Putting Mental Health in its Proper Workplace…

Lochnagar in a dark mood

Last Wednesday was World Mental Health Day 2018.  The day aims to raise awareness of mental health and the issues around it, particularly those that arise from mental ILL-health.

I even put out a post on LinkedIn to publicise it, asking followers of my posts “are you going to do anything to mark it?”.

At that stage, I was planning to write a blog post covering one of the ‘hot’ topics around mental health.  I envisaged something that covered:

  • mental health being wider than mental illness
  • the need for employers to take work-related stress (and other mental health issues) as seriously as they take physical health & safety
  • the equal need for workers to also take work-related stress (and other mental health issues) as seriously as they take physical health & safety
  • the growing, and increasingly expensive, trend towards presenteeism
  • etc.

It felt like it would be an article that would almost write itself, with a wealth of research and worthy opinions to which I could refer.

But I didn’t write that article

OK, the immediate question is WHY didn’t I write the article, but to answer that, I need to give some context.

Back when I was in my 20s, I went through a period of around 6 years during which I struggled seriously with depression.  I started having strange emotional reactions to events and situations, sometimes feeling almost numb to things that should be upsetting, then finding a quiet corner to cry in over irrelevant small events.  I eventually recognised this wasn’t right, and went to see my doctor, not sure what was wrong.  He was excellent and openly explored both the problem and my treatment options.

That’s not to say I felt down all the time

I found I could hide from the symptoms with adrenaline, so I flung myself into work projects and put in loads of unpaid overtime, because although I felt stressed, it felt normal to be stressed under that pressure.  Indeed, I might have gone on like that for considerably longer had the project work not eased off.

Around this time, I remember a poster campaign by the Samaritans that really struck a note.  There were 2 posters, one said “Can’t face going to work?”, the other “Can’t face going home?”.  At the moment I noticed them, I recognised I was stuck in the limbo in between.

After resisting drug treatment for several months, I eventually agreed to take antidepressants.  It took 3 attempts to find one that worked well enough and that didn’t give me significant side-effects, but I realised I’d found the right one when, after 3 weeks or so I woke up feeling ‘normal’.  It wasn’t uniform, but the world wasn’t the uniformly dark place it had become and I started to re-emerge.  Luckily, I was able to re-engage with the talking therapies I’d already tried, though this time I was able to understand and work through the underlying reasons I felt the way I did.

It wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t until I was well into my recovery that I felt able to share with friends and colleagues what I was going through.  The fear of stigma has a basis in reality, but the obstacles to being open seem insurmountable when you’re in a ditch.

So, why didn’t I write that article?

It’s simple.  Although I’ve recovered from my depression, and haven’t been there for more than 2 decades, there is a slippery slope towards mental ill-health that I have learnt to recognise and avoid.  The several days running up to World Mental Health Day were crazy, with too much travelling, a heavy workload and not enough down time to recover.  I recognised that, to write it, I would have to risk compromising my own mental health. 

In the end, I made a pragmatic decision: I marked World Mental Health Day by NOT writing that article.

I’d be interested to know your thoughts on this subject, so please leave a comment, but if you’d like to discuss this topic more directly please contact me at malcolm@strathesk.co.uk or give me a call on 07736068787.

A record year for strikes

The Office of National Statistics has recently published its latest figures around industrial disputes, one of the highlights being the record low number of days lost to strikes, with a similar low for other forms of industrial action.  So, does this trumpet the success of the Trade Union Act 2016?  In short, no.

To those of us involved in industrial relations the latest figures are unlikely to come as much of a surprise. The statistics around strikes have been running at record lows for a number of years now. What IS strange is that, unless they have a record of doing so, many employers remain reluctant to engage constructively with unions.  This often seems to their being wedded to views of the role and operation of unions that weren’t even that accurate in the 1970s, from whence they originate.  Indeed, if you genuinely want to communicate with your staff, the structure and training they can gain through a union presence can make the process significantly easier and more efficient.

