Archive for January, 2009

AIG “employee retention” pay reaches $1 billion

January 30, 2009

American International Group offered $450 million “retention pay” to employees who lost billions on credit-default swaps.

That averages out to about $1 million-and-change per worker, for the 400 or so workers in the financial products unit.

Those are the very folks responsible for some $34 billion in write-downs since 2007, as market value of the swaps plunged amid the sub-prime mortgage market collapsed, Bloomberg reports.

That brings the grand total of AIG’s “employee retention payments” to more than $1 billion. The money is meant to keep workers from bailing – as if there were any place they could go.

AIG, of course, is the insurance giant alive thanks to a $150 billion lifeline from the federal government. Taxpayers now own 80 percent of the company.

LOCK THE SCOUNDRELS UP!

In other AIG news this week, a former vice president  was sentenced to four years in prison for defrauding shareholders – a relief for him, as he could have gotten a life term.

Christian Milton (left), 61, was convicted last year (along with four former execs of General Reinsurance Corp.) of using a sham transaction to help AIG improve its balance sheet. The fraud cost AIG shareholders as much as $597 million, Bloomberg reports.

U.S. District Judge Christopher Droney also imposed a $200,000 fine and two years of supervised release after Milton’s term ends.

(source:  http://taxdollars.freedomblogging.com/2009/01/29/aig-employee-retention-pay-reaches-1-billion/10086/)

Richard Reid is the founder of Pinnacle Proactive, Specialising in the Employee Assistance ProgramStress ManagementStaff Retention & Absenteeism. Take a Proactive Approach to Growing Your Organisation & its People. For more info visit http://www.pinnacleproactive.com

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Client retention: The three to five-year itch

January 30, 2009

Media accounts are a huge boost to win, but painful to lose – particularly in a recession. Media Week discovers how agencies can stop their prize advertisers being seduced by rivals.

There aren’t many characteristics of marriage breakdown that don’t apply equally well to faltering agency/client relationships.

In fact, a bitter ex-spouse and a jilted agency might both benefit from a chat over a bottle of wine, arranged through a mutual friend.

They could sighingly agree about the importance of trust and communication and the regret they feel at not having tried harder when they had the chance. A mopey marketing director at the next table might chip in to note that he dumped his long-standing agency for a flashy new one that  showered him with attention and compliments, but now he wishes he hadn’t. They will all know better next time.

But still, these relationships keep breaking down. Last year, there were 156 major media reviews in the UK, according to the NewBizMoves database of client/agency relationship expert AAR. In 2007, there were 139 and, with difficult times ahead, agencies can’t afford to let those figures get any worse.

Not all those partnerships had run into trouble and not all of them were brought to an end. Many clients conduct reviews on a statutory basis and many hand the business straight back to the incumbent. Others just want to take the temperature of the market, perhaps at the whim of a new marketing director.

But when business does change hands, it doesn’t do so quietly. Vast, consolidated planning and buying accounts, often administered at an inter­national level, are great to win, but exceedingly painful to lose. And in the current climate, billings lost are hard to make up again. So what’s the best way to hang on to them in the first place?

“You have to deliver,” says Starcom UK Group chairman Jim Marshall. “You have to return phone calls. You must have the necessary levels of expertise and you need to develop that expertise, because the world is changing pretty swiftly.”

Client/agency relationships may be played out within a corporate framework, with heavyweight business objectives and large sums of money in the balance, but they are still essentially human relationships and familiar rules apply.

Colin Gottlieb, chief executive of Omnicom Media Group EMEA, says: “If you look at any relationship, whether personal or professional, the starting point for everything must be trust. There are hundreds of different elements that go into client retention, but trust is the central pillar, and commitment and competence play vital supporting roles. If you don’t have those three pillars, then you are in trouble.”

Reinventing relationships
Trust is the key then, but maintaining competence is perhaps today’s biggest challenge. Indeed, the world is changing so rapidly that the service guarantees of a two-year-old pitch are likely to have little in common with the demands of today’s multidisciplinary media market.

Hamish Pringle, director-general of agency industry body, the IPA, says many of the newer technologies are “black arts” as far as most clients are concerned. “An agency that says ‘can we come over and present on these new areas?’ is obviously going to get a warm reception,” he adds.

Most client retention advice is fairly generic and common sense. But, as Mediaedge:cia managing director Steve Hatch explains, that doesn’t necessarily make it easy to put into practice, day after day.

“It is not about knowing what to do, but actually doing it,” he says. “Client relationships are exactly the same as any other relationships. They need consistent values, but also constant reinvention.”

