Speech of Micheál Martin TD, Leader of Fianna Fáil, Association of Higher Civil & Public Servants’ seminar on ‘Managers & Wellbeing’

Published on: 22 May 2019

With the rapid pace of public events and the ever-shortening news cycle it can be very hard to make space for serious issues which don’t have an immediate ‘news angle’.

That’s why I want to congratulate the AHCPS for deciding to hold today’s seminar.  Overall wellbeing is something everyone knows is important but it rarely gets the attention it deserves and we are nowhere near taking a systematic approach to supporting wellbeing in the workplace and wider society.

This is about to change because a wide range of social and economic objectives are simply unobtainable or unaffordable without a serious engagement with general wellbeing issues.

Of course there is a basic problem about how to define wellbeing or to define it in a way that it is capable of being addressed within the confines of the policies of an organisation or of government as a whole.

Because it is a relatively new concept and because it doesn’t fit within traditional boxes it is all too often dismissed.  This is a major mistake and it misses the important lesson to be learned from the history of public health issues in policy and legislation.

There was a time when public health was seen as the soft and dispensable side of health and social issues.  Every new idea could be dismissed as ‘the nanny state’ and it certainly took a long time to get to a harder-edged and more effective agenda.

When I first proposed the workplace smoking ban many people believed that it was unworkable and that the potential benefits were being exaggerated.  15 years on no one now says this and I am not aware of anybody advocating for a return to allowing smoking in the workplace.  The benefits have actually been significantly greater and faster than were predicted.

Giving people the right not to have to inhale other people’s smoke should never have been controversial, but it was and the fact that it no longer is, shows you just how much people can change in their attitudes.

There are major issues with the level of attention which vital public health issues are receiving, but in Ireland today there is a basic and widely-held understanding that a health system has to work on preventing illness as well as treating it.

Mental health is another area where public perceptions have changed radically in recent years.  The scale of stigmatising of mental health problems in Ireland in the past was an enormous barrier to helping people and it made the situation much worse.

Yet today we are seeing a dramatic change in people understandings of the issue, their willingness to take a public stand and the demand for a proper response.

While there continues to be an unacceptable failure to deliver agreed funding and services which are so urgently needed, there will be no turning-back to the days when mental health was seen as an embarrassing issue to be ignored.

I think we will in the years ahead also see a change of mind in relation to how seriously we take general wellbeing as an issue.  Certainly there is a problem that so many things impact on individual and collective wellbeing that it can be a difficult concept to define and manage – however this is changing rapidly.

In the case of workplace wellbeing the International Labour Organisation has put it at the centre of an attempt to redefine objectives in the workplace and to move beyond an agenda which was largely developed a hundred years ago.

Research suggests that for an organisation to be successful in the long-term, for it to maximise the potential of its people and for it to minimise disruption it must manage the wellbeing of those within the organisation.

Engaging with people on issues other than terms and conditions, and outside of inherently conflictual contexts, is vital.  Through empowerment and communication you not only build trust but you also build effective teams and the wellbeing of everyone within the team.

The work of turning wellbeing from an academic and broad concept, into a practical and focused strategy is well underway in much of the world and increasingly it will be a defining difference between sustainable and unsustainable organisations.

The excellent panel of speakers which have been assembled for today will be addressing specific wellbeing issues and strategies on a number of levels and I don’t want to try to pre-empt their contributions.

So I wold like to focus on two specific areas – first of all the role of wellbeing as a concept in our national public strategies and secondly on the specific issue of promoting wellbeing within the civil and public service.  This is not a political event, but there are some points which simply have to be made which are inherently political.

Even though we are days away from important elections and the government has been in a hyper-partisan mode in recent weeks, I will keep the politics to a minimum and try instead to talk about points which are guide for the future.

I and my party very strongly welcome the fact that general wellbeing has been identified as a public policy concern and that new work is being done in terms of how to define and promote it.  This work is considerable but it is still at a relatively early stage where there is time to take a harder-edged look at how it is being implemented.

I welcome the decision to publish an annual set of indicators across a wide-range of factors which influence wellbeing – including the inclusion of measures relating like to socio-economic issues such as deprivation, education and housing.

The anti-poverty strategies of twenty years ago had a significant impact on policy when they isolated critical factors capable of being addressed through public policy and this is the measure by which the impact of the new wellbeing indicators will be judged.

I would have to say that I’m very far from convinced that the emphasis placed on advertising and marketing is either desirable or likely to have a significant impact.

First of all, if the wellbeing indicators are genuinely to be the core of policy, then the most important action is the mainstreaming of action across a wide range of sectors. Advocating for a healthy lifestyle is something we should do – indeed this was an area I sought to develop as a Minister in both Health and education.

However it does need to be asked if money spent on broad-brush publications and photos of senior members of government is ever likely to be effective. There is a very serious danger that in this area, as in so many others areas of public policy, a selling of a general and highly-branded strategy may get in the way of more direct and impactful messages.

The best public health campaigns over the years have always been the ones with the hardest messages either establishing core facts or promoting very specific actions.

If wellbeing is to be a serious part of public policy then it has to be mainstreamed and it cannot be allowed to be seen as a stand-alone action mainly seen through advertising and marketing.  We need to use it as a framework to understand the urgency of mental health investment, the central role which fairness and equity play in all areas and help people to understand the real benefits to them of engagement with the new idea.

