Prevention is better than cure

The following presentation was given by APeopleBusiness’s Paul Finch to the Global Stress Study webinar in April 2021. You can watch the video above, or for those who prefer to read the presentation is also below…

Prevention is better than cure …

The picture shows a cruise liner anchored off somewhere in the arctic, and to get there it’s had to avoid icebergs, rocks, to follow deep water channels and goodness knows what else just so that it can anchor in a safe place, to allow the passengers to experience what they’ve gone there to experience.  But I’m using this picture as an example of an analogy, because I’m a boating man myself, and I think there’s a lot we can draw from the captains of ships who I liken to the leaders of business.

I’ve been an MD for over 25 years now. I left the corporate world in 1995 with a view to follow my dream and had a reasonable run of success since. And as an entrepreneur, you try to find new ways of doing things. And in my experience the best way of doing that is to look at the root causes of problems, to see if you really can identify a better way of doing things. They’re many examples of that with people like Elon Musk, for example, whose been involved with the electric car, and lo-and-behold, in 10 years’ time is going to be mandatory that we will only be allowed to buy them. So who would have thought that one?


Following my third business exit a few years ago, I wanted to investigate the subject of mental health and what is it that leaders can really do? Particularly from the point of view of an MD. We really do care as MDs, but we’re also bouncing off a whole range of other issues. Other shareholders, other directors, clients, stakeholders and goodness knows what else. So the only way you can really keep on top of all that stuff in today’s world is through digital dashboards. Now we’ve been used to those for quite some time through sales forecasts, finances, etcetera. But I wondered whether it was feasible to create some form of dashboard for human emotion and wellbeing, and we’re going to explore some of the necessity and what we’ve achieved.

The Covid Landscape and Health & Safety

Now, as you’re probably all well aware, we’re in Stress Awareness Month and the UK Health and Safety Executive to put out a bulletin last week, which was quite helpful to my presentation actually, so I thought I’d drawn some of the points made. The stats on that first point I don’t find surprising given what we’ve been through, certainly in UK, and most of Europe. The most striking point for me was the legal duty to protect employees from stress at work by doing a risk assessment and then acting on it. And how would you do a risk assessment in this context? I believe the only way to do that is to take a deep dive through some form of surveying capability.


Also, they make the point that the earlier a problem is tackled, the less impact it will have. Well, that should be pretty obvious actually, but too often we leave things to manifest themselves into bigger issues. I also think you can apply the 80/20 rule or not come back to that in a minute.

And then the final point they make, which is something very dear to my heart is the need to understand that people are affected differently by different issues, and the psychologists will tell you that the biggest bang for your buck is injecting emotional intelligence into the teams.

Too often technology translates into all of us being treated the same way, as far as I’m aware we’re not robots, and we respond differently to challenges and issues. So I think it’s important to understand that one size really doesn’t fit all.

Does my Boss care? – Avoid Employee Drift

I’m hearing a lot about the term right now called ‘Employee Drift’ which I believe is the phrase given to people who, as a result of having to work from home for so long, have come perhaps a bit disconnected from the company that they are working for. The long-standing view that the biggest influencing factor of employee engagement is this question “ does my boss care about me?”. Before the pandemic had even started, or it was even a twinkle in everybody’s eyes to speak, a recent poll in 2018-2019 showed that anything up to 75% of employees didn’t actually trust their immediate boss. Now I can say that following the data we’ve collected over the last year or so, I think that situations probably deteriorated a bit further, notably through the poor feedback. Shall we say on appraisals and direct line management feedback. At the same time as having to cope with increasing demands whilst the home working environment as being a certainly a very challenging experience for many.

But I think we really need to demonstrate that you listen by using an anonymised survey tool. The reason I think it should be anonymous is to allow people to share how they really feel. The other thing to do here is that you can’t always rely on conversation. People don’t always feel comfortable about talking about their issues.

