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BEI Research Year in Review

2019 was a busy year for the School of Business, Economics and Informatics. Here are some of our research highlights.

BEI Research Year in Review

Improving Diversity on Sport Boards

Improving diversity on sport boards

Dr Richard Tacon and Dr Geoff Walters from the Department of Management worked with Sport England to improve the diversity of board members in the sport and physical activity sector. The programme, unveiled in September, follows a series of studies demonstrating that sports governance lacks diversity, particularly with regards to ethnicity and disability.

Richard and Geoff have designed and implemented training materials as part of the initiative, which will identify and develop a pool of suitable candidates from under-represented groups. The intention is that sports organisations will then be able to turn to these people when recruiting for new board positions.

Diagnosing Gaming Disorder

Gaming

Researchers led by Bruno Schivinski, Lecturer in Marketing, developed the first psychological test to check for ‘gaming disorder’, a new type of mental illness now recognised by the World Health Organisation.

Now accessible online, the test provides participants with feedback on their video game habits in comparison with the rest of the population. Research is ongoing to understand the point at which gaming becomes a health problem and the factors which contribute to the development of gaming disorders to promote responsible gaming.

Sticking up for Parents in the Performing Arts

Paloma Faith is among those calling for better support for parents in the performing arts

Academics from the Department of Organizational Psychology developed a survey of workers and work-life balance in the performing arts in partnership with Parents and Carers in Performing Arts (PiPA).

Over 2500 UK workers from the performing arts, including 1000 parents and carers, took the survey. It found that 43% of performing artists who left their careers did so because they became parents. Carers pay a significant penalty in terms of well-being and remuneration in order to maintain a career in the performing arts and are far more likely to leave the industry than non-carers, leading to a drain in talent and reduced diversity in the arts. Professor Almuth McDowall, Head of Department, added her voice to the call for change alongside leading figures in the sector such as actor Cate Blanchett and singer Paloma Faith.

Understanding Text Data

Researchers from the Department of Computer Science and Information Systems developed a tool to simplify the process of understanding and using data from text. Called Samtla API, the new service can automatically annotate words and phrases from digital text documents with named entities and sentiments using machine learning and text mining technologies.

Spearheaded by Dr Mark LeveneDr Martyn Harris, and Dr Andrius Mudinus, the initiative grew in response to the growing need for easily understandable annotations on the large volumes of text data, generated by media, businesses and individuals all over the world.

A Prizewinning Contribution

Dr Alexey Pokrovskiy was awarded the European Prize in Combinatorics

In August, Dr Alexey Pokrovskiy from the Department of Economics, Mathematics and Statistics was awarded the European Prize in Combinatorics. The prestigious award is made once every two years, recognising excellent contributions in Combinatorics, Discrete Mathematics and their Applications by young European researchers aged 35 or under.

Adapting to Climate Change

Strategic management experts from the Department of Management and the Cass Business School at City, University of London found that greater collaboration between the insurance industry and state policy makers could improve society’s ability to recover from disasters linked to climate change.

Using insurance is a step away from crisis towards risk management, strengthening socio-economic resilience under a changing climate. Birkbeck’s Dr Konstantinos Chalkias, the Cass Business School’s Professor Paula Jarzabkowski and their co-authors put forward seven recommendations to the Global Commission on Adaptation to maximise the benefits of insurance for climate adaptation.

Supporting Sustainable Return to Work following Mental Ill-health Absence

Dr Jo Yarker from the Department of Organizational Psychology and Professor Karina Nielsen from the University of Sheffield have been researching how to support employees who are returning to work following mental ill-health absence.

In the UK alone, stress, anxiety or depression accounts for 57% of all working days lost to ill-health in 2017-18. Yarker and Nielsen developed a toolkit for employees, colleagues, line managers and HR professionals to support individuals to return to and stay in work.

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Supporting sustainable return to work

Dr Jo Yarker from the Department of Organizational Psychology shares her research into supporting employees who are returning to work following mental ill-health absence.

Around 15% of the working population suffer from common mental disorders (CMDs) such as depression, anxiety and adjustment disorder (OECD, 2014). For half of these, experience of mental ill-health will lead to a period of long-term sickness absence. In the UK alone, stress, anxiety or depression accounts for 57% of all working days lost to ill-health in 2017-2018 (HSE, 2018).

