Public Engagement Awards: Dr Sophie Hope and Jenny Richards – Manual Labours: The Building as Body

This is the fourth in a series of blogs showcasing the Birkbeck 2020 Public Engagement Awards winners and highly commended participants. This project was announced the winner of the category ‘Engaged Practice’.

Manual Labours: The Building as Body is part of the long-term project Manual Labours, which explores physical and emotional relationships to work. This particular iteration took the Nottingham Contemporary as a case study and focused on the ‘(un)complaining body’ in relation to the architecture of the workplace. Research questions included:
– How do aspects of the building (storage, lighting, air, access routes) make staff feel?
– Where is the building hurting, blocked-up, suffering, sore, seeping, neglected?
– What impact does a complaining building have on a complaining body?

Since 2013, Dr Hope and Ms Richards (Independent Artist, Curator, Researcher, Partner of the Manual Labours Project) have been exploring physical and emotional relationships to work by carrying out workshops and interviews with different workforces (including cultural workers, commuters, call centre workers and complaints workers). For this phase of the research, they were invited by workers in a public cultural organisation to deliver a workshop on working conditions. At their request, they returned to work with them over a period of two years, responding to their needs to explore their workplace in a critical way. This was an iterative process where the research was driven by the content of the workshops. This collective investigations of the building became a useful reflexive and supportive space for staff to share their experiences and identify aspects of the organisation that they wanted to change. Thus, the project provided an experimental, well-needed space to reflect on the experience of work from different perspectives. The workshop format allowed people to meet from across the organisation and share experiences of their workplace, fostering conversations that otherwise were difficult to have. One of the creative outcomes of this project, the Manual and Wandering Womb Mobile Staffroom/Kitchen remain in use by the staff, and is so popular that it has its own booking system.

Dr Hope and Ms Richards’s work with the staff of the Nottingham Contemporary has also led to practical improvements to their shared kitchen, the refurbishment of the existing small staff room for invigilators and the reformatting of the open plan office. While these were cosmetic rather than structural changes they have led to improved staff communication and wellbeing. The presentation of the Health Assessment to the Board led to staff health and wellbeing becoming a standing item on the Board’s agenda. It has also been reported that there has been a changing attitude to having embedded practice-based researchers in the organisation as this was a first for the staff, demonstrating a new way of working with artist-researchers that can be taken into future work.

Birkbeck warmly congratulates Dr Hope, Jenny Richards, and the Nottingham Contemporary on their outstanding project, which was chosen as the winner in the category ‘Engaged Practice’.

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Bring in Your Parents Day: an inclusive alternative to boost employee engagement

Research by Dr Alexandra Beauregard from the Department of Organizational Psychology explores the impact of LinkedIn’s employee engagement initiative.

A child walking with her parents.

Employee-sponsored family-friendly events are designed to boost engagement and encourage retention by building family members’ identification with the organization. However, longstanding traditions such as ‘Bring Your Children to Work’ days inadvertently exclude employees without caregiving responsibilities for children.

That’s where ‘Bring in Your Parents’ (BIYP) comes in. Launched by LinkedIn in 2013, the initiative targets a segment of the workforce not usually included in family-friendly initiatives: employees from the ‘Generation Y’, ‘Millennial’ or ‘Generation Z’ generations, born after 1981. After internal conversations at LinkedIn revealed that employees struggled to explain the nature of their work to parents who were not familiar with social media, LinkedIn introduced BIYP as a means of improving older parents’ understanding of their children’s jobs.

Together with Dr Karin King at LSE, I conducted a study to evaluate the impact of BIYP on the attitudes and behavioural intentions of employees and their parents. We surveyed participating employees and their parents in six organisations in six countries, followed by in-person interviews with participating employees and phone interviews with HR managers.

Following participation in BIYP, there were statistically significant increases in employee engagement and perceived problem-solving ability. By bringing parents to the workplace and having them learn about the nature of one’s job responsibilities, employees’ enthusiasm and sense of vitality on the job were renewed. Employees also felt that their employer appreciated them and their contribution to the organization’s goals.

BIYP also improved parental understanding of their child’s job. While the new, non-traditional jobs performed by their children seemed intangible to many parents prior to participating in BIYP, they now make more sense. Employees reported that having their parents better understand their work responsibilities and pace of work enabled parents to offer more frequent and appropriate support. This was especially important for young employees who, due to the high cost of housing in some metropolitan areas, still live with their parents and see them every day after work.

Furthermore, following parents’ participation in BIYP, there were significant increases in identification with their children’s organizations and of willingness to promote their children’s organization to outsiders. Parents became brand advocates among their own peer groups and even encouraged their children to stay with the firm for longer.