OMG’s Gottlieb believes the process of creating a good working relationship begins at the pitch stage. “What people call chemistry is really just trust,” he says. “Even at that early stage, the client is looking at your people and their reactions to certain questions, and you will already be building trust – or not.”

If the pitch team always went straight to work on the client’s account, there might be less to worry about, but the big guns of the new business team don’t necessarily always hang around for the everyday grind, to the consternation of clients.

“It is sensible to ensure your existing clients are happy first, before you start haring off after new business,” says Pringle. “Unfortunately, there is a strong tendency in agencies for the most talented people to thrive on the thrill of the chase.”

Often, Pringle suggests, a winning pitch will throw up more than enough interesting insights to keep the account humming for quite some time. But if the cupboards aren’t replenished after a given period, the call inevitably goes out for “fresh thinking” and the process begins again.
Even in the many instances where the ongoing strategic leadership of an account is sound, a weak link anywhere in the team can have catastrophic consequences.

Vizeum can boast that it has not lost an account in three years and has resigned only one – Paramount – due to a clash when it picked up 20th Century Fox. According to managing partner Stuart Newman, staff at every level share the task of retaining clients.

Staff turnover
“Everyone – down to the newest graduate – has to feel responsibility for the piece of business they work on,” says Newman. “It is all about the individual and, as soon as anyone gets a bit distracted, you have a big problem.”

An agency’s ability to retain its own staff is a key internal factor in its ability to retain business. At the very least, media agencies need to manage their staff turnover and ensure clients are kept well informed.

Mediaedge:cia’s roster includes clients such as Colgate and Just For Men that have been on the books for decades, through a series of mergers and changes of ownership. Dialogue and succession planning are the secret, says Hatch, along with an ability to troubleshoot your own annoying habits. “Work out what your equivalent of leaving the toilet seat up is and stop doing it,” he says.

The agency merry-go-round may appear to be speeding up. However, according to Starcom’s Marshall, the typical media account comes up for review roughly every three to five years. “In many cases, these reviews happen automatically,” he says. “At this point, a deep-seated relationship becomes very powerful.”

But there are reviews and then there are reviews. The average tenure of a UK marketing director is estimated at anything from 12 to 22 months and, while they don’t last long, they last long enough to get to work with their new broom.

Beware complacency
A new marketing director will frequently call a review for all sorts of understandable reasons. Some will have an ungovernable urge to change the status quo; others simply want to learn what the status quo is, while making sure it matches up with whatever else is available.

Either way, when the review comes around, complacency is fatal, warns AAR managing director Paul Phillips. “When you get a new individual at a client company, I would suggest to any agency that they treat them not as business to be retained, but as business to be won,” says Phillips. “The fact that you have been working on the business for as long as you have is not enough.”

Complacency can take many forms and, where a repitch is concerned, a long-standing incumbent should not underestimate the impact of a cluster of rival teams armed with new perspectives, boundless enthusiasm and a hunger for the win.

Phillips recalls a recent case where a new head of marketing called a multidisciplinary review on arrival. The incumbent media agency put up the team that worked on the account, whereas the advertising agency recruited an all-new team internally to make a fresh play for the creative business. The creative shop held its account; the media operation did not.

It is a Darwinian process, where the agency that can muster up the key qualities in the most impressive volumes will inevitably triumph over weaker competitors. But increasingly there are other factors, entirely beyond an agency’s control, which can induce a review and influence the incumbent’s ability to win it.

“In some cases, reviews are being provoked by procurement people who are seeking a cost reduction, so an agency can do all the right things and still fall victim to a review,” says the IPA’s Pringle. “That is very difficult, because they may just come back to where they started, having shaved a few points off the fee and caused participating agencies to incur very significant costs.”

Where the business does slip out of reach, there will often be bitterness and recrimination. But, like any wronged lover, an agency that has tried its best at the relationship can sometimes do a lot worse than simply blaming the other person.

“A marketing director once said to me ‘a client will get the agency it deserves’,” says Gottlieb. “I think that is very true. An agency can deliver everything it possibly can and then find the client doesn’t place any value on trust, commitment or competence.”

An agency on top of its game should be able to find common ground even in those difficult circumstances. But then again, in business as in love, there may be times when what you really need is just to find somebody who appreciates you more.