So why have I attached a picture Charles de Gaulle airport? Well, mainly because French Air Traffic Control is virtually synonymous with “on strike”, and I was drawn to a recent article examining industrial relations in France and how it relates to the UK. An interesting factor in France is that union membership is only around 8%, meaning that it’s really only union representatives who join.  This phenomenon was examined in Economist magazine back in 2014:

…the real source of French union strength today is the statutory powers they enjoy as joint managers, along with business representatives, of the country’s health and social-security system, and as employee representatives in the workplace. Under French law, elected union delegates represent all employees, union members or not, in firms with over 50 staff on both works councils and separate health-and-safety councils. These must be consulted regularly by bosses on a vast range of detailed managerial decisions. This gives trade unions a daily say in the running of companies across the private sector, which accounts for the real strength of their voice.

So, in effect, people in France don’t join trade unions because they don’t need to, so long as there are enough people willing to act on their behalf.

Returning to the UK, there has been a long-term downward trend in unions taking strikes, one that was well established well before the Trade Union Act 2016 kicked in to make taking industrial action more difficult.  For the last several decades, unions have been adapting to increasingly exacting legal requirements to take industrial action, meaning it is still perplexing why the TUA 2016 was put in place at all (and it remains unclear if it is consistent with human rights legislation which enshrines the right to withdraw labour).  Unions’ main approach has been to become more effective at influencing, better prepared to be persuasive negotiators and of more constructive value to employers that are prepared to engage constructively with them.

I’m currently working with several clients, some of whom face difficulties engaging collectively with their workforce because they lack representative structures, and others that simply want to improve how they interact with their unions to the benefit of everyone in the company.  The common theme is that, if you want to avoid disagreements with your staff, discuss things with them substantively and discuss them early and, ideally, draw out any ideas they can add.  The better people understand the problem, the better they will understand the solution.

I’d be interested to know your thoughts on this subject, so please leave a comment, but if you’d like to discuss this topic more directly please contact me at malcolm@strathesk.co.uk or give me a call on 07736068787.

 

Business lessons from the ridge

This time last week I had just completed a traverse of the Cuillin Ridge on the Isle of Skye.  Having returned to ‘normality’ and processed some of the reactions I had during the 32 hours we were on the mountains, I thought I’d share a few thoughts on how this relates to my work.

This was an expedition suggested by two of my school friends.  We all grew up on Skye and have walked together on the Cuillin many times since we were children.  However, in spite of having ‘done’ all of the Munros (Scottish Mountains higher than 3000 feet high) in the Cuillin, none of us had traversed the whole ridge, and it was about time that we did!

It was an exceptional experience, and one that affords a range of emotions and times for either concentration or reflection.  In many ways, it’s an opportunity to undertake some sustained mindfulness practice: focusing on the rock when climbing, concentrating on staying upright on a steep slope while ignoring the 2000 foot drop should you miss your step, then marvelling at the view when you reach the top of the mountain are all great levellers.  Life looks different from up there:

1. Perspective – it’s always useful to look at the world from a slightly different angle.  Looking from one direction some of the ascents we made seemed impossible, but when we got to the right starting point there was usually a visible route.  Also, someone else’s perspective of your problem can point to a much simpler solution than you can see yourself.
2. Pushing beyond your comfort zone  – this is often the best way to develop a bigger comfort zone. indeed, by the end of the second day of our traverse we were all significantly more comfortable on a near precipice than we had been starting out.  That reminds me of the journey I’ve taken since starting my business two and a half years ago
3. Trust yourself – sometimes the worst thing you can do is overthink.  It can lead to indecision and unnecessary mistakes.  Other times, the right move wasn’t obvious until we had to make it.  Ultimately, which choice we made wasn’t as important as having the conviction to make it work!
4. Will you achieve it alone? – appreciating when is the right time to ask for help can be as important as any other decision.  We started by deciding we needed an experienced guide (the excellent Dave Fowler from Skye Guides).  Climbing as a team of four meant we were constantly communicating with each other, and failing to do so would compromise the safety of the others, which led to smooth progress and none of us being too precious to ask for help, hints and tips.  Similarly, many of my clients could have solved their problems more easily, and with less input from me, had they asked for help/advice sooner.
5. Achievement is addictive – confronting that feeling that you can’t overcome an obstacle only to regroup and overcome it is a wonderful feeling.  I think all of us reached this point over different challenges, be it a challenging move part way through a climb, toiling due to the heat (a bizarre problem to face climbing in Scotland!) or fatigue due to long term ‘exposure’ (i.e. having precipitous drops on all sides), and had to draw on each other and on our internal resources.  The same happens in life all the time, but it’s too easy to miss the achievement of having solved what, to someone else, may be a relatively simple problem.
6. Modern life can cause unforseen problems – climbing on gabro (the main rock that forms the Cuillin) causes some serious abrasion on your hands. My hands haven’t been so smooth and soft for years, but I haven’t been able to unlock my phone with my fingerprints since I came off the hill!
7. New possibilities – lastly, and importantly, there’s nothing like a once in a lifetime experience to make you want to do it all again!

