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Be Nice to Your Workforce This Christmas…

“It was language, it was tone, he would be very curt with people. And he did this in front of a lot of other people. I think people felt demeaned.”

Does that sound like someone you’ve worked with? A former boss perhaps? Hopefully not a current one! They are in fact the words of former head of the Foreign Office, Lord McDonald of Salford, describing the justice secretary Dominic Raab. In recent media reports, McDonald claimed that Raab’s behaviour had created a ‘climate of fear’ amongst civil servants reducing some to tears and leaving others ‘scared’ to go into his office.

This follows just weeks since the resignation of Sir Gavin Williamson, currently facing two investigations under parliament’s independent complaints and grievance scheme, after a former senior civil servant made a formal complaint claiming that Williamson had told them to ‘slit your throat’ and ‘jump out of a window’.

Staff have spoken publicly about the ‘extreme impact’ on their mental health of working for Williamson, whilst some employees in Raab’s department chose to leave their jobs. We may all be guilty of losing our tempers at work at times of stress or frustration from time to time – we’re all human after all – but consistently treating employees in such a manner that affects their health and wellbeing to the point that they resign, seems at best an anachronism in the twenty-first century workplace.

This month, we had the great pleasure of speaking to ground-worker and mental health advocate Steve Kerslake for part 2 of the soon-to-be published ATT podcast about mental health and wellbeing in the construction industry. Steve is the founder of Construction Sport, an initiative using sport as a lever to encourage men working in the sector to connect with colleagues and feel more comfortable sharing their concerns and anxieties.

Steve speaks publicly about the mental health crisis in the construction industry, informed by his own experience and that of others he has witnessed over decades in his career, in the context of the shocking suicide statistics amongst construction workers. Frequently insecure employment, a hand-to-mouth existence, stressful working conditions, and being away from home, family and friends can all be contributory factors which result in up to two construction workers taking their lives each working day.

Steve’s is just one voice amongst a groundswell calling for action from industry and policy makers to ensure that construction workers have access to the same sort of psychological support as those in the emergency services and the military. With a workplace injury rate second only to agriculture, forestry and fishing, the prevalence of work-related musculoskeletal disorders and occupational lung disease and high fatality rates – ten* construction workers lost their lives in the quarter April to June 2022 – construction is one of the most hazardous industries to work in.

Encouraging a culture where people feel confident about speaking out if they think something is unsafe requires an environment of mutual respect and care, both for oneself and for one’s colleagues. Maintaining a hierarchy by undermining and – let’s say it – bullying people, diminishes all of us, including the perpetrators.

The HSE reports that 822,000 people were suffering stress, depression or anxiety in 2022; no doubt employees at the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence amongst them. The total cost to UK plc of workplace self-reported injuries and ill health in 2018/19 was £16.2 billion. The corollary that a workplace which safeguards people’s wellbeing and enables them to thrive is more productive and more efficient is well made, but beyond the bottom line there is simple humanity. Asking someone how they are and paying proper attention to their response doesn’t impact negatively on the balance sheet.

When an organisation approaches ATT about attending one of our programmes, we always recommend that a ‘vertical slice’ of the workforce participate – from the CEO to the workers on the ground to the back-office staff. Culture change does not happen in silos. It’s commonly said that change begins at the top, but, in the workplace, everyone has an equal stake and conversations built across an organisation are more profoundly effective than diktats issued from above.

As we move towards Christmas, my thoughts inevitably turn to Ebeneezer Scrooge; the archetype of the mean-spirited and punitive boss entirely focused on profit at the expense of the well-being of his down-trodden, enervated employee, Bob Cratchit. Let’s hope that all of us – including our public servants at the highest levels – can still learn something from this century-and-a-half-old tale and create kinder, safer workplaces that value everybody and the work they do.

*As reported under RIDDOR where HSE is the enforcing authority.

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