The People Manager
Happy staff have less time off sick, so why when staff surveys report rock-bottom morale are absenteeism levels falling? The reason fewer staff are throwing a sickie is that employers have has introduced tough new policies and procedures to sack people with poor attendance records. So is it better to be feared than loved?
‘Employees are not happy. They are disillusioned with management; anxious about reorganisations and redundancies’
Happy staff are more productive, they take less time off sick, so organisations should take steps to increase employee’s job satisfaction. This is the recommendation from Investors in People following research into staff health and wellbeing.
The trouble is employees are not happy. They are disillusioned with management; anxious about reorganisations, redundancies and changes to working practices; they are frustrated by budget cuts, service reductions and efficiency targets. So the most effective way of reducing absenteeism is to introduce tougher policies and procedures to sack people with poor attendance records.
The research found that 54 per cent of workers say their boss does not care about their health as long as they get the job done.
The research also showed that job satisfaction is directly related to the number of sick days as those who describe themselves as happy in their role are less likely to call in sick. Nearly three in 10 unhappy workers also say they embellish the truth about being ill.
So if unhappy staff are more likely to throw a sickie and a high proportion of staff are unhappy, why are public sector organisations reporting success in reducing absenteeism? The answer lies in the type of absenteeism. People who skive take the odd day or two off work when they are not really too ill to attend but simply have had enough. The sickness absenteeism that has been reduced is long term sickness.
‘If you want to tackle absenteeism then change the perception that managers don’t care about the health and wellbeing of their staff’
In the past, people off sick for more than two or three weeks were allowed to drift with the result that a small number of staff were still absent for over six months with no incentive to return until they went on half-pay and in the knowledge that they would be paid for up to 12 months.
A “get tough” policy has resulted in a proactive response, which translates into sacking people after three months if there is no prospect of an immediate return. In practice a broken leg or an operation would result in a medical assessment with a realistic timeframe for a return to work agreed with the employee. If the diagnoses were depression or a bad back then neither the employee nor their doctor can offer a timescale for returning so their employment would be terminated. The result is a significant drop in the absence statistics.
Peace and love
But if you want to tackle short term absences love may be more effective than fear.
Paul Devoy, head of Investors in People, says: “Organisations need to see staff health and well-being as crucial to their business and staff retention. Our research shows that happier staff are less likely to take time off sick. What’s more, companies offering health and well-being perks will see real business benefits. Investors in People is encouraging businesses to consider how they treat their staff to ensure they have the happiest and most productive workforce.”
Another way of expressing this is if you want to improve your absence statistics, sack people once they have been off for three months. If, however, you want to tackle absenteeism then change the perception that managers don’t care about the health and wellbeing of their staff.
Hospital trusts are increasingly run like football clubs, if you’re in the relegation zone at Christmas then sack the manager and bring in a new one with their own staff. It rarely stops the slide because there are no quick fixes. The process of rebuilding is slow and often involves living within reduced means and always involves repairing a damaged reputation among local people.
‘One trust can continue to be in special measures while underperforming trusts are not in special measures’
There have already been 49 leadership changes at the 14 hospital trusts placed in “special measures” last year. This smacks of desperation and a misguided view that the appointment of a “special one” will see a quick and dramatic change in fortunes.
The experience of getting out of special measures in other parts of the public sector is that it will take years rather than months, that despite improved performance the damage to the hospital trust’s reputation will take much longer to repair and that the goal posts are continually moving.
Even though you have successfully addressed all the issues that got you into special measures, the resulting closer scrutiny means new issues are being identified for you to resolve before you can be removed from the list of shame.
This can result in the contradiction of the trust continuing to be in special measures while underperforming trusts are not in special measures. The board which finds itself in this position often compares it to a Kafka-esque situation because no one seems clear about what you have to do to get out of special measures and who really makes the key decisions.
My answer to any board that finds itself in this position is that from my experience you have to serve your time, which is as much about sending a message to others as it is about demonstrating improvement and the potential for improvement.
