Category Archives: Company culture

Cost: £99bn and 300,000 lost jobs a year Cause: poor mental health

Every year, poor mental health costs the UK economy up to £99 billion as productivity of employees falls and 300,000 people with mental health problems face the personal tragedy of losing their jobs.

But a report by the UK government, ‘Thriving at Work: The Independent Review of Mental Health and Employers’, shows that the status quo can and must be challenged
and that addressing the issue and fixing the problem not only cuts costs and improves employees’ wellbeing, but it can also have a positive financial return on investment for companies.

 The costsScreen Shot 2017-10-26 at 11.02.39

UK employers face annual costs of between £33 and £42 billion; more than 50 percent of those costs coming from ‘presenteeism’, when workers are less productive, and sickness absence and staff turnover.  The government picks up a tab of £24-27 billion much of it from welfare and NHS costs. The overall £99 billion includes all of the above costs, together with the opportunity costs of companies and the economy not being at full production and of the NHS not having to dedicate resources to mental health interventions – money that could be saved or spent elsewhere

 The opportunity

Equally – there are huge opportunities to cut these costs, improve productivity and improve the lot of the employee at the same time. Studies by Deloitte, cited in the report, show that where investment is made in improving mental health, it gives a consistently positive return with one case showing a £9.98 return on investment of £1.

 The vision

While the solutions should be tailored for individuals and by company, the value of the report will initially be that the issue of mental health in the workplace cannot now be ignored by employers.  In addition, individual employees are also encouraged to be aware of their own and other people’s mental health.

The report’s overall ambitions include that:

  • Employees in all types of employment will have ‘good work’ contributing to positive mental health
  • All of us will have knowledge and confidence to understand and look after our mental health.
  • All organizations, regardless of size, will have the awareness and tools to identify and prevent work factors leading to mental ill-health
  • They will be equipped to support individuals with a mental health condition to thrive
  • Organizations will have access to timely help to reduce sickness absences caused by mental ill-health

 Practical actions

The report highlights a set of actions, which over a decade, are designed to slash by a third the number of people leaving jobs due to mental health problems.  These practical interventions – or mental health ‘core standards’ that all companies must do, include:

  • Produce, implement and communicate a ‘mental health at work plan’
  • Develop mental health awareness among employees
  • Encourage open conversations about mental health and the support available when employees are struggling
  • Provide employees with good working conditions and ensure they have a healthy work/life balance and opportunities for development
  • Promote effective people management through line managers and supervisors
  • Routinely monitor employees’ mental health and wellbeing

Best practice

In addition – and depending on their size and maturity, companies in a leading position on promoting mental health at work will also adopt some or all of the following ‘enhanced standards’:

  • Increase transparency an accountability through internal and external reporting [on mental health]
  • Demonstrate accountability
  • Improve the disclosure process
  • Ensure provision of tailored in-house mental support and sign-posting to clinical support

The bottom line results from these interventions could mean 100,000 fewer people leaving their jobs due to mental health problems and employers should be willing to pay £1 to get nearly £10 back.

All this could be great news for people suffering poor mental health, for the NHS and through increased productivity, for the wider economy.  Overall, it will be one element that promotes a decent, respectful society.

The key will now be implementation, transparently measuring and reporting progress and ongoing government focus on the topic.  Otherwise, as the saying goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

‘Human error’ blamed for BA’s server crash. But which human and what error?

When there’s an accident at work, it’s often the worker involved who is blamed.

Sometimes – after lengthy and thorough investigations – the multiple causes of accidents are revealed to be much broader than ‘someone doing something stupid’ and the hope is that the BA IS system crash investigation will be as thorough.

Just like in a safety investigation, the discipline of applying ‘root cause analysis’ will seek to find out what happened to cause the failure and more importantly, why it happened.  The ‘why’ is critical because it identifies systemic, cultural and management failures – the root causesPlug pic.

Fixing root causes permanently makes a company more resilient – first it’s less likely to face a similar problem and second, if it does, its resulting contingency planning will mean it ‘bounces back’ from problems and recovers faster in future.