Sustainable return to work for workers with CMDs is therefore a major societal challenge in terms of scale and costs. A successful initial return to work is no guarantee for sustainable return to work, with research suggesting that approximately 19% of workers subsequently relapse and take further absence or exit the workforce (Koopmans, Bültmann, Roelen, Hoedeman, van der Klink, & Groothoff, 2011).

Relapse has significant consequences for sustaining work, with implications for employment prospects, productivity and wages (OECD, 2014). There is an urgent need to better understand how workers with CMDs can be better supported to return to, and stay in, productive work. Together with my colleague Professor Karina Nielsen from the University of Sheffield, I sought to find out how to support employees returning to work following mental ill-health absence.

Understanding the barriers to sustainable return to work

Our study was the first to our knowledge to follow workers post-return using a qualitative approach. We used the recently developed IGLOO framework in our research: examining the Individual, Group, Leader, Organisational and Overarching (IGLOO) contextual factors (Nielsen, Yarker, Munir & Bültmann, 2018) that influence workers with CMDs’ ability to remain in employment throughout working life.

We conducted interviews with 38 workers who had returned from long-term sick leave due to CMDs, the majority of whom we spoke to at multiple points following their return.  We’d originally planned to follow workers in the first months after return, however, after being contacted by workers who still experienced challenges long after return, we decided to include these too. We also spoke to twenty line managers with experience managing returning workers.

Our findings

Participants reported a number of resources, in and outside of work, that helped them stay and be productive at work.

Resources at work across the five IGLOO levels help employees stay and be productive at work:

  • Individual: Creating structure within their working day to help maintain focus and concentration.
  • Group: Gaining feedback on tasks from colleagues, help with challenging tasks and being treated as before, not as someone with a CMD.
  • Leader: Agreement of communication to colleagues, continued support and access to work adjustments, and signaling (and being) available but not intrusive.
  • Organisational: Flexible working practices and leave policies, accommodating absenteeism policies, work-focused counselling, and demonstrating care through support.
  • Overarching context: This level was not applicable as we only examined UK workplaces.

Resources at home across the five IGLOO levels help employees stay and be productive at work:

  • Individual: Prioritising self-care and the establishment of clear boundaries between work and leisure.
  • Group: Understanding and non-judgmental support from friends and family.
  • Links to services: Consistent point of contact and facilitation of links to external services and treatment.
  • Organisational: Access to work-focused counselling.
  • Overarching context: Those who were financially independent were able to make choices that better suited their needs; the majority reported the positive media attention around mental health enabled them to ask for help.

The main results of our study point to important avenues for future research and practice. Within the workplace, the findings highlight the need to:

  • Consider resources at all IGLOO levels and implement multi-level interventions.
  • Train returned workers in how to structure their day.
  • Train and support line managers, both in having difficult situations but also on how to support workers creating structure and support them manage their workload.
  • Develop more information about appropriate work adjustments that can be implemented and how these can be accessed.
  • Offer flexibility to the returning employee, in relation to work schedule, ad hoc flexibility when depleted to prevent further decline and aid recovery, and flexibility in tasks.
  • Adopt an individual approach as there is no off-shelf-style that works for all.
  • Adopt a long term approach, ensuring that employees are able to access adjustments in the months and years that follow.
  • Conduct further research to enable us to understand the contribution of these features and their synergistic effect on enabling returned employees to remain productive at work.

Outside the workplace, the findings highlight the need to:

  • Conduct further research to better model the impact of support received from friends and family, GP services and those within the voluntary sector.
  • Equip GP services with the skills and knowledge to support return to work.

We developed guidance for employees, colleagues, line managers and HR professionals to support returned workers to thrive at work. This and our full report can be found on the Affinity Health at Work website.

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Managing the ‘always on’ culture – a myth buster and agenda for better practice

Professor Almuth McDowall (Department of Organizational Psychology) shares her research into worklife balance and calls on employers to take responsibility for their organisation’s culture.

Break, Business, Business People, Businesswoman, Cafe

There is much being written and said about the ‘always on culture’ and how we are increasingly glued to our digital devices – whether at work or at home. Some of my own research has also concerned itself with this topic. My colleague and friend Gail Kinman and I had the results from a practice survey published in 2018 as we wanted to know what organisations are doing about the changing world of work, and the use of information and computer technology.

