Author Archives: Isobel

Forecasting the Trajectory of an Epidemic

Mark Levene is Professor of Computer Science in Birkbeck’s Department of Computer Science and Information Systems. He shares insights from research into modelling the waves of an epidemic.

Epidemics such as COVID-19 come in “waves”, although the precise definition of a wave in this context is somewhat elusive.  A standard way to model the epidemic is as a time series that records, say the number of daily hospitalisation or deaths, and these can be plotted to view the progress of the epidemic.

Waves in the time series span from one valley to another with a peak in between them. The shape of an individual wave can be modelled as a statistical distribution and several waves can be sequentially combined. More often than not waves are not symmetric, that is, the rate at which, say hospitalisations, increase is not the same rate at which they decrease once the peak of the wave has been reached. This non-symmetrical nature of a wave is called its skewness.

To take into account the skewness of epidemic waves we introduce the skew logistic distribution, which is a novel yet simple extension of the symmetric logistic distribution widely used in the modelling of epidemic data.

To validate our model, we provide a full analysis of the first four waves of COVID-19 deaths in the UK from the 30 January 2020 to 30 July 2021.

Our results show a good fit to the proposed skew logistic distribution, and thus could potentially augment existing more established models that are being used to forecast the trajectory of an epidemic.

Our findings have been published in MDPI Entropy.

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Ageing Populations and Macroeconomy

Yunus Aksoy smiling into the camera.Professor Yunus Aksoy shares how ageing populations impact the workforce and discusses possible policy responses.

Ageing populations are a global phenomenon. They are caused by two main trends:

  1. Fertility decline: the number of children per woman in a population has been slowly decreasing since the 1990s.
  2. Declining mortality rates: people are living longer due to medical advances and lifestyle changes.

These demographic structure changes have wide-reaching impacts in the short and medium/long term. However, the fact that their impact is not visible day-to-day means that they are relatively less discussed in everyday policymaking. My work with my colleagues Professor Ron Smith at Birkbeck, Dr Henrique Basso at the Bank of Spain and Dr Toby Grasl investigates the impact of ageing populations on macroeconomy in general and brings it to the table in policy circles. I am very pleased to see that the issue has started to be taken seriously by many international organisations like the IMF, ECB, World Bank, BIS and numerous central banks. Our research has had significant impact on the debate.

Economists tend to concentrate on growth, inflation and unemployment rates, and what Central Banks and Finance Ministries can do to stabilise the economy over the short term. However, there are other deep and slowly changing forces affecting the economy about which policymakers can do little. The weak recovery after the global financial crisis has sparked renewed interest in these longer term forces, including demographics, which had often been ignored. As individuals, we are often aware of the adverse effects of ageing, as the years go by. Societies can suffer similar adverse effects from ageing, and most developed economies are ageing.

According to the UN Population Division, almost every developed economy has seen a decline in fertility rates and an increase in life expectancy. As a result, the average proportion of the population aged 60+ is projected to increase from 16% in 1970 to 29% in 2030, with most of the corresponding decline experienced in the 0-19 age group in 21 OECD economies.

In the 1960s, Simon Kuznets suggested that a society consisting of consumers, savers and producers can grow in a sustainable way if the demographic structure was a rough pyramid. Larger at the bottom, where there are the youngest – up to the age of twenty or so – the working age next – then at the top a smaller group of older people. The pyramid is now turning upside down, with the bulge at the top.

Why is the demographic structure relevant?

Our research has examined the impact of demographic structure on economic activity, productivity, and innovation. Demographic structure may affect long and short-term economic conditions in several ways. Different age groups have different savings behaviour; have different productivity levels; work different amounts (as the very young and very old tend not to work); contribute differently to the innovation process; and have different needs. Therefore, changes to the demographic structure of a society can be expected to influence interest rates and output in both the long and short-term.

Our analysis shows that the changing age profile across OECD countries has economically and statistically significant impacts and that it roughly follows a life-cycle pattern; that is, people who are likely to be dependent on state or other forms of support – generally the very young and the old populations – seem to reduce economic growth, investment and real returns in the long-run.

Demographic structure also affects innovation; the economy is less likely to develop and/or patent new innovations/inventions. Similarly, productivity, which is driven by innovation, is positively affected by young and middle aged cohorts and negatively by the dependant young and retirees.

Demographics, innovation and medium-run economic performance

When people expect to live longer, they save more for their retirement and consume less, increasing demand for investment products and causing a decline in their returns. This provides one explanation in the steady decline in real interest rates in OECD countries since the 1980s. But it leaves us with a puzzle. A decrease in long-term interest rates should increase investment, but that is not what we observe. Our estimates show that long-term investment is declining. Our solution to the puzzle is that aging has also lowered the productivity of investment, reducing the incentive to invest, because the rate of ideas production and innovation, mainly done by the young, has reduced.