And what should we gather from the Mid Staffordshire decision? In some people’s view the trust has turned round, yet it is now declared economically unviable. Indeed, it was the desire to avoid this in the first place that led to the disastrous overemphasis on budgets at the expense of care. A no-win situation or another example of the Kafka-esque situation that exists for many NHS hospital trusts?
If you are a nurse, teacher or social worker, would you advise your son or daughter against joining the profession?
‘People who have been working in these professions for years did not train or qualify in a golden era’
Morale within these professions is at rock bottom, people feel their professional expertise is undervalued, their commitment often unrecognised. They feel unfairly criticised by politicians and the media. Job security is a thing of the past and the pension isn’t what it was.
It’s not a good time to be working in the public sector. You probably wouldn’t encourage anyone to follow in your footsteps. It’s within this context that The Guardian Public Leaders Network has been asking members why they entered the profession. Because it’s not new for social workers to be savaged in the press, or for teachers to be thought of as having a cushy number with their long holidays, and for old school matrons to claim nursing standards have slipped.
People who have been working in these professions for years did not train or qualify in a golden era when social workers, teachers and nurses enjoyed high social status, a period free of budget cuts and when there were no reorganisations or calls for radical changes. So why did they chose their vocations and would the reasons still hold up today?
My response was “to do something worth while”. I originally trained as a teacher but like many of my contemporaries I went to college at a time when there was shortage of teachers and qualified three years later when there wasn’t – so I did the next best thing and went to work in a children’s home.
Working with kids outside of the classroom was more informal. They called us by our first names, we played football, took them on camping trips, watched Top of the Pops together and read the younger ones bedtime stories while the older ones pretended not to listen. This seemed more “real” but not easier than struggling to keep order in the classroom. It suited me better.
‘There are still plenty of young people keen to do something worthwhile’
But the shift system was draining and social workers called all the shots, so I went back to university to become qualified as a social worker. As a social worker I specialised in working with elderly people who had dementia. The work did not hold the glamour of child protection but it had the feel of pioneering work, setting up new schemes, being radical in championing the rights of this group and challenging the prevailing view of the social work and medical profession.
I don’t know what the equivalent work experience would be these days, but from the comments of social work students, trainee teachers and newly qualified nurses there are still plenty of young people keen to do something worthwhile.
Research commissioned by recruitment agency TMP Worldwide surveyed 1,600 UK nurses, 57 per cent of which said they are looking for a new position. Twenty-one per cent are actively job hunting and 36 per cent “quietly keeping an eye out for something new”.
‘The sheer number of nurses looking for a new post indicates they are disillusioned where they are and think it will be better elsewhere’
Half the nurses surveyed said they were looking for a new job, but will they be any happier somewhere else? They are disillusioned with management, staffing cuts, new shift systems and a pay freeze.
They are seeking a better work-life balance, a chance for promotion and a salary increase. They are wary of trusts that have a bad reputation. If promotion and more money is what they are after then a move is their best chance of getting it.
However, the sheer number of nurses looking for a new post indicates they are disillusioned where they are and think it will be better elsewhere. What many don’t seem to recognise is that the changes to working practices illustrated by new shift systems, the cuts in staffing levels, the tougher approach to absence management, the pressure to hit performance targets, and the constant talk of the need to make efficiency savings and budget cuts will be the same almost wherever they go.
‘Life on the front line is much the same wherever you are a social worker and your new colleagues share the same view of management’
I have seen the same attitude among social workers as restructuring, redundancies and redeployments unsettled staff and then closures and service cuts made them question management’s commitment to care standards.
Feeling undervalued, ignored and then accused of resisting change by management, long serving staff assumed things would be different in another social service department as long as they avoid those with a bad reputation.
They were wrong. Life on the front line is much the same wherever you are a social worker and your new colleagues share the same view of management as your former ones.