Retention is better than cure: 10 tips for keeping client relations on track

  1. Give the relationship firm foundations. It is easy to leap straight from a successful pitch into a flurry of work for the new client, but do take some time to set up agreed methods of working first.
  2. Schedule a regular 360° review of the account, where both the agency and the client have a right to raise any issues that may have arisen. Paul Phillips, managing director of the AAR, recommends both parties conduct such a review at least once a year.
  3. Encourage new business teams to share exciting research and resources that have been worked up for pitches. Existing clients are interested in the same kind of thing as prospective ones.
  4. Inhabit your clients’ business challenges. Read their trade press. And, obviously, also read your own.
  5. Make yourself irreplaceable as an adviser and source of information. Commission bespoke research and initiate long-term campaigns and projects. Vow to do something to add value for a given client every day and it will soon mount up.
  6. Where new clients are concerned, work hard to maintain the degree of care and attention that was present during the pitch, and never assume a long-standing client is yours for good.
  7. Hold onto your own talent and monitor accounts closely to ensure that everyone, at all levels, is equally committed to your clients’ various causes.
  8. Agencies repitching for accounts they already hold should treat them not as business to be retained, but business to be won.
  9. Bring in new blood for a repitch. The review may very well have been called because the client wants to see new ideas and your old ones probably won’t cut it.
  10. Know when you’re beaten. Sometimes a client has made up its mind to bring in new blood. If you think this is the case, you probably don’t need to pitch.
(source:  http://www.mediaweek.co.uk/news/876350/Client-retention-three-five-year-itch/)

Richard Reid is the founder of Pinnacle Proactive, Specialising in the Employee Assistance ProgramStress ManagementStaff Retention & Absenteeism. Take a Proactive Approach to Growing Your Organisation & its People. For more info visit http://www.pinnacleproactive.com

Metropolitan Police’s ethnic recruitment processes under scrutiny

January 19, 2009

A WATCHDOG has launched an inquiry into whether the Metropolitan Police department responsible for improving the recruitment and retention of ethnic officers is shredding damaging documents about the selection process.

The claim will feature in a case brought by a high profile Asian detective involved in the longest running discrimination dispute within the Met. Detective sergeant Gurpal Virdi is suing the force for the fifth time after he was passed over for promotion to inspector.

His lawyers will argue that privately the Met still believe he is guilty of sending racist emails to colleagues, despite two independent tribunals clearing him nine years ago.

The Met has already admitted to the employment tribunal that the notes taken by Virdi’s promotion panel last year were “shredded in error.”

The Sikh detective told The Sunday Times: “I am the Colin Stagg of the Met [referring to the man wrongly accused of killing the model Rachel Nickell in 1992]. Everyone knows I’m innocent and the Met are not accepting it. It would appear that senior people have something to hide. The commissioner needs to hold people to account rather than cover up”.

The Black Police Assocation, which has boycotted ethnic recruitment to the Met, is supporting Virdi.

Further pressure has come from another influential staff association that represents 2,200 inspectors and chief inspectors. Mark Crake, general secretary of the Inspectors Branch Board, says he has direct evidence that the shredding goes beyond the Virdi case.

Crake complained internally about the human resources department for allegedly ordering the destruction of a key document concerning the recent selection of chief inspectors. No ethnic minority candidate was successful, he said.

“What does it say to the wider community about the values of the Met if the retention of important documentation is treated with such contempt and disdain?,” Clark told his members in a recent email.

In a statement, the Met denied it was getting rid of the evidence. It said: “That is simply ridiculous, electronic copies of all documents remain as a matter of public record. Hard copies were destroyed so they could not be duplicated.”

Cindy Butts, an independent member of the Metropolitan Police Authority, said: “I am aware of certain issues relating to the recent promotion process and the retention of documentation and consequently I have asked the Met to bring a report to the committee I chair.”

Butts is already leading an inquiry into the Met, which is examining ethnic recruitment. London mayor Boris Johnson launched it last October after a spate of race claims plunged the Met into a leadership crisis which culminated in the early departure of Sir Ian Blair , the commissioner, in December.

The Home Office is currently selecting his replacement and will announce the appointment by the end of this month. However, two of the shortlisted candidates – Sir Paul Stephenson, the acting Met commissioner, and Bernard Hogan-Howe, the chief constable of Merseyside – have been drawn into this latest round in the eleven-year Virdi affair.

His employment tribunal will be heard next month on the tenth anniversary of the Stephen Lawrence inquiry, which found the Met to be “institutionally racist.”

The Met says it has made great strides in recognising its failings since the black teenager was murdered in 1993. However, critics argue that the force is either paying lip service to race issues or has mired police officers in political correctness and paperwork.

In 1998, the Met arrested Virdi claiming he had sent racist hate mail to himself and other ethnic minority officers because he was passed over for promotion. In 2000, the force publicly apologised, accepted his innocence and compensated Virdi after an employment tribunal ruled he had been discriminated against.

