Taking control: meaningful and rewarding work

Leadership, Intent-Based Leadership, Leaders At Every Level, Health and Wellbeing

The UK is a diverse nation. We are not all the same. We welcome people from across the world to live, work and visit here. Yet how far is this diversity reflected across decision making within our economy  in our board rooms, in our leadership meetings, in our management meetings, in our team meetings, on our “shop floors”? Do all of our citizens feel a sense of inclusion and belonging within their employment? And what is the impact of this in terms of their financial equality?

Let us offer two perspectives from opposite ends of the socio-economic spectrum. Professor Sir Harry Burns is the Director of Global Public Health and is based in the International Public Policy Institute at the University of Strathclyde. His principal interest is in using Improvement Science to transform the lives of people, particularly children and young people living socially difficult lives. And more widely, his focus is on how societies can create “wellness”, where health is a state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing, not merely the absence of illness.

Darren McGarvey, stage name Loki, is a Scottish rapper, hip hop recording artist, social commentator and author. He has a particular interest in community and social responsibility. His first and award winning publication, Poverty Safari gives a voice to the feelings and concerns from people from deprived communities – his community – who feel misunderstood and unheard. “I understand the sense that you are invisible, despite the fact that your community can be seen for miles around and is one of the most prominent features of the city skyline”.

Whichever lens with which we try and understand those leading socially difficult lives, one thing is for sure – not only are there people across the UK living in socio-economic poverty, we have people also experiencing “work poverty”; that is, low paid, unfulfilling employment often with the experience of low personal morale.

An office cleaner, for example. They work in offices before- or after-hours, alone, little routine guidance and support, little feeling of belonging to something bigger. Or building security managers who day after day sit in office foyers, isolated from the organisation that employs them and with little human interaction other than a “Good Morning” and “Goodnight”. Or those who keep our streets clean: in all weathers they are pounding our pavements, navigating street furniture, parked vehicles, buggies and other obstacles. They work alone, they walk further and further from their depot, they have little regularity of conversation within their organisation. Employment like this will often be quite boring; and in their own ways possibly quite stressful too. So under such circumstances how can people such as these participate in meaningful work?

We live in a society where for some workplace stress is the bain of their employment, employment in which the average Briton spends 3,507 days over the course of their lifetime.  In fact, evidence from research such as the Whitehall II (the Stress and Health study) concluded that stress levels and early morbidity were inversely correlated to the level of control which people have in their working lives – the lower people’s levels of control and discretion, the higher their levels of stress.

The problem is that we’ve been building organisations and processes based on compliance, control and top down targets. Understanding, recognising and learning to deal with stress, our natural human fight or flight response, plays a huge part in endeavouring to overcome this. And in a workplace context, particularly in the Health and Wellbeing space, stress often occurs as a result of a lack of control in our tasks, in our responsibilities and in our roles. Influencing this are the dual notions of clarity and competency – the clear understanding of the part everyone plays in achieving organisational ambitions and goals and the skills and the stretching of those skills that enable this.

Creating environments where employees have increased clarity and competency reduces their levels of stress, aids their sense of workplace belonging and leads to more rewarding and meaningful work.

This now legendary anecdote brings this to life: During a visit to the NASA space centre in 1962, President John F. Kennedy noticed a janitor carrying a broom. He interrupted his tour, walked over to the man and said, "Hi, I'm Jack Kennedy. What are you doing?". "Well, Mr. President", the janitor responded, "I'm helping put a man on the moon”.

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