With fewer younger people in the population, there will be less creativity and ideas. Thus, while the cost of investment finance may be lower due to higher savings of the aging population, there are not enough ideas worth capitalising on and so long-term investment and real output declines. An ageing population also throws up social challenges, such as the provision of care for the elderly and how this can be supported.

Are there solutions?

While immigration may address the shortage of workers in the middle of the age categories, the political problems it raises are such that governments are usually unwilling to develop immigration policies that would truly address the issue. Furthermore, as populations are aging globally, this is not an adequate long-term solution. Giving more childcare support for young parents could help increase fertility rates and this is also related to building human capital starting from a very young age.

Increases in productivity by investing in human capital, education and skills is of crucial importance, as is increased funding for research and development that could bolster a  generation of new ideas and create new innovations and investment opportunities.  At Birkbeck, we have long understood the importance of lifelong learning that is directly associated with productivity gains for the economy, which in the current climate could help to compensate for a reduced workforce and staggered productivity. Robots and AI could also address the productivity/labour supply challenges, especially if we reach a point where machines can generate innovations and robots might be used more to fill gaps in the work force and provide care for the elderly, but it might make more people unemployed.

A typical challenge is that politicians are often short sighted. Long-term investment in order to boost human capital and productivity would not be a top priority for an incumbent politician in the short term, despite the transformative effects they could have for the generations to come.  Often, what we think is happening now is the slow moving changes that started a long time back, so a long-term view is essential to tackle the economic impact of ageing populations to address the future.

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A diamond in the rough? Or a universal design – one for all.

Dr Nancy Doyle (Founder and CRO of Genius Within CIC) and Professor Almuth McDowall ask where we can look for good research on neurodiversity at work and what are the most important knowledge gaps to fill. This lay summary of the research was composed by Nicola Maguire-Alcock.

We live in a time where there is an increased understanding that humans are all different, not only by our physical characteristics, but also how we think and behave. The term ‘neurodiversity’ was first termed by Judy Singer in 1999 to explain why humans naturally have a range of differences in our brains and why we behave differently.

Having an unusual neurotype can mean that there are large gaps between a person’s strengths and those things that they may struggle with, compared with a neurotypical person where the gaps are much smaller. There are a number of examples of neurodifferent conditions such as Autism, Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder, Tourette Syndrome, Dyspraxia and Dyslexia.

More recently, the term ‘neurominority’ has been used instead of neurodiverse in order to provide an understanding that those with an unusual neurotype are at a disadvantage in a range of daily life outcomes, in particular socially, in education and in employment.

Fortunately, understanding regarding neurodiversity has increased in these areas, however it is still a long way off where it needs to be. For example, in the workplace, even with initiatives and policies to support neurominorities, there is a lack of research that looks at the effectiveness of this support and there is not an approach that brings inclusivity from designing a job role through the life cycle of an employee.

Furthermore, as well as limited research in this area, there is also an unfairness in the research that currently exists on neurominorities and into the understanding into ‘what works’ to improve making working environments inclusive.

Firstly, there is an imbalance of research into this area, due to there being a large focus on Autism and mental health at the disadvantage to other neurominorities. ADHD, Dyslexia, DCD, and Tourette Syndrome are all under-researched considering how common these conditions are in society. This means that there is a large risk of ignoring other neurominorities in the work place and a lack of focus on what is needed to improve everyday lives in the working world.

Secondly, we do not have informed practice from those who are living and experiencing these issues. This would bring a huge benefit in understanding and improving the current initiatives that are already in place in this area.

Have a look at the following questions:

  • How do we design roles in a more neuro-inclusive way?
  • How do we hire to ensure all candidates can perform at their best during the process?
  • How do we contract ensuring that the terms and conditions of employment are inclusive?
  • How do we provide training which is inclusive?
  • How can we provide performance reviews which increase success, with inclusive delivery?
  • How can we change standard wellbeing services to support neurominorities’ needs?

Great opportunities as a business and for the individual can be gained as we take forward a new way of working which provides a simple, flexible, friendly model for Human Resources (HR).

In order to address this, it has been proposed that the Principles of Universal Design are applied through the employee life cycle. This provides a process for HR to follow in the workplace.

By using this, it provides the opportunity to create a workplace that works for everyone, which will really change the ‘can nots’ to the ‘can!’. Let’s not wait to miss opportunities that would limit your workforce, limit your company and increase the prevalence of staff becoming stressed or leaving. Now is the time to update your practice and apply this model.

Universal Design provides a set of principles that can guide HR to work at its best, at any point of the employment life cycle. There really is no better time but now to take action.

Please take a look at this illustration:

A flower design showing five strands: 1) Wellbeing 2) Hiring 3) Contracting 4) Training 5) Performance Review 6) Wellbeing

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Back to basics: how employers can help solicitors’ well-being

Law is one of the most popular degree choices, forming part of the ‘big triad’ along with medicine and finance in terms of a career of choice. But does a career in law come at a cost, and if so, what can employers do about it? Lucinda Soon, Solicitor and PhD student at Birkbeck’s Department of Organizational Psychology, highlights key findings from her research with co-authors, Dr James Walsh, Professor Almuth McDowall and Dr Kevin Teoh.

