbours.
• Recognising the important role that family members play in providing translation, additional support could be provided to them to help them develop their translation skills.
• To ensure that external interpreters are able to consistently and accurately translate more technical information e.g. medical terms, organisations could work more closely with the service provider to ensure that interpreters regularly update their skills (and develop specialist skills where appropriate). As a major purchaser of translation services, the public sector should demand that interpreter development is written into their contracts. The sector could also look at cost-effective ways of block purchasing services within regions/across the UK and negotiate discounts for these services.
• So basically, public sector organisations (along with their partners) should unite to provide a more joined up and strategic approach to meeting the language (and other) needs of their communities, encouraging whole-community collaboration rather than perpetuating a situation where non-English speakers (and other minorities) are viewed as a burden.

What is the importance of having language skills in the public sector when it comes to service delivery in areas which are multi-cultural?

• It could be argued that basic customer service requires front-line staff to be able to greet the customer in an appropriate manner, and identify and meet their information/service needs in a timely way. This requires cultural sensitivity along with access to an appropriate translation service (be it in-house, face-to-face, on-line, by telephone etc.). As fewer ‘administrative’ transactions need to be face-to-face nowadays, the sector is increasingly encouraging their customers to access their services on-line. A similar principle of customer service would need to apply to an on-line access point: the website needs to be welcoming and accessible to a very diverse customer base (including younger customers, older customers those with disabilities etc.). These diversity requirements should be written into customer service standards and also reflected in staff appraisal and competency frameworks.
• So basically, having language skills is only part of the picture in terms of providing a high quality service to the public. Cultural sensitivity should also be a core competence for all staff especially front-line staff. Some very good books have been produced which outline the key features of the main minority ethnic religions and these would be a good reference point for front-line staff to use as needed – rather than trying to train staff to understand every possible customer they might come into contact with, at some point in the future.
• There is also the issue of public perception of the sector. It can be argued that people will have more confidence in the organisation’s ability to meet their needs if they see ‘people like them’ working for the organisation. This is especially important in front-line roles where customers appreciate being dealt with by someone who is able to understand their needs. Again it should be stressed that this is much more than a member of staff being able to speak their language – it is about the staff member having the cultural sensitivity to treat them in an appropriate way. This ability to understand and respect diversity can also be applied to other groups as well e.g. people with disabilities, LGBT customers etc.
• Language skills are important, but I would favour public sector organisations taking a more strategic, joined up approach that allows them to address several key agendas at once e.g. community cohesion/engagement; strong leadership; partnership working; workforce planning etc. This will allow them to develop strategies that are sustainable in the longer term. Key to this is the sector investing in excellent internal/external communications so that they can take the whole community and their workforce with them.

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Addressing the language needs of local communities - part one

PART ONE: the current context

There has been some media coverage in recent months concerning the cost of translation services in the public sector, for example:

• ‘NHS spends £22m on translators for foreign patients’ (The Sun, 11 Jan 2010)
• ‘A £22m smack in the mouth’ (The News of the World, 17 Jan 2010)

Unfortunately, such newspaper headlines do little for race relations in the UK, particularly when people are still smarting from the impact of the current economic recession and are, quite understandably, critical of what they regard as high levels of public sector expenditure.

Interestingly, the Local Government Association (LGA) reports that the amount spent by councils on translation has actually reduced from the figure of £25m in 2006.
A spokesperson for the LGA said: "Translation has its place to ensure people can access vital services, find jobs and get their children into school. However, translation should not be a substitute for learning English and all public bodies need to adopt a common-sense approach."

As a pragmatist myself, I welcome a ‘common-sense’ approach as long as it allows us to deliver our business objectives and at the same time allows us to fulfill our legal obligations to the public. Unfortunately it seems that many public sector critics appear completely unaware of the level of scrutiny we endure and the legal ramifications of us failing to provide basic levels of service to the public.

Meeting customer need

It is important that all our customers have access to high quality services which meet their individual needs. Naturally, as part of this high quality service, individuals should expect to have access to information in a format they can understand.

But rather than jumping to the solution of buying in translation services, perhaps we should start by asking ourselves: ‘how do we ensure that our customers are better able to access the key information they need to make more informed choices about their service provision?’

Using external face-to-face translation services is an option, of course, but it’s not the only one. A limitation of this approach is that it can be very resource intensive i.e. expensive, and it is sometimes difficult to gain access to an interpreter at short notice. However, the procurement of telephone translation services can reduce the costs significantly and can also shorten response times.