As an example of some ‘why’ issues: why did the contractor re-connect power without going through a process and or without authority?  Why did they not know about the process, or if they did, why was it ignored. And digging a little deeper: how is the process developed and who has management responsibility for the process and for reviewing and auditing that it’s applied properly. How are ‘near misses’ reported, recorded and shared to the benefit of refining the process?  In terms of culture, are contractors pushed to get things done in double-quick time in order to reduce downtime, do they regularly feel they have to resort to short-cuts in order to meet management expectations?

In manufacturing companies – this is characterised by ‘productivity over everything’; do what you have to do to get it done fast.  Is there constant squeeze on costs?  Is there little interest among management in hearing about the consequences of the squeeze, or do they just insist that all activities must continue, but that they must be done more efficiently.

Capital cost reduction, combined with reduction in staff may also result in a situation where the margin for error or the presence of back-up systems compounded the effect of the error. Was the cost of failure factored-in to financial decisions and how much did management think a failure – with all its attendant brand damage – would cost?

And a proper root cause analysis of BA’s outage will get to the heart of the culture that created the circumstances in which a contractor did what they did – either because they didn’t know what the correct procedure was, or felt pressured to override the process.

All this ‘digging into the issue’ may seem tedious, but it’s as tedious as a pilot doing a pre-flight check in the same way, before every flight. As yet, the total cost of the BA outage is not known, but creating a culture that avoids future incidents will certainly save a fortune.

The culture of the flight deck would be a good aspiration for many companies.

Thanks to Kevin Grocki for the picture, used under Creative Commons Licence

The theme of Business Continuity Awareness Week is Cyber Security. No, really…

If businesses and public organizations needed a kick in the backside over their cyber crisis preparedness, then many got it over the weekend as the ransomware ‘Wanna Decryptor’ paralysed hundreds of thousands of users and systems in more than 100 countries, including hospitals and doctors’ practices in the UK National Health Service.

So the irony of this being ‘Business Continuity Awareness Week’ #BCAW2017 is only heightened by the fact that the theme of the week is ‘Cyber Security’. But the timing of this week – and the theme – couldn’t be better.Screen Shot 2017-05-15 at 10.08.25

As the hand-wringing, blame-gaming and shock-horror media coverage continues – it’s worth spending a few minutes leafing through the Business Continuity Institute’s guide on preventing cyber attack (this is safe to click, by the way). Sure, there is some VERY basic advice in the guide – like not using ‘password’ as your ‘password’, but don’t roll your eyes too quickly.  One in five passwords are things like ‘1234567’ or ‘qwerty’ – and other entirely predictable passwords. It’s clear people need reminding of the simplest security habits.

The BCI’s guide won’t solve complex IS security issues, but it’s often the weakest links that allow the hackers in to do their business.  That weakest link is commonly your company’s IS or information security policy (or lack of it) – and if you have a policy – how well employees have been trained to implement the policy AND how diligently they act on those policy requirements.

I’m in trouble – send money!

And finally, it’s not only the junior or non-techie employees who let the hackers in.  Scammers and phishers target all levels of an organization in an attempt to breach firewalls or just separate someone from their money.

I’m aware of one CEO who knew what a ‘419’ scam was (wonder how many of you opened that link…) and how to avoid it, but was nearly stung by another email scam.  We just managed to stop him from sending his credit card details (including the ‘magic code’ on the back) to an employee whose email to the CEO claimed he was in trouble abroad, having had his laptop, wallet and phone stolen and who needed credit card details for him to be able to book into a hotel for the night.  Except it wasn’t the employee’s internet email address and he wasn’t in trouble… and, and, and.

Creating a company culture that drives business priorities – the Bezos way

Jeff Bezos of Amazon bought the Washington Post three years ago.