 

I’d be interested to know your thoughts on this subject, so please leave a comment, but if you’d like to discuss this topic more directly please contact me at malcolm@strathesk.co.uk or give me a call on 07736068787.

Training in Copenhagen

At the end of November I delivered a training course on Advanced Negotiation Skills. OK, that’s something I’ve done quite frequently over the years, but this course had a slight difference.  This was the first course I’ve delivered as an Associate with CEDR.

It was wonderful working with my co-trainers: Andy Grossman has been delivering conflict resolution training with CEDR since “forever” (about 20 years) and has a wealth of experience; the third of our team was Phil Williams, a retired police officer who now specialises in delivering training around hostage and crisis negotiation.

Djøf delegates getting to grips with collective bargaining, November 2017

The trainees were all members of Danish organisation Djøf (the Danish Association of Lawyers and Economists), a trade union for lawyers, economists and a wide range of other skilled workers across all sectors.  Trade unions are much stronger in Denmark that the UK, with around 67% of workers in membership.  Indeed, the workforce takes a key role in the strategic direction of many businesses. As such, they operate at all levels of the business and often have a greater buy-in to business decisions than is the norm in the UK.

It was fascinating to see how the delegates worked through the course and embraced different aspects of negotiation. The emphasis was clearly on cooperation and people seemed genuinely uncomfortable even having to role-play situations where they had to hold a line and end up in conflict. Their explanation was that this is the Scandinavian way: being reasonable, finding the common ground and working towards a mutually beneficial outcome are second nature.

While Andy and Phil focused on negotiation theory, behaviour and motivation in negotiation, I focused on the collective aspects of negotiating in a workplace.

Like many unionised organisations in the UK, it’s common in Denmark for there to be multiple unions involved with an employer. To simulate that, we ran role-play scenarios where the delegates had to negotiate towards a pay agreement, given a range of restrictions and contradictions within which to find an outcome.

It was wonderful to see the range of approaches they came up with to present and justify their position, whether they were role-playing management or staff, and the enthusiasm with which they set about negotiating.  Suffice to say, it was encouraging that all of the groups were able to achieve their objectives and came away with a greater understanding of the challenges ahead when faced with real collective bargaining situations.

All in all, from a training delivery perspective, it was a thoroughly enjoyable experience!

 

Malcolm Currie

 

I’d be interested to know your thoughts on the topics raised in this article, so please leave a comment or, if you’d like to discuss anything more directly, please contact me at malcolm@strathesk.co.uk or give me a call on 07736068787.

SME Sickness Absence – Prevention or Cure, THAT is the Problem…

Most of my blogs have been about topics in the news that I find interesting, or on which I’d like to provoke a little debate, but this time round I thought I’d take a slightly different approach and reach out to people who, like me, run or work for small/micro businesses for whom sickness absence can be a massive headache.

 

Those of you who know me will be aware that I’m an “egg chaser”, a “spoiler of rugby matches”, or whatever other term you like to use to say that I referee rugby matches, something I took up after recovering from a dislocated knee and a rebuild when the ligaments ruptured.  I also like to cycle, run, climb mountains and do all sorts of other activities that have, over the years, taken a physical toll.

 

Over recent months, my knee had become increasingly painful to the point that, a few weeks ago, I found myself missing a train because I wasn’t able to run/walk fast enough from platform to platform to catch the connection.  This brought home that I needed some sort of medical intervention or I was going to end up not able to work, and therein comes the point of this blog.

