Cary Cooper and Julian Skyrme: Why high-performing institutions need to understand wellbeing

by | Jul 29, 2019 | Faculty of Humanities, PSLT | 21 comments

Professor Sir Cary Cooper, Professor of Organisational Psychology and Health from Alliance Manchester Business School was recently invited by Dr Julian Skyrme, Director of Social Responsibility, to speak at a Professional Services Leaders’ Conference on the topic ‘Why should high performing organisations prioritise wellbeing?’ Cary kindly agreed to do a follow-up blog with Julian, answering his questions to share his insight more widely across the University. You can watch the video and download the slides of Cary’s presentation.

What does the research tell us about why we should prioritise wellbeing?

Wellbeing is not a nice to have, it’s a must have. Since 2015, mental health absence has been the primary reason that people take sickness absence from work in the UK – 57% of all absence is now related to mental health, including stress, anxiety and depression. It’s not just absence that is a cause for concern; it is presenteeism too. That is, people attending work who aren’t really well or present but are still in the office – showing face time but delivering little value.

What organisations need is healthy and present people. In a major study of 39,000 employees which my University spin off company, Robertson Cooper Ltd., carried out in 2016, only one third of people fall into the category of being both healthy and present. Our own staff survey showed that 35% of people always or frequently felt stressed. These are critical business issues for all organisations to address. As well as sickness absence, wellbeing at work impacts upon productivity and leads to increased staff turnover and accidents in the workplace.

Significant research has been undertaken into the causes of ill-health at work – what is needed now isn’t more research, it’s about implementing what we already know.

What is the role of leaders and managers when it comes to wellbeing?

Every job has its own stress footprint – the role itself, responsibilities, conflict, organisational culture and boundaries – each of these have a part to play. But one of the biggest factors impacting wellbeing at work is leadership and management.

You could argue that organisations should have a sign over the door saying ‘your manager could be dangerous to your health’! It is the most important relationship that people have in the workplace – managers can help people to thrive, or they can contribute to their levels of stress.

Why does email come up so often in discussions on wellbeing?

Too many of us are checking our email at night, first thing in the morning or when we are on holiday. Many of us also have poor email habits – copying people in, sending emails late at night and at weekends. Some organisations now block email when their staff are on holiday, and in France it’s even illegal for managers to send emails out of hours. Personally, I don’t think blocking email is the answer – this impacts on those who want to work flexibly. But email does have the power to damage our health and our relationships outside of work, so we need to manage it and use it responsibility. Don’t send emails on a Friday afternoon and tell people it can wait until Monday – just wait until Monday! I understand that at the end of the PS Leaders Conference, Patrick Hackett urged his leaders to pledge to switch off their email when they went on holiday – great move Patrick!

How can organisations best tackle wellbeing?

Plenty of organisations are tackling wellbeing – especially when they see it hit the bottom line. Unfortunately many of these interventions are what are known as secondary or tertiary – they are there to help people to cope. Many organisations pick the low-hanging wellbeing fruit – offering Zumba classes or mindfulness at the desk. This is fine – but we need to be strategic too. We need to deal with the causes of the stress – and this includes leadership and management.

What would be your main message to leaders about wellbeing?

Every manager has a responsibility for the wellbeing of their people in their area of responsibility. Activity can come from the centre, but each leader and manager must play their part. They create the culture – and they have the power to change it. So I’ll end by posing the question I did to at the recent PS Leaders’ Conference: as a leader how can you create the right kind of culture to enhance the wellbeing of your staff?


  1. Sandra Taylor

    It seems to remain a common misconception that being very busy all of the time makes us more productive. At the start of this year I dithered as to whether I could join the FSE Choir, due to lack of time, but in fact I have been more productive since starting this, if anything. Please keep up with events like Better World Showcase, which we really enjoyed singing at, and hearing about all the great things which happen in our Faculty.

    • Dr Julian Skyrme

      Thanks for your comments Sandra. I’m really glad to hear the benefits you’ve got from joining the FSE choir. You are giving joy to others (just listening to you made sing Elbow yesterday was my favourite experience I had in work this week) and it is clearly a great way to meet new colleagues, enhance individual wellbeing and feel part of something bigger. We will certainly be keeping up with events like these – they are important to recognise the great work going on in FSE and more widely.

  2. Anna Bigland

    It would be good to see disability given a higher profile. It’s challenging to work well in an environment where team leaders do not understand the needs of disabled staff and do not wish to learn how they can help. Could training be made mandatory in these circumstances?

    • Gemma Dale

      Hi Anna, we have a course that runs via Staff Learning and Development on supporting staff with disabilities. It doesn’t look like we have one scheduled but that is likely to be because we are still scheduling courses for this year. There is also guidance in our Managers’ Essentials toolkit (including information on supporting wellbeing in general in the workplace).

    • Jon Ashley

      I agree with Anna that we might not be as joined up as we think for students, but especially for staff. Issues such as the design of the estate and value engineering out works (such as auto-door openers) on a cost basis in new buildings. Whilst we all might appreciate issues surrounding disability I’m not sure we have embedded it into our everyday thinking, or necessarily given it the priority needed. We also need to recognise the real challenges from hidden disabilities or where the individual does not want to volunteer information.

  3. Sonya Kewley

    Thank you for sharing this, I really enjoyed the presentation, I will definitely be seeking out Professor Cooper’s books!

    As a School Safety Advisor, I am keen to promote wellbeing under the health and safety banner, but agree that some of the measures such as mindfullness and social events are not the ‘fix all’ solutions. The HSE data was also particularly shocking.

    The discussion of Line Manager training and people skills was also a very important point and can identify with that as I have been on the receiving end of that type of shortfall in the past.

