Workplace Taboo

Last week was a busy one for me: Tuesday brought our annual event for TAB members – always a highlight in the calendar, and this year was no different – and on Wednesday I was at York races. Just remind me again: when it rains at York it’s low numbers in the draw isn’t it? Or is it high?

By the time I’d worked it out the damage had been done…

But I was in great company and – despite the weather – it was a thoroughly enjoyable day. So having been outside in the rain for portions of last week I’m back at my desk as the May sun shines steadily in through the window.

…Which seems entirely inappropriate as this week I’m going to write about mental health and depression, something which a significant number of people are understandably – but regrettably – unwilling to talk about at work.

First, some stats:

  • In 2015/16 30.4m working days were lost due to self-reported work related injury or illness: only 4.5m of these were due to a workplace injury
  • On average injuries saw people take 7.2 days of work: ill health meant 20 days off work
  • Stress, depression and anxiety – plus musculoskeletal disorders – accounted for the majority of the days lost: 11.7m and 8.8m days respectively
  • The average number of days off for stress, depression or anxiety was 24: for musculoskeletal problems it was 16 days

I think those numbers are significant: 24 days for stress, depression and anxiety – that’s effectively five weeks off. To a small business a key employee having five weeks off can have a catastrophic effect. You can’t recruit someone: if you get someone on a short term contract it’s five weeks before they’re fully up to speed. It is simply a hole punched below the waterline for five weeks.

Two weeks ago it was mental health awareness week: worryingly, a recent survey for BBC 5 Live found that half of us would still be reluctant to speak up at work if we had – or thought we were heading for – a mental health problem. 49% of those surveyed said they would feel unable to tell their boss about problems such as anxiety or depression. Even fewer – just one person in three – said they’d be happy to tell colleagues.

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As someone running a business you want to hire and retain the best people – but you need those people to be working efficiently and effectively. You also want them to be happy and healthy: as I’ve written before, health, fitness and performing well at work go hand in hand. More and more businesses will introduce ‘wellness’ programmes for their employees, covering everything from flexible working to help with emotional and psychological problems: if you’re not looking at it already, now would be a good time to start.

So much for the team: what about you?

Being an entrepreneur is a lonely business: it is also stressful and the feeling that the buck – and everyone’s livelihood – stops at your desk can be all too real.

It can also be a macho business: many people – men and women – constantly feel the need to act the part. In some ways I can understand that: confidence can be a currency, especially if you have outside investors to deal with. No round of financing is going to be helped by, ‘I’m depressed’ or ‘I’m having doubts.’

But we’re not always ‘crushing it’ – as my Fitbit constantly demands. Statistically the odds are stacked against any new business and virtually every entrepreneur will have occasional moments of doubt. There’s a theory that entrepreneurs are more prone to depression: a personality that will accept extreme risk and reward at one end of the scale also has its darker moment at the other end of the scale.

That, I am absolutely certain, is one of the very best parts of TAB. To paraphrase the old saying, when the going gets tough, the tough need someone to talk to. As I have written many times, no-one understands like your colleagues round the TAB table: not your wife, not your partner, not your parents, not your friends. The only people who truly understand the pressures are other entrepreneurs.

…And at The Alternative Board they don’t judge, they don’t compare, they don’t score points. In every instance they simply say, “Yep, I’ve been there. What can I do to help?”

 

In Praise of Praise

I’ve written previously about Millennials, Baby Boomers and all the other generational labels that we pretend we know. So far, though, I’ve neglected the ‘Snowflake Generation.’

‘Snowflake,’ for those of you that don’t know, is a less-than-complimentary term applied to the young adults of the 2010s: it probably comes from the 1999 film Fight Club and its famous line: ‘We are not special. We are not beautiful and unique snowflakes.’

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It’s now come to be applied to a generation that supposedly were told they were special; children that were given an over-inflated sense of their own worth and – as a consequence – are now far too easily offended.

But now these easily-offended snowflakes are entering the workplace. So what are we as employers and business owners going to do when these ‘snowflakes’ increasingly make up the workforce? Are we going to have to constantly shower them with praise, irrespective of how well they’re performing?

Maybe the question is academic though – because far too many bosses and managers seem to have a problem with giving their teams any praise.

Why is that? Any number of research studies show that praise and positive recognition in the workplace can be hugely motivating – and not just for the person on the receiving end of it. Employee of the Month is too easily dismissed as a cliché: that’s wrong, it works.

We don’t really need a research study, do we? Our own commons sense tells us that praise works. Your wife only has to say, “Oh, darling, that was wonderful…” And you’ll be far more likely to make her another slice of toast.

One of the worst things a manager can do is reward hard work and achievement with silence. Yet only one in four American workers are confident that if they do good work they’ll be praised for it. Far too often the culture seems to be, “No news is good news” or – as they say in Germany – “Nicht gescholten ist lob genug.” (No scolding is praise enough.)

But we all know that’s nonsense. So why do people struggle to give praise? Maybe it starts with a false belief that really good managers are the tough ones who don’t hold back when it comes to telling people what’s wrong. Maybe some managers believe that giving praise will encourage staff to take it easy and rest on their laurels. Some might be consciously or unconsciously copying their own previous bosses: some managers might even see giving praise as a sign of weakness.

Whatever the reason the number of managers who don’t give any positive feedback is frighteningly high – 37% according to a recent survey in the Harvard Business Review. And you can probably add a few percentage points more: there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that what a manager sees as ‘straightforward, honest feedback’ is all too often perceived as criticism.

I think that’s a tragedy. There’s no better way to motivate people than by giving praise and it always works. There cannot be a more effective phrase in a manager’s vocabulary than, “You did a great job. Thank you.”

Not for the first time, I’m struck by the parallel between managing a team and being a parent. I’ve always tried to be honest with my boys: if they’ve done brilliantly, I’ll shower them with praise. If they could have done better, I’ll try to tactfully point it out – and suggest a way they could improve. I’ve never been a believer in praising everything they do – otherwise praise becomes meaningless – and the same is true in the workplace. But if someone has done a great job, tell them.

It will be the best investment of time and no money you ever make.

And now I must turn my attention to my own beautiful, unique snowflakes. If you can call someone who thinks his bedroom floor should be covered in underpants and needs a three course meal two hours before a three course meal a ‘snowflake…’