The case led to the setting up of two public inquiries, which criticised the way the Met investigated its black and Asian staff.

Virdi has supplied his new tribunal with a letter written by Hogan-Howe in 2004 when he was the Met’s assistant commissioner for human resources. It assured the officer that a secret report still suggesting he was guilty of sending the racist emails would be “disregarded” when considering his future promotion.

However, Virdi, 50, says he was passed over for promotion in 2005 and 2007 because panels are privately briefed that he is guilty and a “trouble maker”. He said: “Until we get that person who sent the racist emails we cannot move forward.”

The Met has refused to re-open that investigation. During mediation ten days ago it claimed Virdi was not promoted because he lacks the necessary competences as an inspector. The Met offered to settle his action – and two other related claims – for a small sum of money. Virdi, who has served 27 years in the Met, refused because promotion was not part of the deal.

A spokeswoman for the Met said: “DS Virdi has served a claim on the MPS in August 2008. It is a claim of race discrimination and victimisation arising out of the 2008 Sergeant to Inspector promotion process. Efforts to resolve these matters have been unsuccessful and this claim is due to be heard by the Tribunal on 13th to 23rd February 2009. The MPS will defend this claim.”

(source: Michael Gillard http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/article5536683.ece?token=null&offset=0&page=1)

Richard Reid is the founder of Pinnacle Proactive, Specialising in theEmployee Assistance ProgramStress ManagementStaff Retention & Absenteeism. Take a Proactive Approach to Growing Your Organisation & its People. For more info visit http://www.pinnacleproactive.com

Craigavon in top five of ‘sick day’ councils

January 16, 2009
ABSENTEEISM is costing Craigavon Borough Council almost £1m a year in lost productivity, a major report has revealed.

The council is reviewing its absenteeism policy after finishing among the worst five local authorities in Northern Ireland for days off work, contributing to a massive loss of £16m across the 26 councils, with 131,000 days lost in the 2007-08 financial year

Figures released by the Chief Local Government Auditor show that Craigavon council staff were off an average of 16.7 days per annum over a period covering the years 2005-08, at an average productivity cost of £955,000 per annum.

Only Larne, (19.54 days), Carrickfergus (18.99), Derry (17.89) and Moyle (16.85) performed worse than Craigavon.

The shining example was Magherafelt District Council, which – with 8.19 days per staff member – was the best of the 26 in Northern Ireland, while Craigavon’s nearest neighbours – Armagh, Lisburn, Banbridge and Dungannon – were much better than Craigavon.

second

Armagh, which covers Richhill, Tandragee and Markethill, was second in the list behind Magherafelt with 8.81 sick days per staff member.

Lisburn was third with 8.81 days, Banbridge was seventh with 11.73, although Dungannon was 16th with 13.25 lost days per staff member.
Armagh’s lost productivity was £230,000, Lisburn’s £513,000; Banbridge’s £247,000; and Dungannon’s £403,000.

However, statistics also show that Craigavon had one of the highest proportion of staff with no days of absence, suggesting that a number of staff were on long-term sickness.

The borough was third best in that table, with 48 per cent of staff not having a single day off during 2007-08, and only Castlereagh (50 per cent) and Lisburn (55 per cent) could better than figure. At the bottom end of the scale, Ards had just 22 per cent.

Just under 30 per cent of Craigavon’s days off were through stress, depression, mental and fatigue, well above the province’s average of 24 per cent.

A spokeswoman for the Civic Centre said that the figures had shown a slight improvement in recent years and that an absence policy had been in place for the past three or four years.

These included a doctor’s certificate, back-to-work interview in the case of regularly absenteeism, and based on the number of days away from work.

“We are regularly reviewing these policies and we are confident the figures will come down further,” the spokeswoman added.

unacceptable

However, Craigavon Councillor Philip Weir slammed the statistics. He said, “The statistics for sick leave in Craigavon Council are unacceptable. They will not be tolerated by elected members.

“Absenteeism has cost Craigavon Council £955,000 per year over each of the last three years. This level of absence would not be countenanced in the private sector and that is the culture we have to ingrain within local government.”

(Source: http://www.portadowntimes.co.uk/news/Craigavon-in-top-five-of.4881733.jp )

Richard Reid is the founder of Pinnacle Proactive, Specialising in theEmployee Assistance ProgramStress ManagementStaff Retention & Absenteeism. Take a Proactive Approach to Growing Your Organisation & its People. For more info visit http://www.pinnacleproactive.com

‘Morgan Stanley Smith Barney’ could save $320m in staff costs

January 15, 2009

Morgan Stanley and Citigroup have confirmed the formation of a wealth management joint venture and said they intend to make more than $1bn ($758m) in cost savings, including $320m in personnel expenses.

