Month: January 2020

Your job is designed to stress you out

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By Tom Goulding, Analyst

TomIt has been widely reported that stress is the “health epidemic of the 21st Century”. The latest statistics for the UK suggest that 12.8 million workdays were lost in 2018/19 to work-related stress, depression, and anxiety.1 The most commonly-cited reason was workload pressures, including tight deadlines and too much responsibility. Evidence strongly suggests that stress impacts employee health2, job satisfaction3, turnover4, as well as productivity and profits.5

The resulting costs of a stressed workforce are significant, and employers have taken note. The Organisational Health and Wellbeing industry that seeks to reduce workplace stress was worth an estimated £526 million in the UK last year.6 However, the effectiveness of programmes in improving wellbeing is questionable. One study examined over 30,000 U.S. warehouse workers, finding those in wellbeing programmes reported no difference in absenteeism, healthcare spending, or job performance.7 Another study implies corporate wellbeing programmes are overwhelmingly taken up by healthy employees, and may even alienate those dealing with existing issues, meaning that programmes can screen out the employees that need help the most.8

The corporate approach to wellbeing evidently needs to be re-examined. W. Edwards Deming argued that “every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets”, and it seems clear that many organisations are currently designed to produce stressed workers. It seems tautological to say that people are stressed because work is stressful, but it is an important point to make. While theory and evidence both suggest some level of stress is beneficial for performance, too much stress is undoubtedly harmful, as shown in the graph below. If most people are more stressed than is optimal, this is because their roles are more stressful than is optimal.

tom blog

Wellbeing initiatives often focus on individuals, aiming to improve their resilience or boost the sense of satisfaction employees get from their work. While there is a growing ‘job crafting’ movement9 in the Human Resources world, the power to redesign roles generally belongs to organisations rather than employees. Individual resilience is just one half of the picture. The focus on individuals is particularly convenient for employers, as it precludes any scrutiny into how they are contributing to the problem. This oversight likely underlies the previously discussed ineffectiveness of many wellbeing initiatives.

Furthermore, shifting responsibility from the least powerful part of the system (individuals) to the most powerful (the organisation) magnifies the potential impact of interventions. To take an example that has likely impacted your own life, consider plastic straws. You can choose to personally avoid plastic straws, but it would be impossible for an individual to match the impact of Tesco’s recent decision10 to remove one billion pieces of single-use plastic from their stores by end of 2020, or many retailers’ decision to remove plastic straws altogether.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach but, ultimately, a large portion of the responsibility must lie with the organisation to listen to their people and act to make changes to the system. Some situations can be remedied by increased flexibility of working hours or location, while others require more clearly-defined boundaries between ‘work time’ and ‘home time’. Some companies would benefit from having wellbeing sessions during the workday, while others would generate yet more stress as employees try to find the time to fit these in among their schedules. Offering free gym classes or fresh fruit and calling it a day simply are not enough, and often miss the mark entirely. Organisations must develop a signature approach to wellbeing that is tailored specifically for their people and environment.

Of course, it is still up to employees to engage with wellbeing initiatives once they are deployed, but deployment of genuinely effective initiatives is only possible once organisations accept their responsibility and start making systematic changes to address their specific issues.

If you’re interested in developing a clear picture of where to begin within your own organisation, or want to discuss your own experience with health and wellbeing initiatives, please feel free to get in touch with me.


