#10 Winter 2018

Q&A: In business, everything is about people

James Espey

James Espey, OBE and MBA alumnus of the 1968 class, has spent 50 exceptional years in business building brands and people. He talks to us here about the challenges facing a new generation of leaders squaring up to AI.

The world of work is changing. Artificial Intelligence and the 4th Industrial Revolution are bridging many capacity gaps, but what are the knock-on effects from a “human” perspective?

In business, really, everything is about people. It is people who make the world work – only people. The problem is that often in modern workplaces people are treated as numbers – but they are not numbers. As a result you see more and more mental health problems in the workplace. AI and the 4th Industrial Revolution I think are accentuating this tendency to treat people like numbers and this is concerning.

People are hiding behind tech far too much. There is no doubt it is useful but it should be used as an aid to judgment not a substitute. When I chair board meetings – I make people switch off their phones and I only take a pen and note pad. When I am talking to you, I concentrate on talking to you.

People are the capital that make it happen – AI doesn’t really change that. I have done a lot of things wrong in my career but the one thing that I am proud of is that I hardly ever lost staff. It boils down to how you treat people.

“Humanness” and “EQ” in the workplace are becoming more and more sought after – how do we develop leaders who want to build their leadership capability in the face of what AI and the 4th industrial revolution are bringing?

Just because certain things will be replaced by machines does not mean we won’t need people any more. In fact, I think that now more than ever we need good people skills and good self-awareness to be effective in the workplace. The best thing that leaders can do therefore is to build their self-awareness and hone their capacity to work with and influence others.

You have made public that you have suffered more than one mental crisis during your career and one of your key projects now is as President of the Shaw Mind Foundation, an organisation that is dedicated to fighting and redressing mental health injustices. Are we looking at an epidemic of stress and mental illness in the workplace?

One of the terms I like least in the world is HR. Don’t talk to me about HR – I call that human remains. If you treat people like numbers – it will have an impact on their mental health. Instead you need to ask; what are you doing for the well being of your staff especially in the age of AI and job insecurity?

What happens in the workplace is that often people are not functioning properly, as they are scared to talk about mental health; they are scared to say anything and instead try to live with it. A survey of employees conducted by the Shaw Mind Foundation in 2014 found that 31% said that they would not feel able to talk to their manager if diagnosed with a mental health problem; 33% said that if they told their boss that they were stressed at work, they felt that their ability to do the job would be questioned.

But these are issues that have to be confronted – not only because of the cost to business, but also because of the human cost. The UK economy as a whole is thought to be negatively affected by mental health problems in the workplace by approximately £70 billion annually. In the USA, estimates for the total cost of mental health and substance abuse to businesses annually are considerably higher. Meantime, according to research in Australia, a massive 20% of suicides are linked to work pressures.

Collectively, employers spend upward of $8 billion a year on wellness programmes – yet these underperform by most measures, and barely 25% of employers even try to understand how well their programmes do – according to Harvard Business Review. Can you comment on this? What should organisations be doing differently?

There is much that organisations can do to deal with this crisis. Managers should be better trained to pick up mental issues and to support staff who are suffering. Additionally, they need to work to reduce the stigma of mental health in the workplace and also ensure that workloads are not unreasonable. Work hours should be restricted. Consider limiting email on the weekend for instance. In addition, businesses also need to ensure ‘buy in’ from all employees on the issue. As employees make up the bulk of any business it is crucial that they also play a pivotal role in supporting each other and building a culture that does not stigmatise mental illness.

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