Over the past five years, the well-being of solicitors in England and Wales has become a topic of growing concern. In part, this was triggered by the disciplinary case of Sovani James. James, a junior solicitor, was struck off the Roll of Solicitors by the High Court for acting dishonestly at work, despite the Court acknowledging her behaviour may have arisen because of toxic work conditions and the stress she was under as a result. This decision sent an immediate shockwave through the solicitors’ profession, and an increased urgency developed to take the well-being of solicitors more seriously.

The Law Society of England and Wales has launched several surveys on the well-being of its junior members. Its latest survey, published in 2019, revealed that over 90% felt stressed in their role, with almost 25% feeling severely or extremely stressed. Last year, a study by the charity LawCare reported considerable risks of burnout, particularly relating to exhaustion.

These reports point towards a problem, but there is little evidence to inform us of what factors might be contributing to it and, importantly, how firms and organisations can help to address it. In our study, we sought to shed some light on this by looking at some possible aspects of work. Drawing on self-determination theory, we investigated how solicitors’ well-being might be affected by job autonomy, perceived belonging (or relatedness) at work, feelings of competence, and levels of mindfulness. To do this, we analysed responses from an online survey of 340 trainee and qualified solicitors practising in England and Wales.

The ABC’s of solicitors’ well-being

According to self-determination theory, we all have three basic psychological needs which must be satisfied if we are to flourish, thrive, and be well at work. These are the needs for autonomy (feeling we are in control of and have choice in our work), belonging or relatedness (feeling socially connected and supported at work), and competence (feeling we are effective in what we do, that we have mastery and skill, or that we can develop them). As the core psychological requirements for well-being, these factors also form a memorable acronym; to help solicitors’ well-being, do we need to go back to the basics of their ABCs?

We found the more that solicitors felt satisfied in their autonomy, belonging, and competence at work, the higher their well-being. This was observed regardless of gender, level of post-qualification experience (PQE), or type of organisation. In other words, common to all the solicitors we surveyed, feeling supported in their ABCs at work was important to their well-being.

Does mindfulness play a role?

Our study also found that solicitors with higher mindfulness experienced greater well-being. Again, this was the case regardless of gender, level of PQE, or where a solicitor worked, suggesting the benefit of mindfulness may be generally applied.

Interestingly, not only did higher mindfulness alone correspond with greater well-being; solicitors who were more satisfied in their needs for autonomy, belonging, and competence at work had higher levels of mindfulness, which in turn contributed to their well-being. Having the basic ABC building blocks in place appeared to cultivate mindfulness, amplifying the well-being benefits for solicitors.

What does this mean for managers and leaders?

While a clear link was found between mindfulness and solicitors’ well-being, our study points towards the importance of ensuring solicitors are satisfied in their ABCs at work. These basic and fundamental work factors play a direct role in solicitors’ well-being and may also help to facilitate the development of mindfulness to strengthen it even further. This places the work environment and work conditions of solicitors firmly into the spotlight.

Solicitors need to feel they have autonomy, that they belong, and are supported and cared for at work. They equally need to feel they are competent and effective in their jobs. Without these basic elements, their well-being will suffer. Our findings raise the possibility that had Sovani James been supported by her firm in terms of her ABCs at work, her mental health and well-being may not have deteriorated to the extent that it did, ultimately resulting in the end of her legal career.

The impact of Covid-19 and beyond

The changing context of work arising from Covid-19 cannot be ignored. Remote working and a greater appreciation for more flexible ways of working may have given many solicitors more autonomy in terms of when, where, and how they work; however, it has also introduced new challenges into the mix.

Our study shows that feeling connected and cared for, and competent and effective at work, matters for solicitors’ well-being. These work conditions can be easily frustrated when solicitors work in isolation from colleagues, mentors, and leaders, especially over a prolonged period of time. This may be particularly so for trainees and junior solicitors, who are less experienced and may need more frequent support from others.

Social-networking tools and formal and informal virtual catchups can help solicitors feel connected and supported by their work community even when they are working from home. Likewise, regular access to learning and development opportunities, agreed channels for feedback, and effective supervision can all be achieved using technology to facilitate communications. Remembering the need for autonomy, management and leadership practices which respect individual circumstances are also critical. One size will not fit all. Understanding people’s differing needs and wants and giving them a degree of control and choice over their work will all feed into their well-being.

As the profession continues to adjust to a new hybrid way of working, being alive to the importance of solicitors’ ABCs is a crucial starting point for all law firms and organisations looking to safeguard the well-being of their staff.

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My PhD focuses on well-being in the legal profession. While the findings of this study highlight some of the ways in which employers can help to promote solicitors’ well-being, there is more to the story. Please get in touch at l.soon@bbk.ac.uk, on LinkedIn or Twitter, if you’d like to discuss this study or share your thoughts.

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