  1. Health and Safety Executive. (2019). Work-related stress, anxiety or depression statistics in Great Britain; https://www.hse.gov.uk/statistics/causdis/stress.pdf
  2. Mayo Clinic Staff. (2019). Stress symptoms: Effects on your body and behaviour;
  3. Ismail et al. (2015). The Relationship between Stress and Job Satisfaction: Evidence from a Malaysian Peacekeeping Mission.
  4. Lu Y, Hu X, Huang X, et al. (2017). The relationship between job satisfaction, work stress, work–family conflict, and turnover intention among physicians in Guangdong, China: a cross-sectional study.
  5. Denning, Stephanie. (2018). How Stress Is The Business World’s Silent Killer; https://www.forbes.com/sites/stephaniedenning/2018/05/04/what-is-the-cost-of-stress-how-stress-is-the-business-worlds-silent-killer/#706b6546e061
  6. IbisWorld. (2019). Corporate Wellness Services in the UK – Market Research Report; https://www.ibisworld.com/united-kingdom/market-research-reports/corporate-wellness-services-industry/
  7. Song, Baicker. (2019). Effect of a Workplace Wellness Program on Employee Health and Economic Outcomes: A Randomized Clinical Trial
  8. Jones, Molitor, Reif. (2018). What Do Workplace Wellness Programs Do? Evidence from the Illinois Workplace Wellness Study.
  9. Lee, Louise. (2016). Should Employees Design Their Own Jobs? https://www.gsb.stanford.edu/insights/should-employees-design-their-own-jobs
  10. Tesco news bulletin. (2019); https://www.tescoplc.com/news/2019/tesco-to-remove-one-billion-pieces-of-plastic-from-products-by-the-end-of-2020/?category=packaging

Technology in HR: Taking a Step Back

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By Nader Sleiman, Analyst

nader‘Could AI decide your job fate?’ recently led my LinkedIn homepage in the News and Views section. The storyline included a link to an article in The Telegraph entitled ‘AI used for first time in job interviews in UK to find best applicants’. As the article went into detail on how AI would be introduced into recruitment practices, and the positive and negative impacts it might have, the ethics behind introducing this technology in selection were put in question. Despite our fascination with introducing technology to the workplace, there are points when one must pause and reflect on when and how technology is used and whether this use is adding value. I hope that what follows serves as an eye-opener regarding what AI means for recruitment today, and why it is still too early for this tool to be adopted for the purpose of assessing people’s candidacy.

Is AI in recruitment simply ‘good’ or ‘bad’?

The Telegraph article introduced both sides of the argument: the side presenting a positive view of AI in recruitment, and the side that saw the flaws AI demonstrated in this area only in 2018 when Amazon shut down their recruitment AI project for racial and gender bias.[1] Technology has grown to play a crucial role for HR processes. Information systems such as Workday, Oracle’s Taleo, and SAP’s SuccessFactors have facilitated the automated side of HR, paving the way for a focus on process improvement. Even AI offers recruiters great benefits, such as facial recognition that detects candidates’ emotional state and body language during recorded interviews to identify personal characteristics and quality of information delivery. Similarly to its simpler predecessors, AI reduces time spent on HR procedures and allows recruitment professionals more time to focus on developing the process. This technology also could contribute to reducing subjectivity, as well, but it is yet to achieve this level of advancement.

Adopting AI remains a questionable approach to recruitment, largely because of its history of bias. Dr. Muneera Bano of Swinburne University of Technology points out that AI’s gender bias is the result of historical gender discrepancy in cyber content. As AI gathers information, the biases expressed by human beings are integrated into AI’s assessments, threatening the chances of women being fairly assessed. Joy Buolamwini’s research found that IBM, Microsoft, and Amazon’s AI recruitment systems failed to even identify the gender of famous African American women, such as Michelle Obama, Serena Williams, and Oprah Winfrey. The result, therefore, is an AI preference for male candidates over female candidates in the assessment, which could lead to dismissing qualified female candidates of colour solely on the basis of race or gender.

Reflecting on Interviews as a Selection Tool

Although automation is without doubt a key part of the future of work, the automation of HR professionals’ selection practices, particularly the practice of interviewing itself, must be re-evaluated.

The predictive validity of interviews, in their various types, has been discussed and questioned by HR researchers for decades.[2] This is only partly because of the possible subjectivity of the interviewer, but it is also because of the differences that may appear in performance from the same person under varying circumstances. Numerous circumstantial variables can affect a candidate’s performance in interviews, making this selection technique less representative of candidates’ skills. For that reason, businesses need to focus on more than just the technological aspect of the future of work, as the process itself could be flawed to begin with. In other words, introducing technology to a flawed process, whose flaw has little to do with its use of technology or lack thereof, cannot improve it.