Prior to that, journalists there had variable compensation based on one thing – operating income. Now it’s different, as described by Shailesh Prakash, the Post’s chief information officer:

‘When Jeff bought us, within about six months, he threw that [operating income metric] out. Now there are three other criteria. It’s basically: How fast do you move? It’s very subjective. The second one is that there are no sacred cows, to push experimentation. The third thing is debate, but commit. So you can argue all you want, but once we agree, then there’s no undermining. Those are the three things that now very subjectively drive the compensation. [1]’

Bezos paid $250m cash for the Post – a publication founded in 1877, a public treasure, winner of 47 Pulitzer Prizes and one-time employer of ‘All the President’s Men’ reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, whose ‘Watergate’ work precipitated the downfall of Richard Nixon.washington-post

It takes a brave investor to jump into the turmoil that is today’s mainstream news media – and especially one with such credentials, unless you are a natural disruptor and rich enough that losing some or all of the cost of the business would be less of an unmitigated disaster and more of a mild irritation.

But Bezos hasn’t bought the The Post out of a sense of nostalgic philanthropic generosity for an old warhorse.  It’s a fantastic brand and a business with a future, but he needed to ring the changes, rally the troops and point them in the right direction.

The creation of those three simple ways of working – that translate across the newsroom, the digital platforms and in advertising – is a great way to start and offers some lessons to those about to embark on the mission, vision, values tap-dance.

Personal view: I like that there are three elements to ‘how we do things around here’ because:

  • Individually, they’re easy to understand and act on
  • There are three of them, so  it’s not going to be difficult to remember all of them
  • They push behaviour to radically improve performance – ie which will help a great publication build on its clout and reputation, and move quickly to consolidate its position in the highly competitive world of global digital news, where competitors are nimble and who, rather than having a range of fixed assets including printing presses, invest in cloud capacity in server farms

It may seem obvious that smart, simple, memorable values work best.  But over more than 20 years, I’ve consulted for and worked in companies that have got their knickers in a terrible twist while trying to develop meaningful, unique values and behaviours that drive superior business performance.

The following completely fictitious scenario shows how this process can go wrong, and might be a good guide for the future.

Company ‘A’ already has values and behaviours – quite good ones and they’ve been around just three years.  But a new CEO is appointed and wants to stamp his/her authority and style on the company.  The CEO gives some input on the dozen values and behaviours they want to bring to life to a working group of communications, HR and business people, supported by an agency with experience and a track record ‘in these things’.  Three months later the group comes back to the CEO with a tidy set of proposals, based on vast in-depth research and focus groups among employees and other stakeholders. [SO FAR, SO GOOD]

CEO quite likes the proposals, but has some doubts whether the work covers all areas sufficiently.  So instead of sending the working group away to tweak the proposal and re-submit, the boss decides to put the values and behaviours proposal as a topic on the next board agenda. [FYI: FATAL MISTAKE]

The board members like some of them, but also share the view that some additional work is needed and it’s agreed that each board member takes the proposals back to their business or functions for consultation. [FYI: AS ABOVE]

It’s already obvious where this is going, but instead of calling a halt by having conversations about ‘not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good’ and launching the simple but imperfect proposal from the working group, the values project begins to die the death of a thousand cuts.

Three months later and nine months into the ‘new’ CEO’s tenure, the inputs from the dozen or so board members land with a thud on the boardroom table.

The new version will have 26 values and behaviours.  Some of the original values and behaviours will be hacked into their three constituent parts, renamed ‘drivers’ or ‘imperatives’; values will be muddled with behaviours.  The only benefit is that each board member’s business or function is represented by AT LEAST one value or behaviour.

Camels, a dog’s breakfasts and big cheeses

The values and behaviour project becomes a ‘camel’; the result of designing a horse by committee, augmented by an injection of Myers-Briggs personality profiling.  The resulting ‘declaration’ can look like this:

‘Company A and its employees are a force for good in society and business.  We stand for: Speed, simplicity, clear communications, integrity, risk-taking, responsiveness, customer-focus, fair-dealing, respectful, entrepreneurial, hard-working, work-life balance, environmentally empathetic, process-driven, leading supplier to the paper industry, low inventory, and it’s a great place to work.’

The agency with experience and a track record ‘in these things’ decides to take the fees so far and resign the account, fearing for its own reputation if they’re further associated with what is shaping up to be a ‘dog’s breakfast’.

This ‘basket’ of values is then launched to (dumped on) a bemused senior management team at the annual ‘big cheese’ meeting. Powerpoint packs for cascading the new  ‘what we are and how we behave’ program to employees are issued at the end of the first day of the conference. And there’s the threat of a quiz on the values on the last day of the conference.