Well, precious little is the answer. Over half of our respondents said that their organisations don’t have a relevant policy in place and don’t offer any guidance or training. Somewhat worryingly over 40% thought that it should be up to individuals to manage the issue, rather than their line managers or human resources.

Why would people choose to be ‘always on’ outside formal working hours?

Working unpaid during leisure time does not make logical sense! We gift the UK economy billions in unpaid overtime year on year, as research by the Trade Unions Congress has revealed. Our systematic review with colleagues Svenja Schlachter, Ilke Inceoglu and Mark Cropley pointed to a complex picture.

People have different motivations, influenced by issues such as what everyone else does (social norms), what the expectations in the job are, how committed people feel to their job, how they value ‘switching off’ and recovery and whether this is supported in their environment. One key issue which came out of this review is the ‘empowerment enslavement paradox’. Our digital devices are both an enabler, as they afford flexibility, but also ‘digital leash’ as it’s difficult to say ‘enough is enough’ and switch off. As we all know, screen-time can be very seductive.

Is there any evidence that being ‘always on’ is bad for our health?

A recent econometric analysis shows that ICT infrastructure has a positive impact on population health (the authors measured general health outcomes such as infant mortality etc.). Regarding the impact of social media use, there is evidence that high use is linked to poor sleep quality, anxiety depression and low self-esteem. Of course, such studies cannot tell us whether teenagers who are highly anxious to start off with are more likely to be prolific users.

There is far less robust evidence on the exact effects from the world of work – what happens to you if you are on your phone, tablet or laptop near 24/7? We lack good research to tell us what the exact effects are.

What we do know though is that we need recovery and respite, our systems are simply not programmed to be on continuous overdrive. We also know that leisure activities which are quite different from our work tasks are better for our recovery than doing more of the same. I take this to heart. For instance, I find that reading at night doesn’t help me switch off as academics read rather a lot at work, so I take ballet classes online (and am known to teach the odd one myself!), knit and crochet.

What can organisations do?

Employers have a duty of care and should ensure that people are not overworked and can switch off. Worklife balance research tells us that those who live ‘enriched’ lives have better mental and physical health, important for them, and important for their employer. We should actively support employees by ensuring that:

  • A worklife balance policy is in place as a point of reference; then check processes and structures against this policy
  • Employers review job design and ensure that digital tasks (checking and responding to emails, synchronising devices, remote calls and conferences) are actually captured in people’s workload and tasks – these often fall off the radar
  • There is consultation to ask employees what they need – mutually negotiated boundaries and solutions work much better. Think creatively about flexible solutions!
  • Everyone, including senior leaders and managers, role models good behaviours. People need time to switch off, so don’t expect your staff to be available outside normal working hours
  • Staff are offered training and development. Managing in an increasingly digital workspace requires up-to-date management and leadership skills
  • Employees look out for implicit expectations and ‘rumours’. “I check my emails on holiday because this is what is expected of me”. Really? Question such assumptions as they can often take on a life of their own

Finally, if in doubt, ask a psychologist. The Department of Organizational Psychology is keen to work with organisations to establish, consolidate and evaluate best practice.

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Burnout in the NHS: what happens when doctors become patients?

Dr Kevin Teoh, Lecturer in Organizational Psychology, discusses burnout and mental health trends in NHS consultants – which is the subject of a new paper, co-authored with Dr Atir Khan, Dr Juliet Hassard, and Dr Saiful Islam.

Not many days go by where there isn’t any discussion on the current state of our National Health Service (NHS) – whether it is increasing patient demands and numbers, concerns around funding, patient safety, or Brexit. However, as one of the largest employers in the world, the changes across the NHS can have significant ramifications for its workforce. In the press, there is increasing concern about how healthcare staff are coping in light of these changes.

One of the main topics of discussion is burnout, which consists of three components – emotional exhaustion, depersonalisation, and reduced personal accomplishment.

Emotional exhaustion refers to being emotionally drained and exhausted in the workplace, while depersonalisation is a psychological withdrawal from relationships and the development of negative and cynical feelings towards people. Reduced personal accomplishment represents a lack of work effectiveness due to emotional exhaustion and depersonalisation.

