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The importance of being well: stress and work-life balance in-house
Can you afford to ignore the impact of everyday work pressures on your team? We talk to Claire Carless, GC and Company Secretary at Siemens plc, about what sparked her team’s conversation around well-being and the initiatives they have introduced
to combat stress at work.
Tell us a little bit about your background and career to date…
I started off in private practice with Stephenson Harwood in the early 1980s, first in London and then Hong Kong. I'd been doing large corporate transactional work in London but in Hong Kong the office was much smaller and so I turned my hand to a little
bit of everything.
When I returned to the UK I didn’t want to live in London so I started looking for a role outside the city. I found an In-house position which in those days was pretty unusual – it was generally something that people did when they weren't
very successful in private practice! I took a role at National Power, expecting to do corporate work again; however, it became clear that it was a broader role and I spent 8 years getting great experience of working on big international projects.
In 2000, the company decided to demerge and split the business. I was offered the role of GC and Company Secretary in the UK. It was all looking great until the new CEO announced that he wanted to locate the business in London. By then I had two small
boys and didn't want to move to London or be commuting for 2 hours every day.
I found a job closer to home at Vodafone and spent the next 11 years there. I started off doing corporate work and did a number of significant acquisitions. When that work dried up, I moved more into the commercial side. In 2007, I went to New Zealand
for a year on a secondment to broaden my experience.
When I came back I took on a Legal Director Commercial role but really had run out of new challenges. I took a bit of time out and then started with Siemens 4 years ago. I am GC for the UK, with some responsibility for Nigeria and Ghana. It's a constantly
The team is fairly large, around 70 people, and supports the UK and Ireland businesses. The team is structured so that we have teams of lawyers and contract managers supporting each of our 9 divisions plus a cross-sector team. The team is geographically
spread across about 10 different locations in the UK.
What sparked the conversation about well-being in your team?
In the last year we've been through a cost-cutting exercise and it's put more pressure on the team in terms of their workload and travelling. The business hasn't stopped growing so the concept of ‘more with less’ has been much discussed and
it would be easy to fall into that – but I’ve been saying that we won’t do that. The less bit is right: we’ve had to reduce the number of people in the team, so we have to look at different ways of doing things so that we're
not doing more with less. We’ve identified the areas that we need to change and the team are now focussed on what that means and how we communicate it to the businesses.
The team are quite rightly concerned about the long hours they’re working, and the pressure that comes from doing large deals, often requiring them to travel. It was over a year ago when we started to talk about well-being initiatives in our team
meetings, and in my management meeting we made a commitment to always put well-being on the agenda. We sent out a survey asking people how they felt about stress levels and work-life balance and the conversation has grown from there. Last summer Siemens
did a global employee survey and the feedback was that people across the UK business felt under pressure, so there are now some UK initiatives underway. For example, there’s a plan for managers to be trained on time management and stress management,
trying to raise awareness.
We try to introduce an activity in our team and management meetings that involves a bit of exercise. We use ‘walk and talk’ quite a lot – for example, we break up into small groups, put our coats on and walk around the block. We will
talk about specific issues, come back and then share the feedback.
In our team meetings we have also had someone from a gym take us through 10-minute stretching sessions. We've done Tai Chi. You can find things online to put up on the screen in a meeting which will take you through 10 minutes of Pilates. We're constantly
looking at ways to create more balance for people.
It’s really important to try to make people think for themselves about their own well-being. It's not something we can force on people but what we can do is provide support systems, tools and direction.
How are the well-being initiatives reflected in company policies?
One issue highlighted by the legal team was our Travel and Expenses policy. It wasn't clear when they should drive or fly or when they could stay overnight. We've issued some clearer guidance that says if you're tired or if you're in a meeting that's
running late, don't get in your car and drive. If you can't get a train, then stay in a hotel.