Senior managers burn the midnight oil learning the new values and behaviours,  and most of them ‘pass’ the quiz on the final day. There’s schadenfreude (a behaviour that nearly made the cut for the ‘long list’ because someone on the project had their spell-checker switched to German) in the conference hall when the CEO publicly belittles only one poor soul who couldn’t remember that ‘respectful’ was one of the values…or behaviours.

The roll-out ensues across the globe and employees with more than three years’ service sigh and play the game of ‘Value and Behaviours Workshop’, just two years after they played ‘Behaviours and Values Workshop’ which the previous CEO had spearheaded, before he was fired.

Sadly, if you work for a company where this value-destroying festival of fun occurs every few years, you risk dismissal or being passed-over for promotion if you question ANY part of the Values and Behaviours project.  Dissent and skepticism (two values that didn’t make the long list)  will be seen as disloyal, a signal of not being a team player and evidence that you are a dangerous subversive ‘who may, sooner or later, wish to work for another company whose values they prefer’.  Invariably, declaring that the king is short of a few items of clothing is never career-enhancing.

Don’t mention the war, how to nudge the culture and the ‘mirror test’

So, that’s what can go wrong. But what are the key elements of a successful process. Here’s some of the lessons I’ve learned:

  • KISS – Keep It Simple, Stupid.  Why?  Because employees are normal human beings who, aside from the pressures of their work, will only remember about three ways of working or important behaviours.  If you’re already up to six, start again
  • Who’s Running This Place? A new CEO can run a mission, vision, behaviours and values project on their own with expert input. The fact they do it this way – rather than as a representative sport for board members –  will do more to stamp their authority on the company than many other things.  And they will maximise the production of horses, instead of camels
  • Define the process [for the values and behaviours project] – and respect the process. Thanks to Alan Mulally, former President and CEO of Ford for that.  Our CEO of Company A didn’t define the process, got cold feet early on and threw the project to the dogs by letting the board fiddle with the content of the project
  • A Devil’s Advocate Reference Group.  Pull together some of the most cynical, diverse, incisive old soldiers and young bucks and tell them to tear the early proposals apart.  Listen to them and amend as necessary
  • Cut the Formality. Labelling things ‘behaviours’, ‘values’, ‘principles’, ‘imperatives’ is in itself a warning to employees that a new regime is flexing its muscles.  Their reaction will be to start digging psychological ‘slit trenches’ that they can jump into to avoid being hit by yet another cultural salvo from HQ. So try to avoid referring to the new values and behaviours as such.  Tell stories around what the new desired culture looks like and the values will likely get embedded more quickly as ‘the way we do things around here’. This need not be a full-frontal artillery barrage, if a clever special forces op will do the job
  • Link to the Business. While you don’t label them ‘behaviours’ etc (The Post guy called them ‘criteria’…without a capital ‘C’), where possible, make the behaviours part of the scorecard for variable compensation and stick them on the appraisal template so employees can focus on these things and get rewarded AND recognized for ‘walking the talk’.
  • Blah, blah, blah.  Make them as unique to the company as you can. So many companies’ values are so samey, bland and interchangeable that they look like they bought a subscription for the same online ‘values generator app’
  • The ‘Values Project’ May Be the Most Important Thing in Your Life, but… Be clear about what you mean by missions, visions, behaviours, values etc and what’s intended for internal and external consumption.  If the values and behaviours are aimed at employees, don’t be tempted to share them in too much detail with external audience, like the media.  In my experience, it’s the quickest way to empty a press conference.  Shareholders, on the other hand, might want to see a return on the huge amount of management time spent on something they might see as peripheral, so if the behaviours enhanced performance, have some examples ready for questions at the AGM
  • The Mirror Test. And finally, the CEO and senior colleagues should be able to wake up every morning and look in the mirror and run through all of the values without blinking, flinching or forgetting one.


[1] Thanks to the Columbia Review of Journalism for prompting this blog  and for this para quoted verbatim. Their original article by @kylepope is here

Washington Post photo: Thanks to Esther Vargasc

Link to original Washington Post Photo

Photos posted under Creative Commons Licence.