Since I went self-employed, I have become painfully (sic!) aware that if I’m not working, I’m not earning.  Worse, because my business is relatively young, I don’t have a track record against which to claim appropriate lost earnings on my insurance (without the said insurance being prohibitively expensive).

 

So, what should I do?

I was already aware of Healthy Working Lives though having worked with an employer who needed their advice in making reasonable adjustments for a disabled employee (another of the services available).  However, in this case, I am more specifically describing the support they can provide for self-employed people or those working in small and medium enterprises, where possible preventing people from going off sick when an early medical intervention might keep them working.

For a small/micro business, the benefit of these approaches is 2-fold:

  1. the individual doesn’t lose income when they needn’t have done;
  2. the business doesn’t lose capacity to deliver for clients/customers.

This runs alongside Fit for Work (operating as Fit for Work Scotland north of the border), a UK-wide initiative aimed at getting people back to work quicker and “reduce the impact that absence has on individuals, employers and the State”, the main difference seeming to be that Fit for Work focuses more on people who are already off work.

 

How does it work?

Well, for me it involved me contacting the Healthy Working Lives advice line (0800 019 2211), answering a few simple questions about my working situation and the nature of the illness, then waiting for contact back.  The result was that I had an appointment with an NHS physiotherapist in less than a week, and, with her guidance, I’ve started a rehabilitation programme that should address the problem and stop it from developing to a stage that prevents me from working.  And if the programme doesn’t work, I’ll be referred to a Consultant who can review anything else that needs to be done.

It’s the second time I’ve needed to use the service since I started my own business, and my experience both times has been very similar, I got the medical support I needed when I needed it and avoided lost time off sick.  I mentioned this at a meeting of my local Chamber of Commerce last year and was amazed that I seemed to be the only SME owner who was aware of it, so I thought I’d share a bit wider that such a service exists.

 

I’d be interested to hear any other hints/tips that anyone out there might have, so please share them if you can.

Taylor Report on Employment – where now?

 We (OK, a few of us) were on tenterhooks waiting for the publication of the Taylor Report into employment practices in the UK, but will it make things clearer or further muddy the waters?

Uber, Deliveroo and Pimlico Plumbers have all been answering legal questions about the legitimacy of a business model that sees them, and other companies, claiming the people work for them are self-employed, so they don’t have to pay Employers’ National Insurance, pension, holidays, sick leave, etc., as their competitors do.  At the outset, Taylor commented that there were areas into which he wasn’t tasked to delve (tax & National Insurance, for example), so it hasn’t, perhaps, been the free and open review that had been called for by many.

There are, however, several aspects that are unlikely to go down well with factions of the Conservative government.  Speaking in May, Taylor said:

“As we encourage people to vote . . . to inform themselves of issues, to volunteer in their community, is it defensible to say that for eight or more hours a day they should accept being ignored, denied information, treated as mere cogs in a machine?”

That could easily be interpreted as a call to reverse moves by the Cameron Government to apply cumulative restrictions to the ability of trade unions to provide that voice.  It could also be that Theresa May’s surprise decision to announce in November:

“…we will shortly publish our plans to reform corporate governance, including … proposals to ensure the voice of employees is heard in the boardroom.” 

might actually come to fruition, though there has been precious little mention of the radical reforms of employment law mentioned in the run-up to the general election.

However, it also suggests that implementation of the Information and Consultation of Employees Regulations 2004 (ICER) hasn’t had the impact that it could and should have had.  Certainly, many trade union activists viewed ICER with suspicion, partly because merely informing and consulting can achieve relatively little without scope for negotiation. Similarly, some employers saw it as a way to prevent unions from getting access to their workplace.  However, those opinions have been changing over time, as demonstrated by the TUC’s “Democracy in the Workplace” report from 2014.  There is considerable evidence that employers that actively engage with their staff are more successful than those that don’t:

“Happy and productive people equals growth” (ACAS)

Many were calling for a simplification of the categories, preventing confusion over whether people are employees, workers or self-employed: instead, Taylor seems to be recommending that a further category is introduced, that of “Dependent Contractor”, something more than self-employed, clearly less than a worker, but that is presumably intended to level the playing field.