As automation and technological changes make their way further into the way we operate as organisations, we must never forget to question and improve the core of how we do things. The most important element will always be the human resource. If you would like to discuss recruitment practices and how technology can currently contribute to selection practices, please feel free to send me an email.


[1] Dastin, Jeffrey (Oct 10, 2018). Amazon scraps secret AI recruiting tool that showed bias against women. Reuters.

[2] Burbeck, E. (1988). Predictive Validity of the Recruit Selection Interview. The Police Journal61(4), 304–311.

3 Unexpected Insights on Dynamic Workforce Planning

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By Ellen Kwan, Analyst

3 Unexpected Insights on Dynamic Workforce Planning

At the end of last year, Future of Work Research Consortium delegates came together for HSM’s Dynamic Workforce Planning Masterclass, which was full of insights, activities and cross-industry collaboration. Through conversations and live polling with consortium members, we have gained some new perspectives on Dynamic Workforce Planning. As it is often the case, learning was a two-way street at the Masterclass – we have also walked away with unexpected perspectives on Dynamic Workforce Planning.

Upskill and Reskill for Social Mobility

“Automation presents an interesting counterintuition in shifting people whose skills are in decline into higher paying jobs.”

While the advent of the digital revolution presents an opportunity to overcome challenges in social mobility, the same opportunities could instead be barriers to those without existing digital skills.

As noted by the Social Mobility Commission’s State of the Nation 2018-19 report, “being born privileged in Britain means that you are likely to remain privileged. Being born disadvantaged, however, means that you may have to overcome a series of barriers to ensure that your children are not stuck in the same trap”[1].  The UK’s social mobility has been reported to have remained “virtually stagnant” since 2014. This phenomenon can, in part, be attributed to the “virtuous cycle of work training and pay rises” available to high-skilled workers. While almost a third of employees in managerial and professional occupations took part in training over the past three months, only 18% in routine and manual jobs had the same opportunity. According to Dr. Lunchinskaya from the Institute for Employment Research, these findings show a vicious cycle of learning “whereby those with low or no qualifications are much less likely to access education and training after leaving school than those with high qualification.”[2] As a result, the low-skilled are unable to upskill to meet the needs of the digital future, continuously preserving low-skilled employees at lower paid roles.

Automation presents organisations and governments with the opportunity to shape how their workforce and social landscape looks. When CEOs were asked to list the most important measures of success in 2019, the number one measure was “impact on society, including income inequality and diversity.”[3] Rather than upskilling or reskilling employees to similar roles which would be future-proofed, organisations could play a key role in displaced employees’ social mobility by identifying roles with the most skill and task adjacencies that offer higher pay. Therefore, as automation and digitisation become an increasingly prevalent phenomenon across different types of work, organisations can either become active shapers of the social landscape, or lose part of their workforce to the increasing digital divide.

Reframe the Language of the Future

“The way we speak about the future can bring joy to encourage people to embrace those ideas of the future.”

What immediately comes to mind when you hear terms like “automation”, “Artificial Intelligence”, or “human-machine collaboration”? With thoughts of Skynet and Elon Musk’s warnings on humankind’s future enslavement to machines, it comes as no surprise that over 65% of Americans fear automation[4].

Consider Daniel Kahneman’s research on thinking fast and slow. While thinking fast (system 1 thinking) relies on first impressions and ‘gut-reactions’ to make decisions, thinking slow (system 2) relies on reflection and logical analysis. Our tendency to make gut-reactions first can be attributed to the fact that when we have capacity for rational information processing, we have little authority to use that information for making decisions. In the deeper part of our brain where system 1 thinking takes place (the Vagus nerve), we have no rational processing capacity, but more authority in using system 1 to make decisions[5]. Therefore, when employees are told that technological change is coming, system 1 could already be operating before employees can consider benefits of the change. Instead, fast thinking relies on heuristics and mental biases to create conclusions about the technological change – fear and anxiety.

An example of a mental bias that fast thinking falls victim to is availability heuristic. The availability heuristic leads people to assume that information that is readily available is valid. A study in 2010 found that people who watch violent media gave higher estimates of crime in the real world than those not exposed to violent media[6]. In the context of automation and digitisation, the barrage of media reports on job losses from automation, film adaptations of robotic overlords taking over humanity, and stories or anecdotes about others whose jobs have been displaced can cause employees to overestimate the threat of automation.