If you want promotion then go for it; if you want more family friendly hours go for it and if you’re lucky your new line manager may be more appreciative and supportive. Much else will be the same.
The gay rights activist group Stonewall has identified several public sector organisations as gay friendly in its annual survey.
Facebook has extended its personal gender options from male and female to 50 plus descriptions to cover gender assigned at birth, identified gender and trans, which covers a whole umbrella of descriptions under transgender.
‘By recognising the diversity of the workforce, what are the implications for how people are managed?’
By recognising the workforce is made up of such a diverse range of people are there implications for how people are managed? When we ignored sexuality and recognised only two genders it was easy to justify the claim that we treated everyone the same.
The HR/management gap
In my experience as an equality and diversity lead many managers (including senior managers) feel very uncomfortable around the area of sexuality and transgender, wishing to leave it to HR but that tends to result in a gap between HR policy and management practice.
The initial response is there is no difference between managing heterosexual staff and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender staff.
In theory there may be but in practice I have heard senior managers complain that the gay chief executive is surrounding himself with gay young men, that there is a “gay culture” in the organisation which excludes women managers from decision making forums.
On a more practical level I have heard managers ask how they should respond to flirting in the office when it is initiated by a gay colleague or – the one that always seems to come up in relation to a transgender member of staff – which toilets they can use.
Updating the unwritten rules
Do the unwritten rules of behaviour in the office need updating now that we are being more open about the diverse sexuality and gender of the workforce?
‘How do you create a safe working environment to have a truly open discussion to challenge myths and dispel stereotypes?’
More widely, how do you create a safe working environment to have a truly open discussion in order to challenge myths and dispel stereotypes?
Now that more staff feel they can be open about their sexuality at work managers are encountering issues they have not come across before.
Some managers feel ill equipped, vulnerable and uncomfortable in much the same way as they might have done in addressing issues of race ten years ago.
The management skills are the same whether managing men or women, LGBT or heterosexual, but some of the issues are different and require an awareness and sensitivity to those issues.
More staff feeling they can be open about their sexuality is a measure of progress in terms of equality and diversity in the workplace, but it may not be welcomed by all staff.
Blair McPherson is author of An Elephant in the Room which tackles issues of equality and diversity in the work place.
The appointment of the former chief executive of Marks & Spencer to advise the government on leadership development in the NHS is another example of too much emphasis on leadership and too much admiration for private sector management.
‘It appears that the government is the last to know the age of heroic leadership is over’
I subscribe to the view that management skills are transferable across the public sector, but I do not assume that rejuvenating a high street retail chain qualifies one for transforming failing hospitals. Well, not the care and treatment part though I am sure he could offer useful advise on the retail side of the modern hospital campus.
As for adopting the education model of appointing superheads to take over failing hospitals, this assumes the problem is leadership and what we need is another hero. It appears that the government is the last to know the age of the heroic leadership is over.
No superheads for the NHS
Charismatic leaders inspire personal loyalty; people work for them. They sweep in and impose radical change, they get things done and then they go. Having upset partners as they brushed aside opposition and imposed their will, alienated professions and left customers/citizens feeling ignored, their’s is an unhelpful legacy.
In the absence of their strong leadership, the tension between budget cuts and standards of services suppressed under their regime quickly surface.The next chief executive has to rebuild bridges with partners, regain the trust of the local community and re-establish the cooperation of staff.
‘Governments need things to change quickly because next time the other lot might get in and change things’
Despite the well documented failure of private sector management coming in to run public sector services, the government holds to the belief that the private sector is best. Despute the fact that management schools all champion a management culture in which all managers have a leadership role, including those delivering the NHS fast track executive programme, the government sticks to the idea that an elite group of super heads will deliver the desired transformation.
This is about ideology and impatience. Governments need things to change quickly because next time the other lot might get in and change things.The NHS certainly needs good managers, but it doesn’t need superheads. It doesn’t need more overconfident, over-paid,chief executives with above average verbal reasoning skills and below average empathy and insight into their own behaviour. It does need managers at every level with good people management skills, integrity and insight into how their behaviour effects those around them.
