Why philanthropy and wellbeing are good for business

When employees are freed up to connect into community and a cause like homelessness, individual and collective change sparks on many levels. Renowned organisational psychologist Professor Sir Cary Cooper CBE spoke exclusively with Natalie Cooper.

“Uniting employees to work for a greater cause leads them to happier, more fulfilled, purposeful lives. Millennials are smart young people, voting with their feet on the employers they want to work for and the cultures they want to be part of. We should all be socially responsible,” says Cary Cooper.

The professor of organisational psychology and health is also a firm believer that ‘the power of conversation, personal connection and emotional intelligence’ are what drive strong, healthy workplace culture. But widespread cases of long working hours, job insecurity and unmanageable workloads are leading to a breakdown in communication among colleagues.

Throughout a career spanning six decades, he has witnessed first-hand the effects of poor health and wellbeing in the workplace. “One in four people suffers from a common mental disorder such as anxiety, stress or depression, which can sometimes lead to suicide. People are increasingly suffering cardiovascular ill health. You only have to look at the news (in recent years) to see evidence of men not feeling able to talk about their mental health problems at work,” Cary explains, before referring to Lloyds Banking Group CEO Antonio Horta-Osório. The banker made headlines in 2011 when he was signed off work with stress, and has since become a prominent campaigner for employers to support the mental health of their employees.  

“I’m a scientist,” adds Cary. “I look for evidence to support stories to change opinion. There are consequences of men not talking. There are workers considering suicide, CEOs and many others not coping. Leaders can create the right climate for people to feel happy and do good in the workplace. We spend a third of our lives at work – that’s a lot of time.”

Research, science, communication

Cary argues that helping others makes us feel good, and a good quality workplace can make a huge difference to people’s lives: “What employers don’t think about is that if employees are freed up to help people affected by issues such as homelessness, deprivation, or illness within our communities, this puts stresses in the workplace into context and perspective.

“If you’re under a lot of stress yourself but see poverty or someone else under severe strain, it makes you feel better helping someone else. It makes you realise how quickly you can go from ‘up there’ to ‘down there’. We need to reframe the benefits of social responsibility to employers, driven through personal stories. It changes you.”

Wellbeing and workplace welfare

So where does Cary’s own belief system – that centres so strongly around wellbeing and workplace welfare – stem from? And what can we learn from his personal story?

Born into a humble, working-class Jewish family, he grew up in the US with his parents, three sisters and a brother. Both his Ukrainian father and Romanian mother, neither of whom had been to school, had emigrated to escape rising anti-semitism in their homelands. Cary was the first one in his family to go to university and, firmly following the ‘American dream’, had chosen his studies to become a tax lawyer.

Struggling families, deprivation

At the age of 22, serendipity came knocking on his door when a shortage of social workers in Los Angeles was to alter his entire life purpose and journey.

Cary was looking for work to support his MBA course at UCLA and found himself a job at the Bureau of Public Assistance. He set about working in one of the most notoriously violent, deprived areas of the inner city with a community facing widespread homelessness, drug and alcohol abuse.

“Becoming a social worker changed my life and went on to influence my whole career,” he says. “Back then I was naïve as hell. I was young and the only white face in a black area of LA and then in the city centre working with the homeless.” On his first day, he was introduced to the neighbourhood by one of the bureau’s key workers, who took him to gang members and told them to ‘look after and protect Cooper, make sure nothing happens to him’.

He was then given his own case load. His job was to look after families, including reporting on the wellbeing of struggling single working mothers and their children – giving out vouchers for benefit support to them, then later to the homeless in the city centre.

“Some of the stories were pretty horrendous,” he says. “You don’t know deprivation until you see it for yourself. High unemployment left mothers and homeless men so desperate for money they would sell their blood to the local hospital to feed their hungry children or themselves. And there were men exploiting their women in South Central LA.”

Lifelong commitment to helping change lives

After his summer placement, Cary was asked to stay on in his role while finishing his master’s degree. This would become the starting point of a long working life dedicated to improving the lives of others.

Of his social worker experience, Cary recalls: “I could help financially with food and every so often maybe make a difference to a life, but the number of people you could affect was so small. I found myself involved in situations I felt I had no control over.

“I started to feel, overwhelmingly, that if I’d have stayed in that job it would have killed me off because really, I couldn’t change a thing. All I was doing was keeping these people afloat. They were badly damaged. I got them too late in the system,” he adds with a tone of sadness in his voice.

Moral lens on humanity – destiny calling

While recounting these experiences that seem to haunt him still today, it suddenly hits Cary that they became his biggest motivating driver to overcome his feeling of helplessness at that time. Moved by the scenes of broken families and some of the worst poverty he had ever witnessed, his moral lens was reshaping itself at much deeper levels of humanity.

Destiny called again when, in 1962, Cary was enlisted into the military reserves and went to boot camp in Memphis, Tennessee – worried he may be activated longer term. He went through a series of tests and was told, given his scores, that he was being sent to work for naval photographic intelligence around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

This was to become a second defining event – a profound marker for Cary’s view on life. “I don’t think anyone really understands how this event in history could have killed us all,” he says. “It made me think, in any one moment it could all be over. I had to question to myself; do I really want to be a lawyer or am I doing it for my parents?”

