Over the past year there has been considerable debate around the productivity of the UK workforce, but nowhere near as much insight on how to deliver improvements. The most recent statistics showed that the UK produces on average 30% less, every hour, than Germany, and is also less productive than the US, France and Italy.
While UK workers put in longer hours than many of these countries, which suggests everyone is working very hard, we still find ourselves in a situation where those countries have produced by a Thursday lunchtime, as much as the UK has in a full working week.
For many the cost of the increase in the National Living Wage has only exacerbated this problem. Some business leaders have responded by expecting the workforce to work longer hours in an effort to create more products and stay competitive. However, without addressing the underlying issues, this knee jerk reaction to the change in economic conditions might miss the point completely. The consequences for workforce wellbeing is serious, often delivering the opposite effect on productivity levels than is desired, while increasing the chances of employee burnout and fatigue. In fact, it is the counter-intuitive response of expecting employees to work fewer hours that might actually be the best way to approach this problem.
Wake up call
It is inevitable that over-worked employees will eventually become fatigued, not just a risk, and when they reach this point they will be less able, both mentally and physically, to complete their tasks to the required standards. The impact of this on the productivity and performance of a business can be stark.
Take the example of an athlete. They train to perform best at a specific time, ensuring they get enough training, rest and recuperation to achieve peak performance when competing. An employee should be considered in exactly the same way, but more often than not they are asked to do more than that. For instance, if a runner that has just finished a marathon was forced to complete another 10k run directly afterwards, we would not expect them to set their fastest time for the distance – yet we often insist workers to do just that when they work overtime.
It is not surprising that under these circumstances employees work less efficiently. In the worst case scenario they will begin experiencing the effects of fatigue, so there is a reasonable argument that suggests working longer hours, doesn’t necessarily mean a higher volume or quality of work.
What actually IS fatigue and burnout?
At its most basic level, fatigue is a short-term condition that can be addressed by taking additional leave or a change of routine. Business leaders have much to gain by identifying where this is happening within the organisation; understanding the cause and taking the appropriate actions to reduce the risk. The return on investment for addressing this issue is increased employee happiness, wellbeing and ultimately productivity. The consequences of not dealing with fatigue can see it developing into the more serious and damaging long-term problem – burnout.
Burnout is a far more serious condition which can leave employees feeling trapped and despondent. This can lead to long periods of unplanned absence and in some cases even resignation. Once an employee reaches the point of burnout there is often very little a business can do to rectify the situation so it is vital businesses identify the signs of fatigue early to prevent it from escalating.
But how can employers do this?
Getting in bed with technology
Technology can play a big role in preventing fatigue and burnout within the workforce. In fact this is likely to increase as it becomes more intelligent. The most forward thinking businesses use technology to help employees balance their own workloads by providing data on where stress points are and schedule the appropriate time off, or plan additional resourcing, to ease the pressures.
But technology alone is not enough. It is equally important for business leaders to enforce a culture that enables employees to feel comfortable taking time off when necessary and empower them to manage their own workload where possible.
Some processes worth considering that are essential to reach this balance include:
- Ensuring employees are getting adequate rest breaks between shifts – this can be supplemented and guaranteed through the introduction of automation for some of the more time-consuming admin processes, utilising employees time to focus on other tasks during the time they are at work and avoiding having to work longer than necessary.
- Making sure shift scheduling and shift swapping is as easy as possible, with automated scheduling that takes into account workers’ availability and preference.
- Encouraging health and wellness initiatives as an intrinsic part of company culture. Promoting a healthy lifestyle and a good work/life balance is paramount and works best when cascaded from the top down – with managers enforcing a healthy balance, so other employees feel comfortable to follow suit
Sleep, rest and recuperation are fundamental components of a person’s performance at work and should be key tenets in any drive to increase efficiency, productivity and engagement in the workforce. Alongside this, utilising the latest technology can play a crucial role in providing the tools that will help businesses understand where the stress points are and empower employees to maintain a healthy work/life balance. The more businesses adopt this approach, the best chance we give employees to increase productivity. It might take some time to change traditional UK attitudes towards long hours, but it will be worth the investment.