In boardroom battles a full frontal assault is rare as it is in your average team meeting. It’s not the person having a stand up row with you that you need to worry about. The plotters and schemers tend to do their whispering in dark corners and behind closed doors. You may never know the name of your assassin. I never knew mine.
‘I was on friendly terms with the chair. I thought the time was right for asserting myself, so I did not hold back my views’
Did I see it coming? No; not until it was too late. Were the warning signs there? Yes; with hindsight they were, but I didn’t recognise them. My main protagonist had recently left, so maybe my guard was down. Maybe I was overconfident. I clearly overestimated the strength of my position and seriously underestimated the extent of someone else’s ambitions.
Restructuring had given me the post I sought and proved I had the support of the chief executive. Or so I thought, after all he appointed me. I was even on friendly terms with the chair. I thought the time was right for asserting myself, so I did not hold back my views.
The meeting with the head of HR to discuss how we would work together went well. I felt pleased that I had been able to make my expectations clear. Looking back on that meeting, it was probably a mistake to say ”the tail should not wag the dog”.
‘The messages all came down to “you’re lucky you don’t have him as your boss”’
However strongly I felt there were unacceptable levels of meddling in operational issues this was not the time to say it. Now I realise that this meeting had probably been arranged to reassure her we could work together and instead I had confirmed her concerns. I also seriously underestimated the influence she had with the chief executive. But she wasn’t the assassin.
This assassination was carried out over a period of months, not one meeting. Things were being said, doubts were being created, people who had little direct contact with me were getting unhelpful messages from someone who worked closely with me. The messages all came down to “you’re lucky you don’t have him as your boss”.
Of course, I knew nothing of this. It was only after I left that I heard that some managers had been concerned at my appointment in the new structure and that this had been fed to the chief executive and the board. Presumably this was why the head of HR wanted a chat.
When the chief executive told me I had no future in the organisation, I was given no reason. I appealed directly to the chair, who was sympathetic but simply said, “It’s just one of those things that happen you need to let it go and move on.” So I did.
What did I learn? I learnt that someone who poses as an ally can be working against you. That people who claim to have no ambitions somehow end up in that senior post they claimed no interest in. That when you think your position is strongest you are at your weakest. That your powerful supporters may abandon you even if they like you.
You don’t have to access NSFW websites on your computer, fiddle your expenses or behave inappropriately at a conference to get the sack. You do, however, have to assume that not everyone wishes you well.
It should be fairly obvious that you can’t appoint your daughter’s boyfriend to a senior post even if you are the chief executive.
What about employing your wife’s company to deliver the equal opportunity training or placing the outsourcing contract for support services with an organisation in which a family friend is a director?
Is anyone connected with you automatically barred from applying for senior posts or bidding for contracts? Is it enough if you declare an interest when the matter is discussed by the board? Is it ok as long as you’re not on the interview panel?
The rules may or may not be clear but chief executives and chairs have HR, legal services and the directors of finance and contracting to advise them, should they chose to accept the advice.
The thing that is influencing decisions is what chief executives and chairs do it is their modus operandi.
They don’t need to be on the interview panel to ensure the “right” person is appointed.
They don’t need to be on the contracting sub committee to ensure a ” trusted” company gets the business. And if the finance director is unhappy or the head of HR has concerns well who are they going to raise this with if the chairs ok with it.
The NHS is not democratically and locally accountable. It certainly is not as open as local government in its dealings. It’s too often left to whistle blowers and the local media to ask the awkward questions.
I used to work in what a social service inspector referred to as “a castle”, complete with drawbridge. It was the head quarters of social services, a grand old gothic building that was originally the station hotel and was accessed via a narrow rickety bridge.