Quite how the Government will react to the findings is, frankly, anyone’s guess, especially with the level of distraction coming from Brexit, May’s increasingly slender majority, rumoured challenges for the Tory leadership (and, hence, the job of Prime Minister) and Labour apparently surging ahead of the Conservatives for the first time since the General Election, it’ll be a real surprise if they turn to this as a matter of urgency.  But it is the response of Government to these findings that will determine whether or not they make a positive difference for employers and those they employ.

Instead, attention will again be drawn to Uber’s fortunes in the Employment Appeals Tribunal in September.

From where I’m sitting, one answer is in the hands of every employer; improve your working relationship with your staff and, in turn, make the business more productive and more profitable.  That’s an area where I would certainly like to help.

I’d be interested to know your thoughts on the issues raised in this article, so please leave a comment or, if you’d like to discuss anything more directly, please contact me at malcolm@strathesk.co.uk or give me a call on 07736068787.

Anti-Bullying Week highlights a growing problem in UK workplaces

Bullying & harassment is a growing problem in UK workplaces, but we shouldn’t accept that as just a fact of life.  

Today is the start of Anti-Bullying week.  Designated by the Anti-Bullying Alliance (ABA), the focus is largely on bullying amongst children, but it also encapsulates issues that arise in the workplace.

What is workplace bullying?

Bully Online define workplace bullying as follows:

Bullying is conduct that cannot be objectively justified by a reasonable code of conduct, and whose likely or actual cumulative effect is to threaten, undermine, constrain, humiliate or harm another person or their property, reputation, self-esteem, self-confidence or ability to perform.

There are loads of other definitions, but they all boil down to very similar messages.

So why bully?

A few of the more commonly reported reasons are:

  • The bully is insecure, possibly because they are being bullied themselves;
  • They feel threatened that someone in their team may be more capable than they are;
  • They’ve been promoted into a management role but have never been properly trained to do it;
  • They are fitting in with the organisational management culture

Experience suggests that many perpetrators are unaware of the longer term emotional impacts of their behaviours.  To someone suffering at the hands of a bully it may seem trite to say so, but challenging the behaviour, and highlighting how it makes you feel as an individual, is often the most effective way to make it stop.  Sadly, the creeping vulnerability that develops when bullying continues unchecked, along with the perceived impossibility of building a case[1], often makes people decide it is easier to either suffer or leave their job.

All too often such behaviour flows from the top, especially from managers who pride themselves on “running a tight ship” or being “robust” in their management – just two of the many terms used to justify behaviour that is actually unacceptable, ones that can flag up the possibility that someone they manage may see their approach as bullying.

Economic Impact

Aside from the human effects, the economic impact is huge.  The performance of those being bullied drops, often they are off sick more frequently, and awareness of what is happening can have a serious impact on wider morale and productivity.  A year ago ACAS published a guide on tackling workplace bullying that referred to 2008 research indicating that workplace bullying costs the UK economy almost £18 billion.  Sadly, their recent evidence is also that bullying is on the rise, something no doubt exacerbated by the continuing economic difficulties facing many companies and organisations.

Let’s hope, for everyone’s sakes, that knowing more about workplace bullying will help to identify it and stop it.

 

 

[1] Of course, there ARE ways of building a case, get in touch if you’d like some advice.

Lidl v GMB – what’s going on?

food-healthy-vegetables-potatoesLast weekend there were news articles about Lidl’s decision to appeal against the ruling that they should recognise GMB union at their Bridgend depot – but why?

The story is reported on the GMB website, which handily also includes Lidl’s statement on the issue.

A significant majority of staff at Lidl’s Bridgend depot indicated that they wanted to be represented by a trade union in negotiations with the company. Lidl’s response was to reject the request for recognition that came from GMB. This was referred to the Central Arbitration Committee, the body that decides the outcome in such situations, who ruled that the union should be recognised. Lidl’s response has been lukewarm, with reports suggesting they are now going to appeal to the Court of Appeal against the CAC decision.