A further potential limitation in using external translation services is that, in some cases, we are reliant upon the interpreter to translate sometimes quite technical information. If the interpreter does not have sufficient experience of the sector or service area, translating critical information into someone’s native tongue could prove problematic particularly in areas such as acute medical care. This ‘mistranslation’ of critical, technical information may also prove problematic when clients rely on family members for translation.

Another option is to recruit employees with the language skills of the local community and/or train up existing employees in the main community languages. This is great as long as it is acknowledged that this role is part of their ‘day-job’ and they are remunerated for this additional responsibility. The difficulty, of course, is that in some parts of the UK, there are scores of different languages spoken in the community and the organization may struggle to develop the full range of languages needed, in-house. This is where an external translation service would prove useful.

Another suggestion has been to provide English language starter courses for those non-English speakers who require on-going access to a particular service e.g. hospital visits. This would go some way to reducing the need for the translation of every single interaction. This would, however, rely on suitable candidates being identified early, and them being able and willing to take part in English language training. This would also require the commitment of the public sector to provide and fund skilled language trainers.

It seems clear that there is no one single solution to this issue; hence a combined approach that addresses the specific needs of each region needs to be adopted. The public sector needs to make good use of the wealth of information it collects about its customer base and plan for its changing demographics and language needs.

Pragmatic approaches

It is no longer acceptable to the general public for the sector to spend money where there is no clear evidence that a service is warranted. For example, a large unitary authority in the late 1980s routinely translated its documents and signage into all the main community languages. It also routinely advertised its job vacancies in all the minority ethnic press. Whilst very well intentioned, closer scrutiny of its data showed that the community did not benefit from this blanket approach. Looking at the statistics allowed the authority to focus its scarce resources only in those areas where it would have the greatest impact and where there was evidence of an identified need.

Another example of a local authority taking a pragmatic approach to meeting the community’s language needs is a small district council in the south east. This local authority pays a small allowance to those employees who have language skills and who are willing to act as interpreters for members of the public when they are accessing council services. According to the Head of HR & Development, there are such a variety of languages spoken by local residents that sponsoring their employees to learn other languages would not be a practical solution. Instead of this they have introduced a training programme for front line staff called 'lowering language barriers'. This is aimed at helping staff communicate effectively with visitors for whom English is a second language. This has proved to be very helpful for the council and its residents.

Friday, 2 April 2010

Diversity & the Economic Downturn - part three

In the last issue, we explored the impact of the economic downturn upon the various groups and looked at some of the current research undertaken by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), Stonewall, the Fawcett Society and Mind.

As previously highlighted, there is evidence of a higher level of unemployment amongst men with a marked increase in the rate of unemployment amongst Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) groups especially those from Caribbean and African communities. Young people (especially young men and less qualified young people) are clearly being impacted, struggling to gain meaningful employment within the current market conditions.

More women are in employment than in previous recessions, and are concentrated in certain sectors. This, coupled with their working patterns, makes them more economically vulnerable within the current recession. There is also evidence of additional impact upon BAME women who are already economically disadvantaged. More women than men are working beyond the age of 60, with twice as many women than men working above state pension age. Research has also shown that poverty is a contributory factor in domestic violence, and there is some indication that women are being forced to remain in abusive relationships due to financial hardship caused by the recession. Research also points to an increase in the number of pregnant women and new mothers being made redundant, and highlights that some women have returned from maternity leave to find their jobs have gone or have been downgraded.

It has been argued (in contrast to other research claims) that the true figure for employment rates amongst disabled people has actually declined in recent years, when taking into account those who have ‘work limiting’ disabilities and not just those covered by the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA). There is also some indication that the gap between disabled and non-disabled employment rates is widening due to the recession. Public sector spending cuts are also likely to adversely impact upon disabled people, a large proportion of whom currently work within the public sector.

Serious concerns have been raised regarding the impact of the recession upon men’s mental health with men failing to seek help and get the support they need. Concerns have also been raised about the disproportionate impact upon BAME (especially Afro Caribbean) men as well as gay men, with regard to the impact of the recession upon their mental wellbeing.

It has been highlighted that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) employees still continue to be bullied and harassed in the workplace. Research has also shown a correlation between organisational culture and LGBT employees’ preparedness to come out in the workplace. Research has further shown that productivity and motivation increases amongst those LGBT employees who work in organisations where they are comfortable with being out. LGBT-owned companies, however, are fairing better with them demonstrating a greater confidence in their ability to grow their businesses over the next year, despite the recession.