We’ve looked at our flexible working policy to see whether it is working for everyone. We have a lot of people who are working different hours because they are at different times in their lives when they need alternative working regimes. We’re
also trying to make sure that people who want to have an occupational assessment of their desk get that done.
Company-wide, one thing that we’ve trialled across a few sites is healthcare booths. The booth is parked outside the canteen and you can go and measure your blood pressure and your cholesterol and weigh yourself. Sometimes teams will set a target
to improve their health scores and it's a real topic of conversation. I’m told that sometimes people who were planning to have pie and chips will instead have a salad after they've been to the booth!
We have an employee assistance line that people can call if they need personal or emotional support. That's something that we've been offering for some time. We need to get better at sharing that information though so that people are more aware of the
We’re not by any means perfect. There's an awful lot more that we can be doing but I think we're going in a good direction. People are appreciative that management is conscious of this as a topic and that we are talking about it.
How important is it that you set an example to your team around work-life balance?
Before Christmas, I was sent a video clip about how most of us don’t switch off in the holidays. Usually, I never put my out-of-office on. I check my emails every day and I justify that to my family by saying that I'm much more relaxed if I know
there's not a crisis unfolding.
My team actually told me that I needed to set the tone. They felt that if the team leader switched off over the holidays then they would have permission to do the same. So this Christmas I put my out-of-office on and told everyone that if there was a
crisis to contact me on my mobile. I admitted that I felt very uncomfortable with this. However, it did feel like I had a real break for the first time in a long time. I was surprised at how much more relaxed I was.
For me to do that as the GC will hopefully now encourage others in the team to do the same. There's no reason why everyone can't do it. Checking emails constantly whilst on holiday is a habit and addiction we need to break. If I can help by doing it myself
and evangelising to others about doing it, then that's absolutely what I will do.
What part does the company play in supporting well-being?
You have to create an environment where people feel safe talking about things. For example, try to encourage people to speak openly about the stresses they feel, about the difficulties they have, and the fact that it makes them fed up when they miss their
child's bath time. They need to feel comfortable admitting they’re going through a tough time and for managers to be supportive.
The more we can do to create a safe environment, the more people will feel they can talk about a problem. Hopefully they will talk before it gets so bad that they are unable to cope and have to take time off work. The cost to business and industry of
stress-related illness is enormous. Aside from the harm it does to people, it's actually not good business.
How can you sell the importance of such a safe environment to the business?
There are two messages I would give. One is that there are plenty of statistics out there to show the cost to business of stress-related time off work. The second is around the harm you can do to people and your social and ethical responsibility. Health
and Safety directors would be all over us if we put somebody in physical danger. Why is that different to putting them in mental danger?
You don't need a big budget or huge corporate support to improve people's work-life balance and their mental and physical well-being. Most teams can find a little bit of money to do training, for example on looking out for signs of stress, resilience
or time management.
Some things don’t cost anything. Get people to think about putting enough breaks in all-day meetings, taking a short walk if they can manage it, or just getting everybody to stand up and stretch. Hopefully people will then do that a little bit more
on their own and it will grow from there.
What results and changes have you seen in your team?
I think that our initiatives are having a positive impact and there’s a lot of appreciation for the fact that we’re discussing well-being, although it’s hard to measure. We set a monthly survey on our social network to ask how people
are feeling. We're starting to see some trend data now and generally the mood in the department is improving. I'm not saying it’s just down to the conversations we have about well-being because a lot of other things are happening and the team,
generally, is in a better place than it was 6 months ago. It's not terribly scientific but it gives us a sense of where the department is and the direction we're going in.
Is it hard to get people engaged in well-being initiatives?
The initial prompt came from the team so we didn't really have to push it very hard. Some people are more enthusiastic about doing half an hour of Tai Chi than others – not everything is going to suit everyone and we acknowledge that. It’s
about providing opportunities for people to think about well-being. As a leader and a manager of a team, your responsibility is to provide options and signal different directions – people can then take away what works for them.
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