Mondayphobia is no irrational fear

My journey to work today was delayed by half an hour due to someone becoming seriously ill on the Jubilee underground line. I’ve no idea what happened to this unfortunate person  (in spite of my delayed journey, I genuinely wish them well!) but I found myself reflecting how often this happens on a Monday.

There is scientific evidence that we are at a 20% higher  risk of a heart attack on a Monday morning than any other day of the week.  Not only are mornings generally a bad time, due to high levels of the stress hormone cortisol, but also, as researchers at Tokyo Women’s Medical University discovered, our blood pressure and heart rate rises due to the stress of returning to work. This syndrome, similar to jet lag, has recently been termed as ‘social lag’ – the readjustment to early starts that we subject our bodies to every Monday after a weekend of late nights and lie-ins.

It’s no perhaps no surprise therefore that Monday is also the most popular day for employees to pull a sickie. According to research by Mercers, an astonishing 35% of all sick leave is taken on a Monday, compared to only 3% on a Friday.

In a separate  study by Mind, the UK mental health charity, researchers found that 25% of people say that their weekends are ruined by the thought of having to return to work on a Monday – a sobering thought for any employer or manager.

As someone who officially ‘likes Mondays’, I’m aware that I’m championing a counter-trend. Following the theme of my most recent blog post on health & safety, employee engagement professionals have a crucial role to play in helping people combat their mondayphobia. By helping create a great place to work for employees, we’re not only promoting the general happiness of mankind, we’re also saving lives into the bargain. Inspired by such a noble cause such, is it any wonder that I regularly skip off to work on a Monday morning?

When employee engagement saves lives

Some journalists, who do nothing more dangerous than plug in their laptops, like to poke fun at so-called ‘elf and safety’. Typical targets are schools that won’t let children play conkers or councils that ban bunting because of health and safety regulations. Yet in some business sectors such as construction, engineering or the extraction industries, engaging employees about safety issues can actually save lives.

According to the latest UK Health & Safety Executive (HSE) statistics, last year 173 people died in work-related accidents in the UK. Although the fatality rate has been steadily falling (20 years ago it was double this figure), we shouldn’t tolerate any level of death in the workplace.

Construction still accounts for more deaths than any other industry (again, see HSE report), last year there were 50 deaths in the UK. This amounts to 2.3 deaths per 100,000 construction workers. To quote the title of Rita Donaghy’s 2009 UK Government report into the underlying causes, ‘One death is too many’.

Reading such statistics always makes me shudder. Nearly thirty years ago as an undergraduate, I spent a summer vacation working on an office block building site in my home city of Manchester. In three months, I never saw a single person wear a safety helmet. The crane operator spent lunchtime in the pub and could barely walk in a straight line let alone drive a tower crane. The scaffolding crew swung around like monkeys in a zoo. One day when we were hauling the roof trusses by rope onto the fourth storey, a builder had me stand on one end of the truss while he calmly walked along the narrow beam over a 60 ft drop to untie the rope. That memory makes me feel queasy even now. While the industry has improved massively since those mad days, it still has a long way to go.

Recently I co-organised a leadership conference at which the health and safety team used a group of actors to land some powerful messages about taking personal responsibility for safety. In the aftermath of a (fictional) accident, the audience engaged with the characters individually. We learned how each had in some way got their priorities wrong, resulting in  bad decisions with disastrous consequences. Ultimately, nothing is so important that we can’t wait until we can find a way to do it safely.  For me, this was an all time top ten employee engagement experience.

So no one should every fall into the trap of thinking that health and safety communication is dull. Instead, employee engagement professionals should see it as the best opportunity you will ever have to do something that could be the difference between life and death. Until we can drive the UK fatal accident rate down to zero – the only tolerable level – there is still much work to be done.

Make your facilities manager your new best friend

News that Amazon is looking for a new London base has prompted speculation about where they could find offices big enough for their needs, which at 750,000 sq ft, is the largest the capital has seen for 2 years. It raises an interesting question about how much space per employee you need to make a successful work environment. In recent years, the average employee work area in London has fallen from 190 sq ft to 120 sq ft. But does anyone need that much space if increasingly, many of us work quite happily at home with a macbook, a mobile phone and a beanbag?