So what does all this mean to us in practice and what can we do to make a difference? Whilst this recession appeared to take many of us by surprise, it could be argued that they are a ‘natural’ feature of boom-bust economies. We’ve had them in the past and we’ll almost certainly have them again in the future. Perhaps we can’t create a totally recession-proof organisation (or indeed a recession-proof society) but we can certainly mitigate some of the risks for the future.

For example, we can:
• Invest in the development of our leaders equipping them with an understanding of, and a high level of competence in, diversity leadership;
• Encourage our leaders to model best practice especially in challenging times, holding themselves and others accountable for organisational performance around diversity;
• Develop long-term, sustainable approaches to diversity that will withstand the chaos and complexity of a global economy;
• Invest in more sustainable policies and practices that look to the future and include a more integrated approach to diversity;
• Develop a culture of inclusiveness that is less about ‘tolerance’ and more about business effectiveness;
• Create a culture that does not penalise those who are struggling to cope and those who are actively seeking a work-life balance;
• Adopt a more robust approach to employee wellbeing and not be frightened to tackle issues of mental health in the workplace;
• Take a proactive approach to mental wellbeing, reflecting this in the support structures, individual and service objectives and organisational policies and working patterns;
• Invest in developing people’s personal resilience and their capacity to deal with whatever the 21st century can throw at them;
• Invest in the education of young people who are our future global leaders, so that they are ready and fully equipped to fulfil their role.

In terms of organisations looking forward to beyond the recession, I believe that Trevor Phillips, (June 09) elegantly sums it up when he says:

'When the economy returns to growth, the challenge will be to ensure that no talent is constrained for arbitrary reasons, or needless barriers – something which is well within the power of a 21st century society to overcome. This implies a fundamental re-examination of the culture and practices that underlie the way our society and workplaces operate. No recovery can be complete without it. With it, the UK can face up to the rigours of a competitive global economy with confidence.'

Well I’m sure, by now, you’re curious to know what happened to my workshop participants that I described in the first issue – were they able to break free from the restricting labels and their own limiting beliefs? I have always been greatly impressed with the human capacity to cope with change, and this group was no exception. It’s just that sometimes we all need a little help. So, as we rapidly moved beyond the ‘grieving stage’ in the workshop, we did a quick reframe of what the restructure meant to them. We were then able to move on to construct a more compelling vision of what the future might hold for them: transforming adversity into opportunity and concern into possibility. What better gift to give people than the tools to reconstruct their own reality.

So, as I sit here now, on a Cyprus beach, soaking up the sun and listening to the hypnotic sound of the waves lapping gently against the rocks, I am reminded of something my coach said to me some years back. He said: “we are each blessed with a limited number of heartbeats in our lives – what are you spending yours on?” I guess I would rather spend my heartbeats on making a difference, wouldn’t you?

Janice Joannou
Lead Officer for Diversity, PPMA
Director, Rainbow Consultants

Diversity & the Economic Downturn - part two

There has been some interesting research exploring the impact of the downturn upon different groups. Sources include the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), Stonewall, the Fawcett Society and Mind. Whilst we may look to previous economic downturns for an indication of the likely impact upon the various groups, the current research does provide us with a more useful indicator of where we should be focusing our efforts (and resources) both now and in the future. This will enable us to develop longer-term, sustainable approaches to diversity, that are linked to the changing needs of our organisations and communities.

In June 2009, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) produced a report looking at the impact of the recession across the demographic groups of age, gender, race and disability. Data in this report considers the first quarter of 2009 compared to the position one year earlier.

The report found that:
• Unemployment rate of the UK’s male population has risen by 2.4 percentage points to 8.1% in the year to March 2009;
• For women, unemployment has risen by 1.4 percentage points to 6.4%;
• In the recession of the early 1990s, male employment rates fell steeply over a short period of time as the industries that were more adversely affected were those characterised by a largely male workforce;
• Our labour market now is less segregated and women, who now make up a greater proportion of the workforce, are no longer as sheltered from the impact of recession;
• Historically young people have higher rates of unemployment, so relatively more young people will be affected by the recession;
• 16.2% of our 18-24 year olds are now out of work and young people leaving education this summer will face tougher labour market conditions;
• In particular, young men and less qualified young people have less chance of finding a job than anyone else.

