Mental capital and well-being in a digital age

The digital age has created technology that can enable us to work more flexibly, to carry heavier workloads and to be more agile in our work. Professor Sir Cary Cooper CBE explores workplace mental health and how employers can help support their teams.

Mental capital and well-being in a digital age

The latest figures on workplace mental ill health from the UK government’s Health and Safety Executive indicates that 57% of all sickness absence is from the common mental disorders of anxiety and stress, the single largest category.

According to the OECD it is costing UK Plc 4.5% of GDP per annum, which doesn’t take into account the cost of the NHS repairing the damage caused by workplace stress through psychological counselling and medication. The estimates of the total cost of mental ill health in the UK is close to £100b per annum. In the workplace, the cost is not just in terms of sickness absence but also in presenteeism (people turning up to work when they are ill or unhappy but delivering no added value to their job), leavism (taking leave to catch up on their overload) and lowered productivity (where the UK is 7th among the G7 and 17th in the G20 countries).

We know the main sources of workplace stress from extensive research in the field: less socially skilled line managers, unmanageable workloads, unrealistic deadlines, long working hours, a bullying management culture, poor management of change, job insecurity, etc. But the latest phenomena is technostress, an excessive email culture in the workplace which is increasingly interfering with people’s private life, and is creating an imbalance in their work-life balance and ultimately in their performance at work. Research is showing the many workplaces have few guidelines on appropriate email behaviour, leading to countries like France passing a law saying it’s illegal for managers to send emails to their staff out of office hours eg at night, at the weekend and while they are on holiday. Indeed a French company has been fined 60,000 euros for breaking this law after employees reported the firm.

The digital age has created technology that can enable us to work more flexibly, to carry heavier workloads and to be more agile in our work. On the other hand, it can also force us to be too connected to work even during our leisure or family time, it can take us away from ‘face to face’ contact with our colleagues by people sending emails to colleagues in the same office and forcing us in front of our screens for hours with little social contact (an essential part of meeting our social needs and team building at work). We need employers to lay out the ground rules for the management of technology at work, which will be even more important when AI is rolled out in many workplaces. Simple ground rules like managers not sending emails to their subordinates out of office hours unless absolutely necessary, encouraging staff to talk to their colleagues rather than sending them emails in the same building, minimising the copying in of too many colleagues on emails, etc.

Digital technology is here to stay and will become even more sophisticated but we need to control it rather than it control us. As John Ruskin wrote in 1851 “In order that people may be happy in their work, these three things are needed: they must be fit for it, they must not do too much of it, and they must have a sense of success in it”.


Don’t miss the interactive panel discussion ‘Well-being and mental health in a digital workplace – reducing digital stress to increase productivity’ with Professor Sir Cary Cooper CBE, 50th Anniversary Professor of Organizational Psychology and Health at the Alliance Manchester Business School and President of the CIPD, on day two of the CIPD Festival of Work. 


Get involved:

The CIPD’s Festival of Work (12-13 June 2019, Olympia London, promises to be a landmark event for both people professionals and business leaders. By focusing on the most innovative strategies in management, technology and learning, the festival will help you, and 7,000 of your colleagues, to harness the latest transformations and drive a human future of work. With 7,000+ attendees, 130+ inspiring speakers, filled with inspirational live experiences and challenging ideas, it’s the ultimate celebration of people in the workplace.


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