But it’s not only good enough to ask people what’s going on, but you need to do something about it. And that’s in its own right will show you care. And then once you start on that positive circle of activity, you will get to an improved level of trust, and there should be a positive virtuous circle that going forward from there on. So I think ‘does my boss care’ is so important in this conversation?

80/20 Rule – Does it Apply?

I mentioned the 80/20 rule earlier. It’s a long-standing adage that 80% of the effort can be achieved with 20% of the cost, and I really think we can bring that model into the subject of human emotions in the office. I’ve been in technology for over 40 years now, too often we’ve looked and analysed the lifetime costs of a solution and found that actually 80% of the costs have gone into fixing 20% of the system that needed fixing, because too many shortcuts were taken at initial inception.

And why don’t we apply this to people and find out what they really need before we embark on major programmes of change? In reality, most issues do not require complex algorithms or even medical assistance (obviously there are some cases that do). But it’s what I would consider is what I would call business as usual leadership and the purpose of the company. Things like I help in that people understand what the purpose of the company and their roles within it. So I think there’s a lot we can do to take preventative care in this regard.


I can’t count the number of times over the last few years I’ve sat in a boardroom where the senior leadership have turned round to me and said ‘actually we like a bit of stress in the teams’. Well, I perhaps might have said that myself in my early years, a number of years ago. But what I’ve realised is we don’t really mean that. I’m trying to change that language. I think any form of stress, whether it’s stress without distress I think is a red herring quite frankly. Any form of stress is not good news if left in situ for a long period of time, it can build and lead to chronic issues.

But I Want Some Stress In My Teams?

I’m a boating man. I used to do a lot of offshore racing like in the picture there, and believe me you do not want stressed out people on machines like that, in close quarter racing. Mistakes would happen, and it can lead to catastrophic consequences. What you want is what I would call ‘Positive competitive pressure’. So I really like us to consider changing that language.

What you’ve got there is a team on a boat that knows individually what their roles are, they’re communicating well, steered by the skipper at the helm.

So what is it that leaders can really do?

Again, you’ve got an image here from another boating concept. I mentioned earlier that I liken the role of MDs in particular to captains of the ship. They have a number of teams working around them, some are working in the engine room to make sure that’s functioning correctly. Some are looking after the cargo, and some are looking after the pure maintenance of the vessel itself. But on the bridge with the captain has an entire team of people that helping him navigate and decode the various sources of information they’ve got to understand what problems they’ve got coming down the track.

The picture in front of you is a typical view you might get from any radar screen, and as you can probably see, there’s an awful lot going on. And when you first look at those things, you say to yourself: “how on Earth does anybody actually understand what that’s telling you?”. And you have to filter out the noise, and there’s a lot of noise on there, but there are also some real issues of risk.

There is a fundamental rule of the sea that it’s incumbent upon all skippers of any vessel to take avoiding action to prevent a collision. So I’d like to put it to you Why is that not the standard case for human interaction to avoid stress and burnout? If we spend time measuring and predicting the issues as leaders, we would use our knowledge and experience to prevent human based emotional collisions.

So What’s The Pandemic Done To People?

Without a doubt the pandemic has had an unprecedented impact, another common word used at the moment. Before the pandemic arrived, we were witnessing anything up to 25% on average productivity loss caused by poor well-being in the office. From our data collected over the last year or so, we’re seeing anything up to a 10% further drop in productivity. So we’re now running is an average of below 30%.

So there’s an opportunity, ladies and gentlemen, to really demonstrate you care and lift the with the motivations of the teams. The interesting thing was, the biggest squeeze seems to have come on senior leaders and team members themselves. In the past our work has shown that it’s mainly the middle management who seems to have plateaued. They’re still squeezed by the way, but it looks like the other areas causing the squeeze have caught up. But what our data has told us is that without a doubt, people need to get back to the office to get going on those previous conversations that only take seconds or minutes, instead of having to book zoom calls.

The opportunity is there for using tools like ours. If anybody would like to explore lessons we’ve learned or talk to me further then please feel free to make contact. Thank you.