The report also claims that employment among ethnic minorities, disabled people and older people has remained relatively stable though it is acknowledged that employment among these groups was lower to start with. The research highlights a marked increase in the rate of unemployment of people from ethnic minorities since the start of the recession in 2008. In particular, unemployment levels amongst members of the Caribbean and African community have risen by 6.9%, from 13.2% in the first quarter of 2008, to 20.1% in the third quarter of 2009. This is in contrast to a 2.8% increase in white unemployment, which is up from 4.8% to 7.6%, over the same period.
(Monitoring the impact of the recession on various demographic groups, June 2009, DWP, EHRC).

The Fawcett Society (March 2009) describes a ‘man-made’ recession and argues that some of the measures currently being used to explore the impact of the recession do not adequately reflect women’s experiences.

For example they note that:
• There are more women in employment now than previous recessions;
• There are more lone parent (predominantly female) households;
• The concentration of women in certain sectors and their working patterns create economic vulnerability;
• Women are less able to withstand the impact of recession;
• Women are more likely to work in part time and vulnerable employment.
(Are women bearing the burden of the recession? A Fawcett Society report. March 2009)

Furthermore the Fawcett Society (2009) believes that the recession is on course to present two major risks if current policy approaches do not adapt:
• Ethnic minority women living in poverty will be locked into their destitution for the foreseeable future;
• Even more ethnic minority women will be made vulnerable to poverty.
(Poverty Pathways, Fawcett Society, 2009)

The Office for National Statistics (2009) notes that:
• The number of females working past the age of 60 increased significantly in the last year;
• There were 936,000 women working beyond 60 years during the three months to June 09;
• These figures are up by 58,000 for the same period in the previous year;
• More than twice as many women as men are working above state pension age.

According to the Alliance against Pregnancy Discrimination in Britain (Nov 2009):
• Poverty is a contributing factor in domestic violence;
• Financial hardship is resulting in more women remaining in abusive relationships;
• There is an increase in the number of pregnant women and new mothers being made redundant;
• Some employers are using recession as an excuse to break discrimination laws;
• Some women are returning from maternity to find their jobs have gone or have been downgraded.

Nigel Meager from the Institute for Employment Studies (2009) challenges some of the data previously published with regard to the impact of the recession on disabled people. Meager suggests the definition should be broader than people who meet the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) definition of disability – having a physical, mental or sensory impairment that has a long-term adverse impact on the ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities. He suggests it is more useful to include a definition of disability that includes a ‘work limiting’ health problem or disability.

Using this broader classification Meager argues there has actually been a decline in disabled people’s employment rate in recent years. Meager also notes that disabled people as defined by the DDA definition have a higher employment rate than those who are disabled using the ‘work limiting’ disability definition.

A report from the Leonard Cheshire Disability charity (2009) warns that the employment gap between able-bodied and disabled employees is widening as a result of the recession.

The report, based on a survey of over 1,250 disabled people across the UK, found that more than half of respondents (52%) had experienced discrimination in the workplace in the past year, an increase of 11% since 2007. Over four in ten (43%) believed they had been turned down for a job because of their disability - a 7% increase.

Colleagues in the public sector may be interested to note that figures from 2007 suggest that almost a third of the disabled workforce is employed in the public sector. The Cheshire report stresses how public spending cuts could, therefore, have a disproportionate impact upon disabled workers. The report goes on to say that disabled people’s higher levels of poverty also means they are more likely to rely on public services, such as healthcare, social services and public transport, than non-disabled people.
(The Disability and the Downturn, 2009, report from the Leonard Cheshire Disability charity)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the recession is having an impact upon people’s mental health. However, there is evidence that the impact upon men is higher than amongst women.

A Mind survey of 2055 adults was undertaken in January 2009 looking at how individuals were responding to the recession.

They found that:
• 37% of men are feeling worried or low;
• Middle aged men are 7 times more likely than women to have suicidal thoughts;
• Only 23% of men would see their GP if they felt low for over a fortnight;
• Men were only half as likely to talk to friends about problems as women;
• 31% of men would feel embarrassed about seeking help for mental distress;
• Just 14% of men (35-44yrs) would see a GP if they felt low compared to 37% of women;
• 4% of young men (18-24yrs) would see a counsellor if they felt low compared to 13% of young women;
• Only 31% of men would talk to their family about feeling low compared to nearly half of women;
• Almost twice as many men as women get angry when they are worried;
• Almost twice as many men as women drink alcohol to cope with feeling down;
• 45% of men think they can fight off feeling down compared to 36% of women.