James Gorman, co-president of Morgan Stanley, will be chairman of the new company while retaining his current role. Charles Johnston, most recently president of Citigroup’s global wealth management business in the US and Canada, will be president of the combined effort to be called Morgan Stanley Smith Barney.

Johnston said: “Retention packages will be structured attractively and in line with industry practises.”

Gorman said he was confident there would not be significant attrition of financial advisors due to the retention payments. He declined comment on how many brokers will be receiving payments. The joint venture will employ more than 20,000 financial advisors.

The two banks said other cost savings will come from consolidating functions including technology, operations, sales support, product development and marketing.

Morgan Stanley Smith Barney will exclude Citi Private Bank or Nikko Cordial Securities.

Analysts questioned why Citigroup wanted to divest a stake in one of its better lower-capital intensive businesses. Johnston said: “We will own 49% of a more valuable industry leading business, which we decided was sensible and value enhancing.”

Johnston said the whole business had not been offered for sale as the bank wanted to participate in the wealth management industry and preserve earnings for three years.

Under the terms of the agreement, Citigroup will exchange 100% of Smith Barney, Quilter in the UK, and Smith Barney Australia for a 49% stake in the joint venture and an upfront payment of $2.7bn in cash.

Gorman said: “We have sufficient equity to cover the payment.”

At closing, Citigroup will recognise a pre-tax gain of approximately $9.5bn and create approximately $6.5bn of tangible common equity.

After the third anniversary, Morgan Stanley has the option to buy another 14% of the joint venture at fair market value and another 15% after four years. If Morgan Stanley owns more than 80% of the joint venture after five years, Citigroup has the option to put the rest of the stake to Morgan Stanley.

John Mack, chairman and chief executive of Morgan Stanley, said: “This joint venture is an important step forward in our effort to build our wealth management franchise, which we believe will be an increasingly important and profitable part of Morgan Stanley’s business in the years ahead.”

For Citigroup, the joint venture is a reversal of the bank’s stated strategy.

In November, Vikram Pandit, Citigroup’s chief executive, said in a conference call that Smith Barney would not be sold.

Glenn Schorr, an analyst at UBS, said in a report yesterday: “That a month later such a transaction is even a possibility suggests to us that this move is at least partially being driven by the ownership presence of the US government and possibly even a board that finally feels the need to do something a little more impactful.

Interestingly, there were a flurry of brow raising announcements last week—Citigroup’s about face on loan re-modification legislation, Robert Rubin stepping down, and now this.”

Morgan Stanley was advised by its institutional securities group and law firm Wachtell Lipton Rosen & Katz. Citigroup was advised by its institutional clients group with legal advice from Davis Polk & Wardwell.

Source —Write to Shanny Basar at sbasar@efinancialenews.com // http://www.wealth-bulletin.com/home/content/3353014526/ )

Richard Reid is the founder of Pinnacle Proactive, Specialising in theEmployee Assistance ProgramStress ManagementStaff Retention & Absenteeism. Take a Proactive Approach to Growing Your Organisation & its People. For more info visit http://www.pinnacleproactive.com

Open-plan offices ‘put health at risk’

January 15, 2009

Workers have been given a fresh excuse with which they can their blame feelings of illness, paranoia and wanting to quit on – the open-plan office.

Researchers in Australia found that 90% of workers in the ubiquitous corporate space reported adverse health and psychological effects, as well as higher turnover.

Feelings of insecurity and paranoia, brought on by others being able to see what you are doing on the computer or hearing what you say on the phone, were typical.

Combined with the noise, lack of privacy and shortage of personal space, workers can be more aggressive, resulting in shorter concentration spans and lower productivity.

Having studied all the health research ever collated on open-plan offices, Dr Vinesh Oommen, of Queensland University, said there was also a higher chance of conflict.

“Sitting so close to someone” that each time their phone rings others get irritated, or distracted, by the noise, increased the likelihood of staff coming to blows, he hinted.

He called on bosses to scrap their ‘one size fits all’ approach, defined as huge, uninterrupted large banks of desks, staged to foster informal ‘open’ working.

“The research found that the traditional design was better – small, private closed offices,” he said.

“The problem is that employers are always looking for ways to cut costs, and using open-plan designs can save 20 per cent on construction.”

Employers who ignore the call could be exposing staff to higher blood pressure and increased risk of illness and viruses, which spread around open-plan spaces easily.

So the question for all bosses, Oommen said, is do you want happy workers – or a high staff turnover and high absenteeism – characteristics of the open-plan office.