By incorporating events such as BIYP into existing family-friendly events, organizations can express their support for the work-family balance of all employees, rather than just those with caregiving responsibilities for children. Participation was shown to benefit all involved: employees, their parents or other family guests, and the organization for whom they work. The development of further initiatives that support employers in demonstrating inclusion, deepening employee engagement and widening organizational engagement with a range of stakeholders beyond the employee would be a welcome next step.

The citation for this study is: Beauregard, T. A., & King, K. A. (2019). “Bring in Your Parents Day”: Building inclusion and engagement through a cross-generational family-friendly workplace initiative. Strategic HR Review, (19)1, 15-21.

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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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The proposed ‘right to disconnect’ after work hours is welcome, but not enough

This post was contributed by Professor Gillian Symon, member of the Digital Brain Switch project. Involving a multi-disciplinary team of UK researchers (including Birkbeck’s Dr Rebecca Whiting), the project explored the ways in which mobile communication technology  affects how we switch between different aspects of our lives. This article was originally posted on The Conversation on 23 March 2016.    

Changes proposed to France’s famously inflexible employment laws by French president François Hollande have prompted an outcry among students and unionists and even the barricading of schools by pupils. But among the raft of changes to working practices is the liberating notion that employees should have the right to disconnect: to ignore emails from employers during evenings and weekends so that time with friends and family is not affected by work distractions or feelings of guilt.

Limited interventions of this sort have been put forward in Germany and France before, but this is the first proposal that the right be enshrined in law.

There is much to like about it. First, it recognises the massive impact the widespread use of smartphones and tablets, Wi-Fi and high-speed mobile internet has had on our working lives. In as much as work emails, diaries and contacts are on a smartphone in our pocket, to some extent we are never truly “out of the office”. The proposal seeks to counter this in legislation, not to leave it to corporate custom and practice.

Second, the proposed legislation acknowledges the considerable research that suggests that we need to psychologically detach from work regularly, or risk becoming exhausted and losing our creativity.

Third and most importantly, it makes the employer at least partly responsible for managing this intrusive technology and its effects on employees. There is a recognised paradox, whereby technology allows flexibility over when and where we work, but at the same time acts as a leash that chains us to our (virtual) desks. For too long this has been seen as something employees themselves should manage.

The research into work-life balance my colleagues and I have conducted suggests that achieving the right balance has become another “life crisis”. It is one that is fed by endless media articles and self-help books, and one that is almost certainly unresolvable by the individual as so much of the pressure comes from bosses and colleagues at work. What we’ve found is that there needs to be respect for individuals’ chosen work-life boundaries at all levels within organisations.

So congratulations to the French for taking this particular taureau by the cornes. But is their proposed approach through new legislation the right answer?

It’s not easy, and often employers don’t make it any easier. wongstock/shutterstock.com

As far as it goes

There are three ways digital media and mobile technology have affected our lives that isn’t acknowledged by legislation, which is concerned only with time spent connected to work. In our research we’ve sought to highlight the creeping effects of “digi-housekeeping”: those endless technology maintenance tasks that we engage in – updating software, syncing devices, fighting technical problems – which often takes place outside of office hours and doesn’t appear on time sheets. None of this is accounted for by legislative approaches.

Nor does legislation address the way in which the use of social media for work may intrude into our privacy. When we blog and tweet for our employers, are we exploiting our personal identities for their ends? Are these additional tasks, and the need to maintain our digital presence online, causing us anxiety and increasing our workload without any formal recognition of the effort involved? These sorts of activities go beyond a concern with just maintaining a time boundary between work and life. They represent new tasks required to maintain our digital work lives.

What’s more, because the French legislation presumes an employee-employer relationship, it entirely ignores the anxieties of the self-employed, as those taking part in our research told us. While those working for themselves have always had to work hard, social media has put added pressure on them to be constantly online and accessible to maintain their business. We need more imaginative interventions that will address the needs of specific groups such as these.

What are 21st century working lives like?

The French legislation is important primarily because it makes clear the responsibilities of employers and organisations. However, it’s also rather a blunt-edged tool that doesn’t appreciate the intricacies of our online lives. Legislation like this enforces a strict work-life boundary that may be a thing of the past.

Read the original post on The Conversation

Read the original post on The Conversation

Our research collaborators kept video diaries that captured the complex circumstances of today’s workers in a more revealing way than traditional surveys can do. These video diaries suggest we might be making sense of our lives in radically different ways in the 21st century. We distinguish between online and offline lives rather than work and non-work hours, and we think more about how we prioritise time, rather than how we divide it.

To support flexible working, we may need flexible legislation that is based on other considerations than time alone, including where and how we work best. It’s very unlikely there will be a one-size-fits-all solution; researchers and policymakers are going to have to find more creative 21st century solutions for this very 21st century problem.

So the French government’s move to formally recognise the distraction caused by unfettered technology is welcome, but limited. To improve upon it, we need to understand much more fully the complexities of contemporary digital online lives, what boundaries people now find important, and how the law can best support them.

Find out more

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