Mind highlight in their report that even though men and women experience mental health problems in roughly equal numbers, men are much less likely to be diagnosed and treated for it. They also highlight the fact that 75% of all suicides are by men, and raise concerns that the recession could make the situation even worse particularly as one in seven men develop depression within six months of losing their jobs and two-thirds of men under 35yrs were out of work when they took their own life.

The report also highlights that mental health problems can impact upon certain groups of men in different ways, for example, African Caribbean men who are more likely to receive disproportionately aggressive treatment. Evidence has shown that they are three times more likely than white men to be formally detained under the Mental Health Act. They are also more likely to receive invasive medical treatments such as electroconvulsive therapy.

Gay and bisexual men are also highlighted as facing a significantly higher risk, with evidence pointing to the fact that they are over four times more likely than heterosexual men to attempt suicide.
(Men and mental health: Get it off your chest, Mind, May 2009)

There appears to be very little current research on the impact of the recession specifically on lesbians and gays. However, it is clear that many still struggle for equality within the workplace and continue to report being bullied and harassed due to their sexuality.

Stonewall research (2007) found that nearly one in five lesbian and gay people experienced bullying from their colleagues because of their sexual orientation.
(Serves You Right Lesbian and gay people’s expectations of discrimination, Stonewall, Dec 2007)

Stonewall’s research on the productivity of lesbian and gay staff in the workplace (2008) found that gay staff who can be out at work in a safe environment are more productive than their gay colleagues who have to hide their sexual orientation at work and/or work in less inclusive environments.

Having to hide their sexual orientation, it is claimed, can adversely impact on their efficiency, their ability to build relationships with colleagues and clients, their confidence and their motivation.
(Peak Performance, Gay People and Productivity, Stonewall, 2008)

This theme is echoed in more recent research undertaken by the EHRC (2009) in which they state that ‘Seven in 10 lesbians (69 per cent) and gay men (70 per cent) felt they could be open about their sexual orientation in the workplace without fear of discrimination or prejudice. This contrasts sharply with only around two in 10 (23 per cent) bisexual men and three in 10 (30 per cent) bisexual women who felt the same. 83 per cent of respondents would be happy or felt neutral about having an openly LGB manager at work.’
(Beyond Tolerance, EHRC, 2009)

According to Ellison and Gunstone (2009) developing a workplace culture in which LGB employees are able to be open and comfortable makes good business sense in terms of productivity, company reputation and recruiting from the widest pool of talent. This will have particular relevance for public sector employers when addressing the needs of LGB people with the new single Public Sector Duty coming into force.

On a more positive note, a Business Link study published in July 2009 highlighted an optimism amongst Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT)-owned businesses in terms of their projected growth for the next twelve months. 85% of LGBT-owned businesses reported that they have plans to grow in the next year.

The report also highlighted that these businesses were seeking opportunities in new markets and saw this as a key driver to growth, with around 50% of all LGBT businesses targeting new markets as a means to growth, compared with just 44 per cent of their heterosexual counterparts.

However, when looking at the impact of the recession as a whole, LGBT businesses reflect the issues faced by the rest of London’s small business sector.
(Diverse Business Confidence Index, Business Link London, July 2009)

This research represents a mixed picture regarding the impact of the economic downturn upon the different groups, and highlights some worrying trends that organisations may wish to consider as part of their strategic approach to diversity and talent management. In the next issue, we explore the implications of this research and look at some practical ways we can minimise the negative impact of the downturn upon our diverse workforce.

Janice Joannou
Lead Officer for Diversity, PPMA
Director, Rainbow Consultants

Diversity & the Economic Downturn - part one

Over the past decade, the public sector has been under increasing pressure to deliver greater efficiencies and value for money, and has also had to demonstrate an increased level of accountability to its stakeholders - and one could argue that this has been a good thing. However, within the current economic climate the sector is being forced to make some very difficult resourcing decisions and these decisions are likely to have a substantial impact upon our current and future workforce. Within the current economic downturn, many organisations have been forced to find their efficiencies through organisational restructuring and through reducing or reshaping their workforce.

Over the next three issues, Janice Joannou, the PPMA’s lead officer for diversity, explores the degree to which diversity issues are taking a back seat in the current economic downturn and explores some practical ways the sector can minimise the negative impact of the recession upon its diverse talent.

I ran a workshop a few months back for a group of public sector professionals whose jobs were ‘under threat’ following a large-scale organisational restructure. The first thing I noticed was that the majority of the group were women, but as most of these were HR professionals – I guess there was nothing very surprising about that!

