Opinion

Bosses have far more to lose than productivity if they can't inspire trust

6 min read

08 April 2016

Deputy Editor, Real Business

This is a wake-up call for any business leader who underestimates the importance of building trust with employees – a heavy dose of stress has more than likely impacted the mental health of some of your staff and they fear telling you.

Ethan Burris, assistant professor of management at McCombs School of Business, once claimed in 2009 that everyone he talked to “has felt some level of discomfort in speaking the truth to power” – and the subject of staff hesitating to unveil problems at work was one Burris was keen on investigating. The implications, he found, went beyond employee egos and morale: “This is a problem and it’s not just because employees don’t feel like speaking up. There’s lots of research that shows when staff don’t feel involved in the workplace, they tend to withdraw.”

At the time, his research, entitled “The Risks and Rewards of Speaking Up: Responses to Employee Voice,” suggested employees who spoke up or challenged the status quo were deemed to be less competent and dedicated to the company. As such, it was common for there to be a disconnect between how managers and staff judged a firm’s willingness to listen to employees. He said: “A lot of managers think that if they treat their staff respectfully and tell their staff ‘My door is always open,’ that should be enough to make staff trust them. But employees need more than that in order to feel safe to speak up.”

Obviously we still haven’t found the secret to fostering trust as seven years later we’re still faced with the same problem – and the subjects staff are unwilling to bring up in front of bosses has only been increasing. Take, for example, the issue of mental health – one in four people are diagnosed with having a mental health problem.

Bosses must ensure wellbeing of staff if they are to protect bottom line

It’s not surprising given that we work in an age of long working hours, lengthy commutes and high performance demands. It also has an undeniable impact on companies, which end up losing on average 23.5 days of productivity per employee each year – or a £15.1bn cost to the UK economy.

Do staff talk to employers after having being diagnosed, however? No. Only 35 per cent of UK workers who have suffered from mental health problems have talked to their manager about these issues. This was according to a study of 1,388 workers commissioned by Willis PMI Group, which found that silence was particularly prevalent among younger employees. And the biggest reason why workers did not talk to bosses was due to the fear of impacting job prospects. 

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This was followed by the worry they would not receive adequate support, concern their manager would not understand and the fear that they would be looked down upon by those higher up.

Mental illness undeniably remains a delicate subject, but it is one that requires urgent attention from employers in order to better manage staff wellbeing and sickness absence.

In the report, Mike Blake, director at Willis PMI Group, claimed that the proper recording of sickness and absence related to mental health was a crucial first step in tackling the problem, but that it could only happen if staff were given the assurance they could report issues in confidentiality and without judgement.

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To really slam the issue home, almost half of employees don’t trust their employers – a 2016 “Edelman Trust Barometer” unveiled that as two-thirds feel CEOs are too focused on short-term financial performance, they are far less likely to say talk to management about any problems they may have.

In short, if bosses can’t seem to foster a trusting relationship with staff then they stand to lose far more than just a few hours of lost work. With a lack of trust in leadership, employees will start job hunting once more – your talent acquisition and employee turnover costs will only increase.

It may also be a red flag to potential candidates that you have a “toxic” culture, not to mention a possible decline in communication, and thus the bottom line. It should also never be forgotten that word of mouth can spread fast, particularly so when it comes to the negative aspects of the business world.

Similarly, at a TED talk in September 2015, neuroscientist Daniel Levitin told a story of how a few years ago he broke into his own house. This led him to come across a system that would keep him calm when he entered a stressful situation.