He reflected: “Having an office environment that promotes health and high productivity would be more beneficial to employers in the long run.”

(Source: http://www.contractoruk.com/news/004154.html )

Richard Reid is the founder of Pinnacle Proactive, Specialising in theEmployee Assistance ProgramStress ManagementStaff Retention & Absenteeism. Take a Proactive Approach to Growing Your Organisation & its People. For more info visit http://www.pinnacleproactive.com

True cost of council absenteeism is £500000

January 15, 2009
THE true cost of absenteeism in Larne Borough Council was almost half a million pounds in the past year, the Larne Times can reveal.

The local government auditor, whose latest report again showed the local authority has the highest level of staff sickness in the Province, estimates the average of nearly 20 days off per employee equals £391,000 in lost production.

The council claimed this week that in the past year its absenteeism rate reduced by 29 per cent to 17.3 days on average, but in his annual report, published on Friday, chief local government auditor John Buchanan revealed that in the three-year period 2005-08 the average was 19.54 days – the highest of all 26 district councils and more than double the lowest rate.

He noted a “slight” improvement on the previous three years when the figure stood at 19.93 days.

“Absenteeism cost the council an average of £391,000 in lost productivity each year during the 2005-08 period,” said the report. “This cost could have been reduced by £227,000 each year if the

council had matched the lowest average annual absenteeism rate for the period.”

The productivity gain between the two reporting periods was £8,000 a year.

Mr Buchanan pointed out that 32 per cent of absenteeism in the council was “the result of stress, depression, mental health and fatigue” when the average for Northern Ireland councils was 24 per cent.

In a statement, Larne council said it accepted the report, but referred to the annual audit for 2007-08 which indicated the average days lost per employee dropped from 24.27 to 17.3

The statement added, “The auditor has said that although he recommends absenteeism performance for councils should be benchmarked against others, the most important comparisons are to be made ‘with performance in the same organisation over time’. Larne Borough Council demonstrated that it was at the top of the scale for reductions in absenteeism rates by 29 per cent.

“Larne Borough Council welcomed the report findings that it was one of the top-performing councils when it came to staff who had no absence during the year, with 42 per cent of staff never having had a day off sick.

(Source: http://www.larnetimes.co.uk/news/True-cost-of-council-absenteeism.4871823.jp )

Richard Reid is the founder of Pinnacle Proactive, Specialising in theEmployee Assistance ProgramStress ManagementStaff Retention & Absenteeism. Take a Proactive Approach to Growing Your Organisation & its People. For more info visit http://www.pinnacleproactive.com

Laugh off all those fears of recession

January 13, 2009

Have you heard the one about the NHS shelling out taxpayers’ money so a consultancy called Humour Us could help downtrodden, underpaid nurses rediscover the fun in work?

On the face of it, it sounds like a joke and, set against the background of recession, the story of NHS humour workshops in the Nursing Standard has predictably attracted some critical media coverage. A pay rise and better working conditions, some suggested, might do more to help nurses look on the bright side than a laugh-in.

Condemnation of such workshops as a waste of public money raises the question of whether all the consultancies that have sprung up over the past decade offering “soft” employee wellbeing services will be dumped as an unaffordable luxury – mere icing on the cake – in recessionary times.

Kate Hull Rodgers, who runs Humour Us with her husband, Bill, understandably hopes not. Rodgers said negative media coverage betrayed a misunderstanding of the effect that humour in the workplace could have on stress, absenteeism and productivity. She said the insights Humour Us offered could be even more valuable in a recession.

Rodgers’s workshops and talks at corporate events tend to have people rolling in the aisles. She pokes fun at self-important, pompous bosses and colleagues who wear their stress like a badge that demonstrates their utter indispensability to the firm. She also offers up navel-gazing HR executives and the absurdities of corporate life so her audience can roar with cathartic, communal laughter.

But it is far more than a stand-up routine about the nutty side of business. Rodgers impersonates the ludicrous, hyperactive, stressed-out manager to illustrate “bad” stress (some stress, she emphasises, is good for you) and she provides an anatomical breakdown of laughter so the crowd can understand its physiological and psychological effects and why laughing is so good for individuals and organisations.

If anyone knows how pernicious stress and a loss of joie de vivre can be it is Rodgers. She found herself “chained to a bed” in a psychiatric hospital more than two decades ago shortly after emerging from drama school in Canada as the student most likely to succeed. It was her self-engineered recovery from her mental breakdown that convinced her of the necessity of nurturing fun in life and work.

