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Workplace wellbeing and lessons for public sector employers

Source: Public Sector Executive May/June 12

Jo Swinson MP, as well as being deputy leader of the Scottish Lib Dems and PPS to Deputy PM Nick Clegg, chairs the All Party Parliamentary Group on Wellbeing Economics. She spoke to PSE after a recent event in Parliament on happy workers and business growth, which should have implications for the public sector too.

Spending resources and even money on ensuring your workers are happy is proven to increase productivity – but when times are tough, it can look an appealingly soft target for cuts, on the assumption that staff are going to be desperate to cling to their jobs anyway.

But plenty of organisations that have stuck by workplace wellbeing strategies through the recession, and during tough times for the public sector, have found it has actually helped them manage the crisis.

This was discussed at a recent event held at the Houses of Parliament, organised by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Wellbeing Economics, founded in 2009 by Lib Dem MP for East Dunbartonshire Jo Swinson and Professor Richard Layard, whose work on the happiness agenda is well-known.

The event, ‘Happy Workers = Business Growth’, on May 17, included talks by Tony Hsieh, CEO of the world’s biggest online shoe retailer,, which has a company culture centred around happy workers; Paul Litchfield of BT, which has a big focus on health and wellbeing, especially on issues like mental health and stress; and Nic Marks of the New Economics Foundation, who founded the think tank’s Centre for Well-being.

Following the event, Swinson told PSE the event has to be seen in the wider ‘wellbeing’ context: “The Government is now measuring wellbeing on a national scale, and the ONS is moving to the stage where in just two months’ time, they’ll be publishing the first comprehensive dataset on where the nation is in terms of wellbeing, with a 200,000 sample size.

“We’re going to get an extremely nuanced picture about wellbeing, and that will help us to assess different policies that improve, or have a negative impact on, wellbeing.”

Work is, of course, extremely important to wellbeing. PSE has covered workplace wellbeing issues before, including in our coverage of the Westminster Sustainable Business Forum’s work on leaner and greener public sector property, and as Swinson says, the issue is not new or revelatory.

She said: “Businesses and public sector organisations all realise what is intuitively the case: that if you have workers who are generally happy, well-motivated and feeling good, then they’re going to end up being more productive and will provide better work when they’re there.”

She said the examples given by the businesses at the event should have real lessons for Government, the NHS and local councils as employers.

She told PSE: “BT for example is a familiar, global organisation which is of huge size, but shows that you can, if you focus on this, reap business benefits that will ultimately save money as well as creating somewhere that’s more enjoyable to work.”

The company noted a correlation between reported mental ill-health and business performance in different areas, and has worked to improve workers’ relationship with their immediate managers, which can be a big source of stress and thus reduced productivity.

“If you can get good leadership, and there’s a sense of direction and fair treatment, then that makes a world of difference to people.”

She said one thing that stuck out for her was that even when BT made a loss in 2009, which was “pretty horrendous” for them as a company, they did not sacrifice the focus on wellbeing, despite having to restructure and make redundancies.

At Zappos – the sixth best company to work for, according to one 2011 study – rapid growth to a turnover of more than $2bn a year has happened alongside a focus on worker happiness and working culture: to the extent that people can be fired for not living up to the company’s values, which include ‘create fun and a little weirdness’ and ‘be adventurous, creative and open-minded’.

Swinson: “That is quite alien to the UK business audience, but it’s proving very successful for Zappos as a company.”

However, another of Zappos’ values – ‘do more with less’ – will be less alien to anyone in the UK public sector at the moment.

Swinson said: “A focus on employees’ wellbeing is easy for people to suggest as one of the first things that should be cut – but when you’re in difficult times, your employees are one of your most important resources and assets. You can’t afford to have a lack of productivity, or people coming into work and spending a lot of their time worrying about other things; job security is a definite issue. But the BT example shows that even when you have some people leaving because an organisation has to make savings, you can still have a positive focus on ensuring people have a good sense of wellbeing in their work."


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