As prime London commercial rents push £40 a sq ft, most companies are having to take a serious look at how they use space. So many office environments are crammed full of depressingly drab furniture: cupboards and pedestals that store little more than an employee’s food stash and malodorous gym kit;  wall cabinets chock full of out-of-date publications that no-one can be bothered to archive or shred. Even desks are becoming redundant as desktops give way to laptops and desk phones are replaced by smartphones; punching a telephone number into a keypad now seems like so much effort.

Interestingly, the UK legal minimum for office space is a mere 40 square foot per person, which, depending on ceiling height, seems barely enough room to swing a cat. But with more companies adopting enlightened attitudes towards flexible working and hot-desking, 60-80 sq ft per person will become increasingly achievable. Provided that companies think creatively about their environment, this does not need not be at the expense of employee engagement.  Getting rid of all the hideous grey furniture is an opportunity to open up the environment to creative meeting areas and quiet zones with the kind of furniture that people would choose to have in their own homes.

In creating inspirational office spaces for tomorrow’s employees, facilities management and employee engagement professionals should be each other’s new best friends, for the benefit of both employees and shareholders.

Engaging employees through social media – an idea whose time has come

Attending an event this evening hosted by Crelos, the organisational change consultancy, I was persuaded that social media has finally emerged as a major tool for employee engagement. Entitled ‘Into the Ether? Harnessing Social Media to Engage in Change’, the event launched a research report by Crelos consultant Alana Inness. I highly recommend having a read – it’s packed with useful insights about how enlightened companies are using social media tools right now.

Over the years, I’ve encountered several failed attempts to engage employees through social media. One that stays in the mind was an early attempt to introduce facebook like software to a bemused internal audience. Although the site was beautifully designed and attracted hundreds of sign-ups when launched,  a year later it was as dead as the proverbial dodo. People could simply not see the point of it, in spite of the majority of people being enthusiastic facebook fans outside of work. Similarly, I recall a highly charismatic leader whose enthusiasm for yammer introduced a new era of direct communication with his team, while his somewhat obsolescent internal communication manager watched from the sidelines. But when the leader left, the company’s flirtation with yammer ended. In both examples, it was a case of the right idea at the wrong time.

Yet it is as a collaboration tool that social media is now truly coming into its own, enabling organisations to harness the collective power of their people to solve problems. And if one of the essential principles of innovation is learning how to fail fast, social media has an important role to play. A memorable quote from the event was that there is ‘something very powerful about having a rubbish idea rubbished’ by your peers.

A reassuring message is that there are no real social media experts yet, because the technology is still too young. Everyone is still learning. The best way to start is to begin. If you don’t yet know what social media can do for you, then sign up and give it a try. That advice applies to organisations as well as to individuals. If you are one of those leaders whose idea of being on LinkedIn is to hand your PA all the business cards you collect, then now is the time to have a go yourself and see what it can do for you.




Do you know a brain fried leader?

Not often that I find myself tearing out a page from the Evening Standard freesheet but an article this week by Niki Chesworth on ‘brain fried’ bosses caught my attention. It quotes research findings from a survey by Orion management consultancy that only one in twenty bosses are good leaders and four in twenty do more harm than good because they are ‘brain fried’. Would you agree? Certainly the concept of brain fried bosses, stressed out with dealing with the now and unable to focus on the future has a ring of truth about it.

Orion’s website includes a fun little video about the importance of designing ‘brain friendly’ leadership development programmes, based on neuroscience – a scientific understanding of how the brain works. To summarise their five principles for ‘brain friendly’ learning:
– we are best able to digest information fed to us in small chunks when we’re mildly stressed (by which I think they mean being awake and alert)
– we only remember information when we have used it several times
– we will only change our behaviour when we understand why something is good for us personally
– for new behaviour to stick, we need to make it a habit
– the brain learns best after a good night’s sleep!

Although much of this may be familiar, I think this it’s a useful model to stress test any employee engagement programme you are planning. Although learning about new things may be in our best interests, we always have to remember that positive change can be just as threatening to people as negative change. So, it’s important that we invest time and effort in helping people to see the benefits for them personally of any new learning. It’s also essential to follow up on the learning experience to reinforce the new behaviours, rather than simply assume that everyone will becomes an instant convert to the new way of thinking.

The final point about getting a good night sleep is a theme that I will return to constantly in this blog, as I genuinely believe that our 24/7, always on, digitally overloaded lifestyles is the hidden asbestos of our modern day corporate lifestyles.