“I examined why I got ill and I realised that I had lost perspective,” she said. “I realised that stress was about learnt behaviour and that behaviour could be changed. What we do is not about jokes but about promoting a positive take on life.”

There are plenty who swear by Rodgers’s power to change the way individuals think and organisations operate, including Eddie Stevens, the City of London’s housing services director, who invited Rodgers to speak at a staff conference six months ago. “I had previously heard Kate speak at a conference for 500 housing professionals,” he said. “You sometimes have to be dragged screaming to these events but she made this one fantastic. At our own conference, everyone said she was the best bit of the day. She talks about her own life experience but she relates it all back to work. She can change your mind-set.”

Stevens said he still applied things he learnt from Rodgers.

“There is so much management gobbledegook out there that you have to look for the grit in the oyster,” he said. “That’s what Kate provided.”

It won’t be a surprise if the weakest members of the management-gobbledegook fraternity suffer this year. However, Stevens suggests that even the pearls will struggle. He confesses he won’t be rushing to engage Humour Us or any similar outfit this year. “The truth is that in a recession everything that is not essential gets cut,” he said. “The first priority of a manager is to keep as many jobs as possible.” Rodgers admitted that HumourUs was already feeling the chill wind of recession. “Business is a bit down at the moment,” she said. “But we’ll come up again. Bust or boom, companies have to invest in their people. At the beginning of a recession our kind of service is seen as a cost – soft-skill stuff – but demand picks up again as the recession progresses.”

Ben Willmott, employee-relations adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, agreed that in downturns staff wellbeing and other soft programmes tended to be axed. But he was optimistic that this downturn would be different.

A recent CIPD survey found that in 2007, 58% of companies were planning to maintain spending on staff-wellbeing initiatives and 40% were planning to increase their spending. Willmott hopes that the next survey, published this summer and providing the picture for 2008, will reveal that recession did not destroy those plans.

What is crucial to the survival of softer services, according to Willmott, is whether their effect can be proved. It may be difficult to make a direct causal connection with a Rodgers session but Willmott believes that HR staff ought to be able to demonstrate the benefits of some wellbeing initiatives.

“It’s not a precise science,” he said. “But figures can be produced for staff turnover, staff satisfaction and absenteeism rates. The point is that the business case will have to be made.”

Willmott said the irony was that stress initiatives might be axed at a time of heightened need. “Employers have to understand that stress will go up this year,” he said. “People are worried about debt, mortgages and job security. People are watching colleagues being made redundant and restructuring taking place and their own workload increasing as a result.

“However, I think the debate has moved on since previous downturns. I think employers now realise that stress has a very significant impact on absence rates, productivity and conflict levels at work. Employers understand that there are real business benefits to looking after staff.”

Penny de Valk, chief executive of the Institute of Leadership and Management, argued that the economy had also changed and that employers realised that people were now their greatest asset in gaining a competitive advantage.

“So it is a mistake not to invest in people’s motivation and commitment,” she said. “This is a time when we need people to be creative and innovative and come up with new solutions. Organisations that just hunker down and ask people to do more are making a mistake. Permanently anxious staff will not come up with new solutions. You don’t find solutions in a bunker.”

De Valk also said the power of humour to relieve stress was now widely recognised and supported by research. “When you’re asking so much of people, you have to release the tension,” she said. “These are early days but I’m hopeful that companies will be savvier about what they cut this time.”

Ian Carter, marketing manager of the Cobra Network for commercial insurance brokers, will gladden De Valk’s heart. Kate Hull Rodgers had spoken at two Cobra conferences and Carter intended to continue using similar services this year.

“You have to get people to think beyond the day-to-day drudgery,” he insisted. “You have to keep people involved and motivated. And there’s always room for fun at work.”

This coming year will surely test that assertion – whether you are a nurse or one of those stressed-out, badged-up, indispensable bosses.

(Source: Mary Braid – http://business.timesonline.co.uk/tol/business/career_and_jobs/article5487701.ece )

Richard Reid is the founder of Pinnacle Proactive, Specialising in theEmployee Assistance ProgramStress ManagementStaff Retention & Absenteeism. Take a Proactive Approach to Growing Your Organisation & its People. For more info visit http://www.pinnacleproactive.com

Defence force has sickest year ever

January 11, 2009

The Irish Defence Forces lost more than 135,000 days to sick leave last year. Members of the army, naval service and air corps, which have a combined strength of 10,500, took an average 13 sick days each in 2008.

The country’s 8,500 soldiers took the largest amount of time off — 113,956 days — citing ill-health, stress and injury. This was 13.4 days each.