But why is burnout in the NHS so important? And what are the factors in the work environment that precede it? We sought to examine these questions in a sample of NHS consultants drawn from England, Scotland and Wales. Consultants represent the most senior and well-trained doctors in the healthcare workforce. Through their role as supervisors and educators, they are also pivotal in the development of the current and future healthcare workforce. Far less is also known about the working conditions of consultants, when compared to their junior doctor and nursing colleagues.

We focused on two aspects of work – work-related pressure and autonomy. The first reflects the workload and pressure that consultants are under, with considerable evidence from other sectors that link it with the health outcomes of workers. The latter actually reflects a potential positive work aspect as high-levels of job autonomy may be beneficial to consultants (and workers more generally). This is because job autonomy gives consultants the flexibility to manage their workload, work on tasks which they find more interesting and problem solve.

In addition to the working conditions and burnout relationship, we also wanted to see how these linked in with staff outcome measures, including the levels of depressive and anxiety symptoms that consultants were experiencing as well as their intention to retire early from the NHS.

The results paint a worrying picture. Out of the 593 consultants who took part, about a third of NHS consultants had poor-levels of psychological health, including emotional exhaustion (38.7%), depersonalisation (20.7%), anxiety symptoms (43.1%), and depressive symptoms (36.1%). These figures not only highlight that our consultants are struggling; they also suggest that poor mental health among consultants has increased in the years since they were last measured.

As expected, both aspects of work that we measured – (high) work related pressure and (low) job autonomy – predicted adverse psychological health. But what are the implications of poor working conditions and burnout among consultants in the NHS?

Our findings suggest that the impact on both severe mental health issues (i.e. symptoms of anxiety and depression) and an intention to retire early. This means that when consultants in the NHS experience high work-related pressure and job autonomy, the subsequent development of burnout could lead to more severe downstream issues.

From a psychological perspective, this does make sense. Consultants struggling in an environment where they have little autonomy and high work-related pressure requires energy and coping resources. Continual exposure then takes a toll on consultants’ psychological resources, which leads to burnout over time, as doctors feel exhausted and they depersonalise from the people around them. When doctors burn out, it exacerbates even further this demand on their psychological resources. What then happens is the manifestation of further mental and physical symptoms, such as the development of depressive and anxiety symptoms. Also, consultants may choose to leave that difficult work environment to protect their remaining psychological resources – which is why we see that when consultants report higher levels of burnout they are also more likely to intend to retire early.

While it is important to note that we did not diagnose actual anxiety and depression in our sample of consultants, the measurement of symptoms is strongly associated with it. Consultants struggling with such symptoms are more likely to be impaired in their performance, which is consistent with the growing research evidence base linking poor mental health among doctors with lower standards of patient care. Should the prevalence of depression and anxiety among consultants go up, it would inadvertently increase the demands on the NHS as doctors become patients themselves.

The intention to retire early is something that should be of concern to us all, especially as the NHS is currently facing a shortage of healthcare staff, including consultants. If consultants do go on to retire early, this would not only reduce the number of doctors in the NHS but would lead to a skills gap in the healthcare service. This might then generate a continuous downward spiral where consultants experiencing poor working conditions burnout, leading to the development of more severe mental health issues and/or early retirement from the NHS. In turn, this further increases the demands on the health service that impacts the remaining consultants, thereby continuing this cycle.

Managers and policymakers need to be aware of the current state of poor psychological health of NHS consultants. They also need to recognise that decisions and changes made to the working conditions of doctors (and healthcare staff in general) not only impact their burnout levels. Where it is not feasible to alleviate some of the work-related pressures, then ways to increase the level of consultants’ job autonomy should be considered.

These findings, along with some of our other research in this area, emphasise the need to address the systematic issues within the work environment that influence the working conditions of NHS consultants. Although more individual-focused interventions, such as resilience training, may have a role to play, on its own this is clearly insufficient. In the UK, there has been limited research looking at interventions to manage the working conditions of doctors. Nevertheless, growing research from elsewhere in the world provide some examples that may be relevant to the NHS here.

Ultimately, as potential users of the NHS, the mental health state of consultants and their working conditions really should be of concern to us all.

The full study, Psychosocial Work Characteristics, Burnout, Psychological Morbidity Symptoms And Early Retirement Intentions: A Cross-Sectional Study Of NHS Consultants In The UK, is published by BMJ Open.

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