‘Sushi at work’ will not solve workers' mental ill-health, warns CIPD president

Inaugural event attendees told culture change needed before ‘window of opportunity’ shuts

Quick fixes will not improve employees’ mental ill-health, the CIPD’s president warned attendees of a flagship event yesterday.

Speaking at the Mad World Conference and Exhibition, Professor Sir Cary Cooper urged employers to identify what could be damaging workers’ wellbeing instead of only offering “easy” solutions like “mindfulness at lunch”.

Cooper, who is also professor of organisational psychology and health at the Alliance Manchester Business School, said: “We’re looking for quick fixes. A lot of companies are. They say ‘let’s do sushi at the desk’. I don’t think it’s the solution. The solution is the culture of your workplace.” 

Earlier this year, the CIPD’s UK Working Lives survey revealed a quarter (24 per cent) of employees said their job negatively affected their mental health. One in five (22 per cent) reported feeling exhausted at work and one in 10 (11 per cent) regularly felt miserable.

The “fundamental issue in the whole wellbeing arena” is the need for a new kind of leader, Cooper told the audience of a talk entitled Mental Capital and Wellbeing in the Workplace.

He acknowledged managers in the UK were “technically extremely competent” but asked: “Do we train them to manage people? Do we enhance their emotional intelligence? Do we have socially and interpersonally sensitive line managers?

“What we are not doing is selecting the right people for the times we’re in. We’ve got fewer people, they’re doing more work, they’re feeling more insecure.”

Cooper concluded: “Managing that kind of cohort, where there is an overload, requires a socially, interpersonally skilled manager. If someone feels overloaded or has unrealistic deadlines and feels career blocked, who is responsible for all of that? We are. Anybody in a managerial role, that’s our job.”

Mark Pigou, co-founder of Mad World and director of Internet Retailing Media, agreed with Cooper’s sentiments but added involving the C-suite was fundamental to progress. 

He said: “There's a movement, an enthusiasm and appetite, but the conversation has been getting stuck at line manager level. There seems to be a general consensus that for real change to happen, it has to come from the boardroom. Managers have to be unafraid to keep talking about it and keep asking for that meeting. We have to keep our foot on the gas.”

Pigou continued: “If you have powerful business leaders sticking their hand up and saying, ‘You know what, look at me. It's not a curse. I'm still a great business leader’, that will make a huge difference.”

He told People Management organisers of the event are considering making it compulsory for a ticket holder to bring a C-suite representative from their company. 

Louise Aston, wellbeing director at Business in the Community (BITC) and speaker at the event, agreed maintaining momentum was crucial. 

She said: “We’re at an incredibly exciting time for mental health. We’ve got an unprecedented moment in time, in history, where we really need to speed up the process. We’re not going to have this window of opportunity for very long so we all have a collective responsibility to make things happen faster.” 

Sir Ian Cheshire, chair of Barclays UK and the Heads Together campaign, advised employers to reach outside their organisation as “learning from one organisation to the other is incredibly powerful”. 

He added: “Don’t be shy about this, you’ve got to push. It has to be woven into the business.”