I think if we take a harder-edged approach to messaging and priorities for public engagement I have no doubt that people will respond.  Perhaps the biggest reason for believing this is that at its heart wellbeing is common sense and help for people to navigate a complex range of issues will be warmly welcomed.

For example, everybody understands that the new digital world in which we live is affecting how people interact and how they see themselves.

Parents are often desperate to understand how to manage the new pressures and dependencies their children are developing – but with nearly every house now actively networked, it is an issue for all.

The negative and positive impacts of this are now established without doubt in the research literature, but have come nowhere near being fully addressed in either regulation or advice.

Clearly action to both protect people and to help them to navigate the digital world is a priority and this touches on many parts of public policy.  It is a very distinct part of promoting wellbeing which is not captured by the current approach, at least at a political level to wellbeing.

Wellbeing is a well-researched and grounded way of looking at the reality of modern societies and the many things which impact on individual and collective welfare.  It has potentially very significant public policy potential.

The key to releasing this potential will be to embed it with credible, hard and specific objectives within the public sector as a whole.  What matters is not that the public are talking about wellbeing – it is that actions are taken which address the elements which go together to impact on wellbeing.

One of these is of course what happens in the workplace – and by far the largest and most important workplace in Ireland is the civil and public sector.

An enormous amount has been achieved in recent decades to improve many of the workplaces for our civil and public servants.

Many organisations have been at the forefront of both being good employers and delivering quality public services.

There has been a genuine willingness shown to both deliver change and to improve services.  The long-since outdated stereotypes of the public sector used by some commentators and politicians ignore the reality of a culture which does in most cases seek to improve and does seek to actively manage situations.

However, there is clearly still a lot to be done in terms of getting the most out of our public servants.  There is more that we can do to promote wellbeing in the public sector workplace and to maximise the potential offered by a highly-skilled workforce.

It is very important to create space where pay and overall terms of employment are not the only issues on the table.  We have to recognise that people want to have pride in their work and to be respected for this.

The ILO has said that healthy workplaces achieve the most and to do this you need a culture which empowers people, gives them trust and sees communication as a two-way process.  We have a lot to do to make this a reality in many parts of the public sector.

A very important place to start is at the very top.

A healthy workplace gives people stability in terms of the policies to be followed and shared responsibility for outcomes.  Unfortunately I think we have a rising problem with both of these issues.

Many areas have for an extended period suffered from the near-constant chopping and changing of core policies, a refusal to accept advice and insistence on unrealistic plans.  Managers have been directly disempowered and have had no opportunity to use their people in a planned and secure way to maximise service levels and quality.

A classic example of this is in the health sector.  The HSE even at the height of the recession was delivering services on budget and keeping key waiting lists low.

However then they were told by government that they were to be abolished and replaced at some point by a structure so badly designed that it was eventually abandoned.  This insecurity was accompanied by a refusal to provide the budget needed to deliver the demanded level of services as well as the diversion of funds into pet projects and short-term initiatives.

The tens of thousands of people working in our health services were directly disempowered by all of this.  I have met them in all parts of the country and I have no doubt whatsoever about their sincere commitment to delivering high quality services. And yet they also had to contend with being blamed for the impact of policies and decisions which they had no involvement in.

The recent move to an almost reflexive tactic of blaming public servants is having an impact on the public service and will be very damaging for public service workplaces if it isn’t stopped.

There is something very wrong when in the course of a few months public servants are attacked for not stopping a major overspend and are then attacked for trying to stop a major overspend.

There is something deeply unseemly about members of government writing articles to say, in effect, that we wouldn’t have electric lights or secondary education if we’d listened to civil servants.  It’s not only factually wrong, it’s disrespectful, disempowering and undermining.

The same sort of behaviour has been seen with the annual rush of members of government to blame public servants for the health budget supplementaries – or the attack on local authorities on housing delivery.

Separately the move to downgrade the profile of individual public sector organisations in favour of an overall government branding is a direct move away from building organisations where people can have a sense of ownership and collective pride. It is almost as if a system is being developed where good news will be claimed at the centre and bad new pushed out on individual organisations.

Our public service managers and the people who work with them need to know that their work is respected.

If we want to attract and retain high-quality public servants then we need to ensure that our public sector workplaces recognise and value their work.  This cannot happen if we have a defensive culture where people believe that those at the very top will come looking for scapegoats.

A culture of managing wellbeing in our public sector organisations has to recognise both the pressures felt by individuals and the extra contribution they can make.  At the core of this is an open culture which values diversity of opinion and talents.  This is something which has to start from the top.

During the rest of today you will be discussing in much greater depth both the underlying evidence for wellbeing as an important issue and how it can be turned into concrete actions.

I think this is an important moment to be having these discussions because the management of the overall wellbeing of an organisation will become one of the defining workplace challenges of the years ahead.

Throughout history every major change in the nature of work and the organisation of society has led to a fundamental re-evaluation of workplace organisation and the role of the individual.  We are in the third decade of the latest historical change in the nature of work and we have only just begun to engage with the implications of this change.

The greatest progress in the second half of the twentieth century was a growing respect for individual welfare as a core objective of public policy in all areas including the workplace.  In the concept of wellbeing and in the broad-research base which underpins it we have a framework within which we can take this further in the public sector workplace and in society as a whole.

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