We started with each person in the group describing how the restructure was impacting upon them – they described being ‘ring-fenced’; ‘deleted’; ‘displaced’; ‘made redundant’. Between them, they described a whole host of labels that more fittingly described objects than people. Of course, as professionals they knew that it wasn’t them but their posts that were being deleted or restructured, but being on the receiving end of a restructure for a change, felt very different to them. Clearly, knowing something and feeling something is not the same thing and despite all the rationalisation in the world, being one of the select group who have ‘been impacted’ still hurts.

What was also interesting in this particular organisation was the language being used by senior management to describe the restructure: sanitised business terms such as ‘gaining efficiencies’; ‘management restructure’; ‘downsizing’; ‘de-layering’; through to less guarded phrases such as ‘getting rid of dead wood’ and ‘weeding out lazy managers’ i.e. those managers who could not/chose not to work a 50 hour week (whatever happened to the concept of working smarter not harder?).

So what has any of this to do with equality and diversity you might ask? The organisation had done their equality impact assessment so, on paper at least, no one group had been disproportionately impacted by the restructure. But statistics are not the whole picture, are they? It is my belief that without sufficient regard to the people aspects of change, an organisation may create serious problems for itself in the future. Regardless of the recession, organisations still need to recruit the best talent and as enlightened customers, this talent will start to shop around for the best employers. In other words, the prevailing culture of your organisation and how you treat people now, will impact long into the future.

Of course as experienced change agents, we understand that during challenging times, we ignore the emotional impact of change at our peril. However, once in the thick of change, many organisations take their eye off the ball and so fail to adequately deal with the people aspects of change. This may, unfortunately, also be compounded by their inability to recognise the fundamental role that organisational culture plays in getting the best out of their diverse talent, even within a healthy economy.

It should come as no surprise to anyone reading this, that employees who are effectively managed, supported and developed are much more likely to deliver excellent services to their customers. Furthermore, your customers (who are, quite frankly, not interested in your organisational restructuring unless they directly benefit from it) will be critically evaluating the extent to which your workforce continues to reflect their own diversity.

Creating a culture in which people are fearful for their jobs does not make good business sense to me. A culture of fear and insecurity naturally impacts upon all employees, but I would suggest that the impact upon those who are already in more vulnerable positions in organisations is even greater.

I have always argued that it is in an organisation’s interest to take a longer-term, strategic approach to equality and diversity rather than just following the ‘letter of the law’. For example, focussing on best practice for all employees will have a positive impact upon colleagues from underrepresented groups as well. In the past, when individuals complained to me about their experience of discrimination in the workplace, it did not surprise me to discover that there was also a deficit in the organisations’ overall people management policies and practices. It was also not surprising to find that the overarching organisational culture was not conducive to maximising the benefits of having a diverse workforce.

Clearly some organisations are still actively investing in their people during the recession and, as we can see from Stonewall’s workplace equality index, these organisations are not always from the public and third sectors (Lloyds TSB being the overall winner in 2009, with Hampshire Constabulary and Brighton and Hove Council following closely at their heels).

Perhaps such organisations recognise that investing in their talent now will create a stronger more productive workforce that will be loyal to them in more challenging times. Perhaps they recognise that they will reap the rewards once we move into a more healthy economy and perhaps they recognise that investing in diversity is just plain good for business!

So in answering the question: ‘do diversity issues take a back seat in times of economic down turn?’ I would say that for organisations committed to a long-term, sustainable and strategic approach to diversity, there will be the infrastructure in place to weather the storm. For other organisations, with their fragmented and short-term approach to diversity, I suspect that there will be an adverse impact upon many people’s experiences.

The effectiveness of diversity strategies hinges upon many things including the prevalent culture of the organisation and its existing HR practices. It depends on the extent to which equality and diversity has already become part of the very fabric of the organisation, it depends on the extent to which the organisation recognises the huge value that diversity brings to the business. It depends on strong leadership and an awareness of the business benefits of having excellent diversity strategies and HR practices. It depends on the level of diversity awareness across the whole organisation and the extent to which people understand the value of effective partnership working with both internal and external partners.

In the next issue, we will examine the current research on the impact of the economic downturn upon the different demographic groups in order to inform our diversity strategies both in the short and longer term.

Janice Joannou

Lead Officer for Diversity, PPMA
Director, Rainbow Consultants