Professor Sir Cary Cooper CBE: Keeping Workplace Wellbeing on the Agenda of Senior Leadership Teams and Boards

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Considered by many to be the Father of workplace health and wellbeing, Professor Sir Cary Cooper CBE’s influence should never be underestimated.

In this profile interview – ahead of his session with Dame Carol Black and Stefan Stern at The Watercooler Event in May – Sir Cary shares his views on the most significant milestones for workplace wellbeing, what people can do to keep moving this agenda forwards within their organisations, as well as his vision for the future.

First, please tell us a bit about yourself including how and why you first got involved with workplace wellbeing

I was born in the Los Angeles of a Romanian mother and Ukrainian father. I was raised in a working class Jewish community in West LA, with several sisters and brother.  I was the first one in my family to go to University (UCLA), but had to work my way through by taking on various jobs to support myself. 

My original intention was to go to Law School but one of my jobs was in South Central LA, where I was a social worker in the black community of Watts. I saw such deprivation, poverty and mental ill health, that I changed direction and started taking courses in psychology and the behavioural sciences.

I was then mentored by Professor Fred Massarik in UCLA business school, who encouraged me to focus my work on the health and wellbeing of working people—and also organised for me to spend some time in the UK. I never left after coming to the UK ostensibly for one year!!!

Over the years that you’ve been pushing forwards the workplace wellbeing agenda, what do you think are the most significant milestones?

I think organisations began to take employee health and wellbeing seriously during the recession of 2008-2015, when so many people lost their jobs, when stress-related ill health was the leading cause of long-term sickness absence and when the issue of talent retention/attraction became a priority.

During the recession it tended to be about employee stress management but as we came out of the financial crisis, the shift was toward strategic workplace wellbeing, with many organisations creating Directors of Health and Wellbeing and the topic being highlighted in the media. 

The pandemic accelerated the trend toward more strategic wellbeing, with the advent of hybrid working, the role of the line manager in the health of employees, four day working week, the right to disconnect, etc. Now its on the agenda of many Senior Leadership Teams and Boards.

The pandemic has forced wellbeing to the top of organisations’ agendas. Our goal is to make sure it remains a priority and becomes embedded as business as usual. What can people do to drive this agenda forward within their organisations?

The way we drive this agenda forward is by appointing a Non-executive Director on Boards in all private and public sector bodies, to hold the Board accountable for employee health and wellbeing. This needs to be backed up with a Director of Health and Wellbeing at the senior leadership team level to ensure that key wellbeing objectives are met—by defining the metrics of a successful employee wellbeing strategy.

This means investing in this strategy and reporting progress to the Board on a regular basis and the metrics appearing in the annual report at the end of the financial year.

What is your personal vision for the next generation of workplace wellbeing?

In order to attract and retain Gen Z and young millennials, organisations need to create wellbeing cultures where employees have more autonomy and control of their jobs, are allowed to work more flexibly, are managed by line managers who have effective social and interpersonal skills, and where they feel valued and trusted by their boss and the organisation.

We are beginning to see this in a number of sectors (eg finance, construction, etc.) but we still have a long way to go.

Is there anything you’d like to share about your participation in the keynote session “Collaborating with other Organisational Divisions to Create a Culture of Wellbeing” at The Watercooler on 26th May?

This session on creating a wellbeing culture will highlight the structural and strategic changes that need to be implemented to create a true wellbeing culture, rather than ‘the wellbeing day’, mindfulness at lunch, bean bags, gyms and the like. 

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The future is for organisations to take seriously the health and wellbeing of their employees, and make it a strategic issue at the top of the organisation.

About Professor Sir Cary Cooper CBE

Professor Sir Cary Cooper, CBE, is the 50th Anniversary Professor of Organizational Psychology and Health at the ALLIANCE Manchester Business School, University of Manchester, UK (2015-today), previously he was Pro Vice Chancellor and Distinguished Professor of Organizational Psychology and Health at Lancaster University (2003-2015). He is the immediate Past President of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, President of Institute of Welfare and past Chair of the Academy of Social Sciences, President
of the British Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy and the British Academy of Management. He is the author/editor of over 250 books, over 450 scholarly articles and a regular contributor to radio and TV. He was knighted by the Queen in 2014 for his contribution to the social sciences.

Some of his most recent books in the field of occupational health psychology include: Flexible Work: Designing Our Healthier Future Lives (London & NY: Routledge, 2020), Brexit in the Workplace (London: Routledge, 2020); Organizational Stress Around the World (London & NY: Routledge, 2021); The SAGE Handbook of Organizational Wellbeing (London and California: Sage Publications, 2021); A Research Agenda for Workplace Stress and Wellbeing (Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 2021); Managing Workplace Health and Wellbeing During a Crisis (London: Kogan Page, 2022) and Remote Workplace Culture (London:
Kogan Page, 2022).

Professor Sir Cary Cooper will be speaking at The Watercooler Event on 26th May. The Watercooler is taking place at Olympia, London on 25 & 26 May 2022. The event is all about helping employers to find the right joined-up mental, physical, financial, social and environmental wellbeing solutions that deliver the best possible outcomes both for employees and for the business.  You can find out more and register to attend free here. 

You might also be interested in:

Workplace Wellbeing Made Simple – Top Tips From Professor Cary Cooper

New webinar: Building the business case for better Wellbeing – the KPI-based approach

New Report: Key Themes Your Employee Mental Wellbeing Plans Must Consider For 2022 And Beyond


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