  4. Helen Li

    Excellent article and video clip.
    Just wonder whether there is a downloadable version of Professor Sir Cary Cooper’s presentation on the StaffNet that we could access and refer to. Definitely will share with other colleagues and team members.

  5. Kate Mudriczki

    Many thanks Julian for responding it is appreciated and I am looking forward to seeing the changes and contributing to them as a Grade 3. I watched the conference and I really enjoyed it. If it is ok I will email some ideas. Many thanks Kate

  6. Selena Zafar

    I find it encouraging that we are discussing wellbeing and I look forward to concrete actions on this as mental health is incredibly important. I also work at Manchester Met and have been impressed by their strategy in training volunteers [including myself] across the University to be Active Listeners by completing 2 day Mental Health First Aid courses. We work alongside the Counselling Service and LifeWorks to provide staff with support and are encouraged to be proactive and not reactive. Indeed I qualified on a Wednesday and was called into action on the Friday. That is how important a service it is. I believe the University of Manchester should follow suit and train a variety of staff from different grades and areas and hit the ground running. This is something we need right now.

    • Julian Skyrme, Director of Social Responsibility

      Dear Selena, many thanks for sharing this experience. I’ll alert colleagues in staff development and counselling to this initiative at Man Met.

      • Selena Zafar

        Thanks Julian. I am fully qualified so am currently unofficially helping colleagues in my team but I hope in future to be able to be there for all staff when needed.

      • Dr Adam Ozanne

        Dear Julian and Selena,
        UCU offered last year to kick-start Mental Health First Aid at the University by funding the training of ten staff (who need not have been UCU members) but sadly, unlike at MMU, this generous offer was rejected by the University. That was disappointing. We have also said that we would like to work with the University on improving understanding and reducing the causes of stress, which as your article makes clear must include leadership and management, but again this offer has not been taken up. Instead, we are dealing with the eighth “Section 188” process in six years – these are the formal consultations required when the University plans to shed jobs. Eight is more than at any other UK university. Manchester is the top of at least one league table, but at what cost to staff well-being? Staff deserve more than warm words (as in your reply to Kevin Gaskell-Clow) about improving and being “open” about how change is managed.
        Dr Adam Ozanne
        UMUCU Branch Secretary

        • Dr Julian Skyrme

          Hi Adam.
          Thanks for your points above. Our approach and responsibility to staff around wellbeing is something we take extremely seriously. We recognise that organisational change does have the potential to impact upon wellbeing, and we aim to to support staff during change processes.
          Whilst Mental Health First Aid is not something the University is currently implementing, we do have other extensive support mechanisms. For staff experiencing mental health challenges we invest significant resource into our Counselling Service, who offer a range of workshops and face to face counselling. Last year we also launched the Big White Wall, a 24/7 online mental health community that provides both peer to peer and clinical support. We have recently launched on demand resources via our Wellbeing StaffNet pages, and our SLD team offer specific resilience training for staff experiencing transitions and changes. You can find these resources here:
          Patrick Hackett recently invited all staff to contact him directly with suggestions to improve wellbeing, and these are currently being reviewed – more information will be available soon following this review. A new University-wide strategy for staff wellbeing is currently in development and will be published later this year.
          If you had any other questions or ideas you’re welcome to get back in touch and I can put you in touch with relevant people developing this work for our University.

  7. Kate Mudriczki

    I have a few questions for the experts as follows:
    – Will it be difficult or easy to implement the findings of this research university wide?
    – Will the university be able to streamline this so that all employees benefit from this proven research?
    – Will this be immediate, or will it take time?
    – Is it optional for managers to participate or will this be a mandatory way of working for all university employees?
    Thank you in advance.

    • Julian Skyrme, Director of Social Responsibility

      Dear Kate, thank you for your questions. The whole area of wellbeing is wide-ranging – and some aspects will be easier and quicker to take forward than others e.g. developing policies is often quicker than developing a different culture. We’re currently developing a new vision for the University for launch next year, with ‘Our People, Our Values’ at the centre. From this, we’ll see a range of new priorities – with wellbeing, inclusion and belonging featuring strongly. Rather than saying ‘watch this space’ we’ve been encouraging colleagues to feed into the work on our values and some excellent ideas were sent in by staff. If you had further or specific ideas on wellbeing or more widely, please feel free to get in touch.

  8. Kevin Gaskell-Clow

    One of the best ways for the release of stress for workplace colleagues is to stop the unnecessary restructuring that goes on at the university and provide job security.If the university is really concerned about its workforce it should ensure their job safety and stop the threat of unemployment.

    • Julian Skyrme, Director of Social Responsibility

      Hi Kevin, thanks for your comments. All of us who’ve worked at the University for a while (for me it’s 18 years now!) have seen a great deal of change – both physically with our campus and in the way people and teams are structured – to meet our evolving needs. So I think it’s safe to say that changing, adapting and improving what we do will be a feature of the future too, including developments to our staffing structures where these are needed. We know this can be unsettling for people and one of the things that came through very loud and clear from the 2019 Staff Survey was that we need to improve change is managed. Our Senior Leadership Team is working on this as a major priority, along with communications and maintaining a positive environment for all staff. We know that talking, engaging and being open about change is important to staff, and through events like Open Meetings and channels like this Blog we’re taking on board questions and feedback like yours.

  9. Donna Campbell

    Excellent article. Managing and supporting wellbeing is an absolute must for managers. It’s our responsibility to create a healthy environment for staff, lead by example and educate and support our teams on how to manage their wellbeing.

    • Kate Mudriczki

      what a lovely comment Donna its fantastic for staff knowing that managers are on board with this

  10. Kate Mudriczki

    Thank you for bringing up this topic for discussion. I think its fantastic and I am looking forward to contributing. It is nice to see that research suggests this is the way forward!!


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