Turning bad times into good times

The impact of the recession on workers in the public sector has differed significantly compared to their counterparts in the private sector. Despite tentative murmurings of economic recovery, the effects of the downturn are still being keenly felt by public sector employees, with further warnings of job losses being made just a few months ago.

And the challenges look set to continue for years to come with public sector pay rises being capped at one per cent until 2014, and warnings that the salaries of many public sector staff will remain below the level of inflation until at least 2016.

Several studies have noted the effects of the cuts on morale. 53 per cent of public sector workers surveyed by TotalJobs.com said that morale was low, compared to 17 per cent who said it was high. And in the same survey, Four out of 10 respondents indicated that the public sector is no longer an attractive career option. Similarly, a survey by recruitment consultants Badenoch & Clark identified widespread pessimism about future prospects for promotion and worries that benefits and salaries would bear the brunt of proposed spending cuts.

Impact on performance
The levels of happiness and well-being felt by staff in the work place directly impact their productivity. ‘Happiness’ and ‘well-being’ are not some kind of soft concept, but can be finely calibrated. The iOpener Institute has collected over 30,000 management interviews assessing the identifiable key components of Happiness at Work:– positive factors such as recognition, respect, and time on task; as well as negative indicator such as likelihood of leaving or sick days.

When examining the responses of government employees specifically, the particular areas of happiness where the government sector is behind the curve can be identified.

Motivation consists of wanting to do your job because you feel competent in what you do, connected with what you’re doing and have choice as you go about it. It is the feeling of being consistently confident and capable and allows you to get on with your job. Motivation is a core part of feeling happy at work, and therefore being productive. Our database shows that motivation is 14 per cent lower in government employees, when compared with the all-sector average.

It is also evident that there is discontent with the culture and the environment in which government workers operate; the extent to which employees believe they operate in a fair culture is 12 per cent lower than the average across all industries.

Improving the situation
But what does this mean for productivity? Analysis of the iOpener Institute’s database shows that the happiest employees are 50 per cent more productive and take only 33 per cent of the sick leave, compared to the least happy staff.  And for government employees in particular, the average ‘time on task’ is 56.3 per cent, compared with 61.1 per cent on average across all sectors.

Government organisation managers may feel that a fall in the level of employee happiness, and therefore productivity is inevitable. However to have the best chance of improving and maintaining employee well-being there are some practical steps that managers can take.

First step is effort: staff will never be productive without clear goals, without precise and well-articulated objectives that lead to those goals and without addressing problems that arise on the way. That means that they must have ability to raise issues and have access to superiors that can help them solve these issues too. Constructive, timely and actionable, feedback helps employees contribute even more while personal appreciation goes a long way to boosting productivity. Interestingly, negative feedback which is poorly given doubles sick leave.

Next to be considered is short-term motivation: good organisations encourage motivation by helping staff own issues and take responsibility. And they do that at a level that fits with an individual’s skills, strengths and expertise levels.

How well an employee fits into a team can have a major impact. Staff who believe they’re in the wrong job, feel disconnected from the values of the workplace or dislike their colleagues will become dispirited and de‑energised. And all of that feels much worse if decisions in the workplace are perceived to be unfair. Managers can address this by being as transparent as possible about why decisions are made, explaining why resources are allocated in the way they are, and making sure that their approach is as equitable as possible.

Long-term engagement is a must. This is about commitment, the long-term engagement between employee and employer. Having to work hard in a job you feel stuck in is energy draining at best and, associated with higher illness at worst. This tells organisations that they need to regularly and convincingly communicate their strategy, along with tangible proof of how that strategy is being implemented.

Next to consider is self-belief: If staff are not confident, they won’t make decisions, take risks, or invest in development. Confidence is the gateway to productivity and our data shows that a primary indicator of confidence is that things get done.

In difficult times, it is easy to simply try and browbeat employees into meeting difficult goals, yet this rarely succeeds, and is never sustainable. Employee happiness is not a ‘nice-to-have’ that can wait until the economic landscape looks brighter and budget squeezes have ended, it is in fact essential for government organisations to have any chance of meeting the aggressive targets imposed upon them.

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