The 1,144 naval service personnel took 10,945 sick days, an average of 9.5 each. The state’s 850 air corps staff took 10,899 sick days, an average of 12.8. The statistics were released under the Freedom of Information Act.

The defence forces said it could not calculate the financial cost of sick leave. Almost all public-sector employers have higher absenteeism rates than the private sector, where the average firm loses 3.5% of its working year.

The defence forces said most sick leave taken was a result of injuries incurred during training and field-combat exercises. “All members of the Irish Defence Forces participate in field exercises, which can cause injuries due to their nature,” it said. “All members are required to train physically on a continual basis.”

Gerry Rooney, the general secretary of PDFORRA, the defence forces’ union, said the high rate of sick leave was because members of the forces were on duty round the clock. “The work that gardai engage in cannot be compared to the training undertaken by soldiers, who engage in cross-country military exercises,” said Rooney.

Jimmy Deenihan, the Fine Gael spokesman on defence matters, said the sick leave should be examined by Willie O’Dea, the defence minister. “It raises important issues about the welfare of our soldiers and Defence Forces staff,” he said.

(Source: John Mooney http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/ireland/article5489550.ece )

Richard Reid is the founder of Pinnacle Proactive, Specialising in theEmployee Assistance ProgramStress ManagementStaff Retention & Absenteeism. Take a Proactive Approach to Growing Your Organisation & its People. For more info visit http://www.pinnacleproactive.com

Academics well placed to ride out downturn

January 10, 2009

Academics are well placed to ride out the current economic downturn, new figures on pay and retention of staff in universities and colleges suggest.

The research by university employers found that academics are now well paid compared with other sectors, and jobs in higher education have been relatively secure since 2005.

But the data was collected before the full effects of the credit crunch on the labour market could be considered.

Those on short-term contracts in universities, such as researchers, are still in a potentially precarious position, as universities face tougher financial conditions with less public and private funding available to them.

While this year’s graduates face the toughest battle in a generation for jobs, universities expect to retain more staff as they cling to relatively secure posts. It should also become easier to recruit staff in problem areas, as people in other parts of the economy lose their jobs.

While turnover across all staff groups employed by universities has been relatively low, academics were the least likely to leave the sector – 6% – followed by 7% of technical staff and 8% of administrative or professional staff.

The UK-wide review of higher education over the last three years by the University and College Employers Association, Ucea, found that overall retention difficulties have eased since the last survey in 2005.

Overall, the sector is having relatively few recruitment and retention problems, it concluded, suggesting that universities are a safe haven in difficult economic times. Only 1.8% of institutions reported a “high turnover” of academic staff.

Ucea said the pay rises agreed between staff and employers in 2006 had made the sector a “very attractive” place to work, but union leaders pointed out that universities had opposed the increased wages outright.

Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, said: “University staff will be unimpressed that Ucea has identified recent pay rises as an attraction for people considering a career in higher education. Those pay rises were opposed at every opportunity by the employers, and would not have been achieved without the strong action taken by UCU members.”

The survey of 114 universities (70% of the total) found that universities and colleges with staffing problems had introduced bonuses, upgraded posts, increased learning and development opportunities, and improved line-management skills to address them.

Universities still have difficulties recruiting staff to particular academic disciplines, but these remain the same as in previous surveys, Ucea said.

These include business and management, accounting, finance and law, where universities find it harder to recruit lecturing staff than professors or researchers. And in 2007-08, it was slightly harder to recruit biological sciences staff but easier to find information technology and computing staff, the report revealed.

Universities find it relatively easy to recruit staff for most support roles, though some reported difficulties in recruiting accountants and finance professionals.

Most institutions said they “sometimes” experience recruitment difficulties for academic, admin and technical staff, but not for clerical and manual staff.

Jocelyn Prudence, Ucea’s chief executive, said: “Ucea is pleased that the survey results show such a positive picture of the higher education labour market overall.

“The combination of the framework agreement changes and the 2006 three-year pay agreement, which delivered increases in excess of 15.9%, have clearly helped to make HE a very attractive sector in which to work.”

While the sector does offer job security, there are concerns that universities will struggle financially in future as the public purse is squeezed. In particular, vice-chancellors have yet to find out what research funding they will receive as a result of December’s research assessment exercise. Universities’ funding allocations for 2009-10 will be announced on 4 March.

(Source: Anthea Lipset http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2009/jan/09/academic-pay-ucu)

Richard Reid is the founder of Pinnacle Proactive, Specialising in theEmployee Assistance ProgramStress ManagementStaff Retention & Absenteeism. Take a Proactive Approach to Growing Your Organisation & its People. For more info visit http://www.pinnacleproactive.com