While thinking fast can lead us to conclusions of doom and gloom around automation in the future of work, organisations and leaders can work to shift emotions of fear into excitement. Research has found that certain fearful situations can activate the reward centre in the brain[7] under specific conditions. Klucken (2009) recommends creating situations for predictable fear, rather than unanticipated fear. When we can anticipate the fearful situation, humans are able to activate the limbic system, allowing us to feel alert and excited without concern over actual threats.

In summary, when framing language of the future, leaders should ensure that their message fulfils the following three requirements:

  1. Widespread and readily available in a number of different formats for employees (e.g. videos, learning journeys, blog posts)
  2. Positive and focused on potential gains for employees
  3. Transparent about next steps and implications on employees’ roles

Renaissance of Work

“Let’s start calling the future of work ‘The Renaissance of Work.’”

As technological ingenuity has grown exponentially prevalent in the workplace, we now need to put a human focus back into work. With technology’s growing potential, leaders are now starting to see the role that humans can play alongside technology. From creating new jobs to manage and regulate technology (e.g. AI ethics engineers) to shifting focus from technical skills to uniquely human skills (e.g. creativity), the human focus is beginning to catch up to the digital boom.

Moving beyond human-machine collaboration, organisations will need to employ social ingenuity to truly thrive in the future of work. Demographic and societal changes, such as longer working lives and shifting family dynamics, requires organisations to reinvent the way we think about work and its role in identity and life. Organisations must begin thinking about what it means to put humans at the centre, understanding what the future landscape of work may look like, and identifying avenues to enable humans to thrive, rather than to be held a victim of the future landscape.

An example of social ingenuity needed now is the concept of retirement. Traditionally, people are recruited into an entry-level position after completing their full-time education. Throughout their careers, they climb up the promotional ladder, making occasional jumps across organisations. This eventually stops as people reach their late 50s or early 60s, as they prepare for retirement. However, as longevity increases, so does people’s desire to lengthen their working lives. While governments play a key role in mandating official retirement age, organisations play an active part in how retirement can be implemented. Too often, employees are offered a binary choice between full-time work or retirement. By doing so, organisations fail to tap into the crystalline intelligence typically held in experienced employees, which refers to the tacit knowledge of how to perform tasks. The renaissance of work calls for a mindset shift in how retirement is perceived, whether it continues to remain as a binary choice, or a flexible combination of work embedded within retirement. If the future of retirement does call for flexibility, what would it look like? These are questions that organisations should begin considering to leverage the skills and potential offered by retiring employees.

By redefining the concept of retirement, organisations can utilise the full potential of their workforce. In turn, employees can also craft the retirement lifestyle that best suits them according to their financial, emotional, and social needs.

As we reach the Renaissance of Work, leaders must put humans back at the forefront of work. Taking a human-focused lens moves beyond thinking about skills or jobs, but considers how to leverage changing human needs to craft a mutually beneficial future of work.

 

If you would like to find out more about Dynamic Workforce Planning, or how you can join Prof. Lynda Gratton’s Future of Work Research Consortium, get in touch with Anna.


[1] State of the Nation 2018-19: Social Mobility in Great Britain

[2] Social Mobility Commission report warns of ‘virtuous’ and ‘vicious’ cycle of adult learning

[3] Introduction: Leading the social enterprise – Reinvent with a human focus

[4] How Americans see automation and the workplace in 7 charts

[5] Kahneman, Daniel, 1934- author. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. New York :Farrar, Straus and Giroux,

[6] Riddle, Karen (2010). “Always on My Mind: Exploring How Frequent, Recent, and Vivid Television Portrayals Are Used in the Formation of Social Reality Judgments”. Media Psychology. 13 (2): 155–179.

[7] Klucken, T. et al 2009. “Contingency Learning in Human Fear Conditioning Involves the Ventral Striatum.” Human Brain Mapping 30:3636–3644