Lord Haskel: Empowering staff will slow down the growing problem of mental distress at work

Posted On: 
15th November 2018

Ahead of his oral question in the House of Lords, Lord Haskel writes about the impact of work-related stress on productivity.

Despite working harder than ever and under increasing strain, productivity has stagnated, says Lord Haskel.
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Every 5 years since 1980 the government has funded a skills and employment survey which includes a section on stress at work and resulting mental health problems. The latest survey shows that we are working harder than ever and under increasing strain. Despite this, productivity has stagnated. We produce some 16% less per hour than the average worker elsewhere in the G7.

The picture seems to be that instead of investing in new technology to make people more productive, that technology is being used to make it easier for employers to monitor workers and fill up their days completely. In the public sector, the survey shows that teachers and nurses have experienced a sharp increase in their work intensification and some 70% of nurses said that they often or always came home exhausted from work.

In addition to working to tighter deadlines, people now work with less autonomy and with zero hour contracts with less certainty. Again the survey shows this to be a cause of mental health problems, with staff under too much strain at the workplace carrying this home to their families.

Perhaps this explains why nearly half of those who start claiming incapacity benefit have a mental health problem as their main condition. This is up from less than one third in 2000.  Indeed, the researchers found that people with insecure hours were significantly more likely to be under severe strain at work. The survey also found that people were under increased stress because mobile phones and email put them constantly under pressure to respond. 

Most managements are aware of this and some try to balance it with perks such as healthy snacks, relaxing areas and other so called ‘corporate wellness’ innovations.  But this seems to be part of the problem and not the solution.

The solution lies in giving employees more discretion to determine what they do and how they do it. People have to feel that those at the top are not the only ones who control their destiny. 

Research by McKinseys shows a strong correlation between people having control over and enjoying their work, and successfully carrying it out. The research shows that limited job control imposes a burden on employees mental health and that much of their time is spent erecting barriers to micro-management.

It seems that less prescriptive management is good practice which both empowers staff to be more productive and helps slowdown the growing problem of mental distress at work.  We should be hearing more about this because it is one aspect of the productivity puzzle which costs little but benefits a lot. It is also something that can easily be learned. 

Lord Haskel is a Labour member of the House of Lords.