Fortuitous life moments

Returning to finish his studies at UCLA, Cary chose to specialise in behavioural sciences and social psychology, mentored by Professor Fred Massarik. “He saw something in me. He connected me to a visiting professor at Leeds University, who invited me to England for a year to work with him on T-groups – helping people understand themselves better. He told me: ‘You have to go’.” Cary secured a research grant, which he describes as ‘fortuitous’. “In life, you don’t know what’s going to hit you,” he says.

Cary made his way to England via Germany, where he confronted the phantoms of his ancestral past. “The minute I came to England, I loved this country. It felt like home immediately and I knew I was going to stay.”

In Leeds, Cary carried out his PhD research and worked with social psychologist Peter B. Smith (who was another important person in his life as a mentor and friend) who then moved on with him to the University of Sussex. Cary went with him to work as a research assistant, and it was here that he was greatly influenced by head of department Professor Marie Jahoda.

Destructive psychological impact of unemployment

“I started researching people’s behaviour at work. Marie had strong social values and I really admired her formative work that highlighted the destructive psychological impact of unemployment on individuals and communities,” he says. “She had researched this issue in the 1940s and 1950s and spent several months living in the communities she was studying.”

Cary then spent two years at Sussex, became a lecturer in social psychology at the University of Southampton and gradually moved into occupational psychology. He became fascinated by the impact work has on an individual – how people burn out and experience stress as individuals and the effect this has in turn on their own families. This is when he found his calling – to campaign for work-life balance and improving mental health at work. “I realised this is where you can make a big difference to the lives of people,” he comments.

Despite a long list of professional, academic and civil honours to his name since – including a CBE and knighthood for his work in organisational health and social science – Cary says it’s his contribution to mental health that is most meaningful to him.

Proudest moments to workplace wellbeing cause

When asked to name his proudest achievements, there are two that he modestly shares. The first is the result of his role as lead scientist on the 2008 Mental Capital and Wellbeing report for the Government Office for Science.

The cost and benefit analysis he presented to the government directly secured the legal right for British employees to request flexible working, whether they have children or not.

The other is the National Forum for Health and Wellbeing at Work, which he launched in 2016 with Dr Paul Litchfield, the then chief medical officer for BT. Its membership consists of more than 35 major global organisations who meet quarterly with specialists to focus on improving workplace wellbeing in the UK and worldwide.

“It’s just wonderful,” he says. “These people are all volunteering their time, why do they do that? If you’re a chief medical officer for health and wellbeing, a CEO or HR professional, you see incidents of work-related ill health directly – cases such as depression, burn out, terminal cancer and attempted suicide.”

Compassion and empathy

“We need compassion and empathy in the workplace, and to create toolkits for health and wellbeing. It’s so important from a human point of view. Evidence alone is not what changes hearts and minds. People’s stories do. We need to get people to tell their stories.”

The issue of how much personal experiences of mental health and wellbeing should be shared is firmly on the agenda at the next Good Day at Work Conversation – an annual conference hosted by Robertson Cooper (a University of Manchester spin off company co-founded by Cary to promote employee wellbeing).

It’s Cary’s closing comments that raise the importance of social sensitivity among leaders and managers. He asks: “How aware are they of employees’ work pressures and personal lives, and are they handing out manageable workloads, achieveable deadlines and providing them with good work-life balance.

“Social skills should be equal to technical skills, or even more important. Having leaders that are socially aware – and have compassion and empathy – should be the ethical and moral bottom line. If you make sure of all that, you’re onto a winner.”

Words of wisdom?

And the biggest things he’s learned in his 78-year life? “To make every effort to be kind to others. If you build people up, you will benefit psychologically as well. Also, to be positive and optimistic in good and bad times.

“As the poet Kahlil Gibran wrote: ‘The optimist sees the rose and not the thorns, the pessimist stares at the thorns, oblivious to the rose’.”

Professor Sir Cary L Cooper, CBE

  • 50th Anniversary Professor of Organizational Psychology & Health
  • ALLIANCE Manchester Business School, University of Manchester, Booth Street West, Manchester M15 6PB
  • President of the CIPD, Immediate Past President of the British Academy of Management, President of the Institute of Welfare

Profusion Cares – want to join our cause?

Profusion Cares is the philanthropic foundation set up by Profusion, to engage our own team and other likeminded organisations in making sustainable social impact within our local communities.

The chosen cause for 2019/20 is homelessness and food poverty, in which we’re focused on using data to make the work of organisations tackling these issues easier.

“By getting involved in an initiative like this you start to see a bigger purpose and to understand you could change someone’s life,”says Anne Huber, business analyst at Profusion and member of the Profusion Cares steering group.

“Achieving something like raising money for a homelessness charity, which we did, is satisfying and gives a feeling of happiness. Working for the greater good brings people together, creates shared experiences. It changes the mood and vibe because you get to know about people’s lives at work just as you would a friend outside of work.

“I feel I can talk openly in this company culture and share my opinions. Through Cares, we get to exchange knowledge with people from different teams in the company and learn new skills that are not part of your day-to-day job. We’ll work together, find a solution and support one another, which is very rewarding.

“As young millennials, it reminds you of your responsibility to contribute to society, be part of it and to understand what’s happening in the wider world. It’s the right thing to do.”

If this resonates with you and your company, read more https://cares.profusion.com/

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Natalie Cooper


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