Setting aside the specifics of Lidl and GMB, the question then arises – why are so many employers hostile to unions?

Workplaces that have a union present have significantly better H&S records than those that don’t, they can access all sorts of training for their staff (union reps and members can access training through their union or STUC and TUC education programmes, as well as wider education through UnionLearn projects, etc.) that they would otherwise have to pay for. Being a representative is also a great way for staff to be exposed to responsibility and authority that would never occur in their day job, so there’s a good chance to see what they can do.

Aside from that, it helps meet obligations under the Information & Consultation of Employees Regulations that may otherwise be both problematic and ineffective.

So, with so much to gain, what is it that makes employers so reluctant to engage with trade unions?

Interestingly, around 70% of FTSE 100 companies recognise unions, so it can’t be THAT damaging to the bottom line.

History is a big factor – many, many employers (and workers) still view the union movement as a behemoth from the 1970s. But unions have changed, forced to evolve and adapt initially by legal changes through the 80s and early 90s, latterly by a drive to become more effective at representing their members in the rapidly changing world of employment. Before the last government decided to raise the hurdles for workers to take legal industrial action, it had already become a rare event – 2015 was the second lowest annual total for working days lost through strike action since records began in 1891 (the lowest was 2005).

There are costs – rates of pay in unionised workplaces are higher, and ensuring your workforce is safe and healthy takes investment, but more competitive pay also means they are more likely to attract better candidates when they advertise jobs, and it’s a good thing that people go home after work as healthy as they were when they started, so there are swings to those roundabouts.

I have long been a believer that the objectives of any workforce largely align with those of their employer – success for the company is in everyone’s interests. Hence my work to help and encourage employers to find the most effective way to interact with their employees to improve the company for whom everyone is working. Given the insights they have into the various levels and structures of your business, staff represent a valuable resource from which to better inform your next big decision. That doesn’t change because the staff want to be represented by a union.

However many people you employ, if you’d like help in improving the way you interact with your staff, whether or not there are unions involved, please get in touch – it could be the start of a new future for your company.  If you’d like to know more about the services offered by Strathesk Resolutions, please e-mail contact@strathesk.co.uk or call Malcolm on 07736068787.

What Can Strathesk Resolutions Do For You?

Approaching Bass Rock from the south

Strathesk Resolutions specialises in helping businesses to identify, resolve and, ideally, avoid individual or collective problems with their staff through targeted analysis, mediation, training, coaching and mentoring.

We draw on years of experience working collaboratively and constructively to achieve the right outcome to complex industrial relations situations.  We deliver straightforward advice, training and solutions that encourage and develop relationships based on understanding, cooperation and trust.

Our open and honest approach ensures fairness to all sides whilst guaranteeing the needs of both the individual and the organisation are properly considered. Having worked with Trade Unions for years we understand the need for clear and concise communication, whilst influencing and negotiating in an expert manner.

You can expect us to thoroughly explore your problems, ensuring that we properly understand the problem before we start working towards a solution.  We will also keep an open line of communication to ensure that you are fully aware and involved in developing approaches.

Depression Awareness Week – talking about it definitely makes things better…

DSCN0805

I didn’t want to see Depression Awareness Week pass without doing at least a little to promote it. Why? Because mental health is still a massive taboo in UK workplaces, with many people going through agonies to stop their colleagues, and especially their bosses, from finding out that they’re ill.

Only this week I was approached by someone asking if their employer is likely to see them as weak, a liability, if they are honest about being ill. It’s a shame, but that is still the overwhelming fear for people when they’re diagnosed. In spite of the fear, many organisations I’ve dealt with are actually reasonably aware of the problems that can arise and treat mental illnesses similarly to physical ones, but some, sadly, are a long way from that. The best way to start improving things is to speak about depression openly and honestly, and Depression Awareness Week presents an ideal opportunity to start that conversation.

As an employer, it’s worth remembering that depression can be a disability, so it’s important to get your approach to it correct, but also that it’s a common illness from which the vast majority of people recover (or can manage) with proper treatment – and a supportive employer can make a huge difference in successful recovery.