Economic crisis is a golden opportunity for OH and HR

We are entering a new era, and the banking crisis has caused us all to take stock (or sell it). It has forcefully reminded us that we cannot take anything for granted any more, and that our wellbeing and that of our friends and families is the most important thing. Material possessions are starting to matter a little less and fundamental aspects of life, like relationships and how we, and the employees for whom we are responsible, feel day to day, are coming to the fore.

Changing times

In the wider social context, this dovetails with the key messages of the environmental movement and popular social ‘activists’ like Jamie Oliver – whose Jamie at Home and Ministry of Food TV shows focus on the pleasures of growing food to eat and the importance of getting your family’s everyday diet right. The ‘good life’ has never been presented so attractively as when the programme was first broadcast last year, but now that money has become a major concern for millions of Britons, it’s not just the lifestyle that’s attractive – it’s the cost savings too.

Another take on this was provided recently by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage TV show. It focused on the West Yorkshire town of Todmorden, whose residents have committed to growing fruit and vegetables in all available public areas – including bus stops, graveyards, schools and railway platforms. The mission is that within 10 years, the community will be producing and trading its own meat, fruit, vegetables and dairy produce – but in the meantime, the hope is that this encourages a culture of growing and consuming fresh produce in the town.

Crunch time

Back in the workplace, times are tough and they may yet get tougher. The financial crisis is starting to bite organisations and there is a good chance that budgets will be cut next year. And it is usually HR (which often houses occupational health), the function that owns ‘the soft stuff’, that is the first to suffer. But is it time for this organisational habit to change, and what can HR and OH professionals do to elicit a different reaction when the money gets tight?

Opportunity knocks

Well, one perspective is that the current financial crisis actually represents a big opportunity for HR and occupational health. The new culture that is emerging in the financial services sector, where sustainable success and humanistic values are becoming important drivers, puts a much greater emphasis on organisations to show that they value their people. In turn, boards are likely to increase the value that they place on those responsible for the organisation’s people – in other words, the HR function.

At the same time, there has been much more of an acceptance among senior management over the past few years that ‘the soft stuff is now the hard stuff’. A good example of this shift is the weight of evidence that the wellbeing and engagement of staff actually impacts an organisation’s bottom line. What could be more important during a period when staff numbers and budgets may be cut than ensuring those who remain are healthy, motivated and engaged?

And this is just one example. Now is the time to reframe the ‘value add’ that your function delivers to the business and to think carefully about the consequences of withdrawing certain funding. Using just two areas as an example: if absence management is neglected, costs will start to rise and an absence culture may start to form – especially if morale is already low. If recruitment and retention are neglected, the talent pipeline will dry up and the organisation will be discussing a lack of leadership skills in five years’ time.

A step forward

So it seems to me the current economic situation might be a good thing – the ‘correction’ that economists have been talking about for some time is starting to trickle down from Wall Street and London’s Square Mile into our lives and it is doing just what the term implies. So if the credit crunch encourages people to grow and eat their own vegetables rather than buying ready meals, it would be ‘more correct’ for the health of the nation and for the environment. If the value that the ‘people’ parts of the business deliver to organisations is more fully recognised and this results in energised and motivated staff working in a more engaging environment, this too would be a step forward.

So these difficult times present a unique opportunity for you to promote the value that HR and OH deliver. Gorging on excess and material gain for their own sake is a thing of the past (for now), and this new era will be about revisiting and revaluing what we’ve already got. In this context, the inherent positive qualities that people bring with them to work will become much more important – their vitality, their energy, their skills, their motivation and their ideas. Now that sounds like job for your profession.

Ben Moss, director, Robertson Cooper (business psychology company)

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