‘Nybordg is a very “human” leader; the opposite of the traditional macho manager so often associated with leadership in the NHS’
I was reminded of this while watching Borgen, the Danish political drama. “Borgen” is what the locals call their parliament and it means castle. What I like about Borgen is the prime minister, Birgitte Nybordg, is the type of leader you would want: she has integrity, she has good people management skills and − with the help of her spin doctor − she gets her message across through some great appearances on TV.
She wants to do the right thing but she recognises that politics (particularly in a coalition) involves compromises. She deals with hostile elements in the media, dirty tricks from political opponents and opportunistic allies. Nybordg avoids being compromised by the interests of big business, but the demands of the job damage her family, leading to divorce and teenage daughter who develops a disabling anxiety illness, which is made considerably worse by intrusive press and political opponents who seek to exploit the family’s use of a private hospital.
The leadership style of the central character is very attractive it presents a picture of a decent person who is successful in managing change without having to compromise her values or integrity. She is a very “human” leader; the opposite of the traditional macho manager so often associated with leadership in the NHS.
‘She is described as a bridge builder due to her desire to bring about reforms that all parties will sign up to’
This does not mean that she shies away from unpopular decisions, as in the episode where although she is against the war she doesn’t pull out the troops in the face of more soIdiers being killed but controversially increases the countries military commitment. She is a negotiator and mediator, as shown when acting on behalf of the UN she chairs a peace conference to end a civil war in an African country.
At one point in her administration Nybordg is described as a bridge builder due to her desire to bring about reforms that all parties will sign up to in the belief that this is the only way to ensure that change is successful and lasting. This however is a determined and driven leader who is prepared to sacrifice her closest political friend and mentor in order to get her legislation through parliament.
In the end the only thing she is not prepared to sacrifice is her much neglected family. Her husband, initially very supportive, finds it increasingly difficult to give up his own successful career and their relationship ends in a divorce she doesn’t want. The message appears to be that you can’t have it all.
“What makes a director’s job impossible?”
You may have thought it was the year on year budget cuts; the rock bottom morals of a workforce that feels undervalued and much maligned; the over ambitious performance targets; the constant negative stories in the press; the gap between what the politicians promise and what can realistically be delivered; the constant stream of policy initiatives and the ever changing priorities; or the fact that those you do business with are always looking to gain at your expense.
These things make the director’s job difficult, but what makes it impossible is the response to a blue badge enquiry.
Blue badges are allocated to people who have mobility problems by local councils and allow individuals to use parking bays for disabled people.
A blue badge enquiry is an example of how an organisation deals with the most basic and simple request from a customer.
If the organisation fails the blue badge test there is little prospect of far more complex issues being dealt with; appropriate senior managers can have no confidence in their systems or people; and are faced with the realisation that even their direct intervention is no guarantee that what needs doing will be done.
‘It starts with an unhelpful response to a telephone enquiry, out of date information on the website or confusing advice from staff’
It starts with an unhelpful response to a telephone enquiry, out of date information on the website, confusing or contradictory advice from staff, a failure to ring back with clarification and a refusal to give a name and contact details of the relevant supervisor or line manager.
It is escalated by directing the dissatisfied customer to the complaints system with the implication that this won’t get you any further forward but it will allow you to vent your frustration to someone else.
Straight to the top
But the savvy customer might bypass systems and email the top person. This individual doesn’t get much direct contact with customers so is keen to respond positively and demonstrate this is truly a customer focused organisation.
The customer is surprised but pleased to get a same day response, which shows not only does the top person read emails sent to them, but they reply in person.
Looking at the time on the email it is clear the top person reads and responds to emails late into the night.
The response apologises for what has gone before and states that they will personally draw the matter to the attention of the individual with overall responsibility for the particular area and that contact will be made before the end of the week.
But then, two weeks later no one gets in contact. A new email is sent. Again a late night response is received apologising and saying whilst this service is not within their direct responsibility, they will chase it up first thing in the morning.
Any organisation where this happens makes the job of the director impossible. It happens a lot.