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How can workforce analytics make our people happier?

(Image credit: Image Credit: Sergey Nivens / Shutterstock)

Over the last 20 years, I’ve worked with commercial organisations to identify opportunities for process improvement using analytics. One area which has become particularly prominent is workforce analytics and it’s easy to see why – many of the world’s largest economies are set to have more jobs than available people to fill them by 2030.

In response to this, there’s a need for a more streamlined approach in the way organisations manage their workforce, namely in the way they recruit, retain and develop the right talent. Here, workforce analytics can help by applying analytical processes to HR data on employee behaviour and market trends to generate new insights, along with a foundation for a holistic talent and performance strategy.

In the past, people analytics have been applied to solve commercially-focused challenges such as the ‘travelling salesman problem’. Supermarkets and utility providers are among those that apply them to optimise travel routes for commercial fleets and engineers and limit the time spent in transit. Customer service is another area where workforce analytics are applied, as seen in call centres where customer analytics are used to match the most experienced staff with high-value customers to help limit customer turnover.

But the modern workplace is a stressful place, and we’re now beginning to see workforce analytics applied to maintain the physical and mental wellbeing of employees. Here, businesses are seeing the value in using analytics to attract and retain the right talent and ultimately, ensure a happier and more productive workforce.

Catering for thousands

There are some initiatives going on that should help. For example, last year, I trained as a Mental Health First Aider to help people in my organisation to identify and manage mental health problems before they become a big issue.

Why is this so important? Let’s take the UK’s public sector as an example. According to the recent Institute for Government’s Whitehall Monitor, there were 419,120 full-time equivalent civil servants in September 2019, which means that in reality there were far more individuals. This is a massive workforce. And budget constrained government agencies pay a huge cost for its recruitment, training, retention and remuneration. There are obvious ways to use analytics within these organisations to retain staff for longer, recruit the right people, and identify and fill any skills gaps.

Getting these issues right matters for organisations because of the costs. However, there are other, hidden costs to getting it wrong, in time off sick with stress or other mental health problems. These are just costs to organisations but devastating to individuals.

What’s more, the figures for mental health problems are rising around the world. According to Happiful, the UK had a reported 15 million sick days in 2016 related to mental health issues such as stress, depression and anxiety.


Easing the strain of the modern workplace

However, I think we should also use analytics to look at staff welfare issues. For example, we could use analytics to examine working patterns and identify triggers for stress-related illnesses. Or the most effective return-to-work practices for employees returning to their jobs after a longer period of sickness absence. These applications would help organisations to optimise resources. But crucially, they also ensure that organisations can better support employees with mental health problems.

The potential applications for analytics to improve workforce mental health in the public sector are vast:

Stress in the education sector

A recent study by Education Support has pointed out that the psychological strain on teachers is more rampant than at any point this century. With three-quarters of teachers and 84 per cent of school leaders classing themselves as “stressed,” it appears the school workforce is being pushed to breaking point.

What’s more, one in three education professionals has experienced a mental health issue in the last academic year, of which over half (57 per cent) considered leaving the sector over the last two years. Analytics could help to identify emerging trends and problems and determine where best to focus limited support services.

Supporting our soldiers

A bulletin from the MOD noted that 2.7 per cent of UK Armed Forces personnel were reported to have a mental health disorder. And research published in Psychological Medicine has found people are twice as likely to develop depression or anxiety in the UK Armed Forces than elsewhere in the working population. Again, we could use analytics to look at patterns and trends, as well as identify the most effective methods of support.

Looking after our healthcare workers

More interestingly, analytics can also surface hidden issues by looking at new data sources, such as social media. It might, for example, be possible to identify hot spots of stress within particular units, specialties or hospitals. These could point to more systemic problems, such as bullying or an unhealthy culture, which need very different solutions from "a shortage of nurses."

Over the last decade or more, the news has been full of reports of stress within the nursing profession. The UK’s Royal College of Nursing says that workplace stress is often cited in compensation claims and frequently associated with inadequate staffing levels. Retention of nursing staff is a huge issue amid claims that the NHS is recruiting too many staff from developing countries that can ill-afford to train and then lose qualified nurses. Modelling demand and trends could help to identify problem areas and improve workforce planning for the future.


A happier and more productive workforce

Unfortunately, mental illnesses are on the rise across the country and so it’s more important than ever that businesses are looking out for their workforce. Given the amount of time we spend at work, this seems like a no-brainer with a happier workforce tending to be much more productive.

Fortunately, more and more businesses are now treating these issues seriously. HR data and advanced analytics can help organisations in every sector identify the signs of physical or mental strain at work. By making the most of workplace analytics, businesses are able to improve the varying means of support available and take action against workplace distress.

Caroline Payne, Head of Customer Advisory, Public Sector, SAS UK & Ireland

Caroline Payne is the Head of Customer Advisory, Public Sector at SAS UK & Ireland.