The benefits of a happy workforce

In my late thirties I signed up for a fitness challenge. A load of my twenty-something martial arts friends joined in. To get maximum points, you had to do twenty pull-ups, one hundred sit-ups in two minutes, and run three miles in 18 minutes. Maybe it was a midlife crisis. It was certainly cheaper than buying a Porsche.

I could bang out the pull ups and sit ups. But I was more of a slow plodder, listen-to-a-podcast enjoy-the-scenery kind of runner. So I started training for speed. And no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get my time down to the target.

So on a late September morning, rain coming down in stair rods, I psyched myself up. Four laps and a bit round Freeman Field. I had a GPS pacing watch (definitely cheaper than a Porsche) and off I set. First lap, hard work, but on course, rain cooling me down. Second lap finished, and I’m struggling. Heart pounding, legs getting heavy, but focused.

Into the third. Keeping the pace up on the long downhill, and turning onto the flat. And my body is saying stop. But resolve kicks in. I’m determined, and I push through the pain. And my heart beats in my ears and my legs give out and I stumble and I crash and slide headlong in the mud. And lie there on my back. In a puddle four inches deep, breathing like a steam engine.

And I was happy. I was happy because I knew I’d hit my limits. It wasn’t effort, or determination that let me down. It was that I’m human. And humans have limits. I’m not built like Haile Gebrselassie, and no amount of training was ever going make me run like him.

I grew up in a working class family in a rough part of Middlesbrough. My Dad was a shiftworker at ICI. It’s fair to say we didn’t have a lot of money, but there was never any doubt that there was enough to eat. I was fortunate enough that when I went to university in my twenties, tuition was free.

I’ve never been raped. Or racially abused. Or been trapped in an abusive relationship. I’ve never had drug or alcohol problems. I’ve never suffered from mental ill health. I’ve never had to struggle to find a job because I’ve been in prison. I’ve never seen my career suffer because I’ve had to take time off for cancer treatment. I’ve never had to choose between paying the bills and getting my kids a Christmas present.

Resilience is all about having a reserve of energy to call on. I can only imagine how exhausting it is to face life’s challenges when you’ve had to run three laps before the race even starts.

We’re entering a tough time. The world economy will slow. Unemployment here will rise. I’m not going to restate my views on the government’s handling of Covid. The truth is, we’ll all find our reserves being tested.

Some people talk of a competitive labour market. Survival of the fittest. A race to the bottom. No.

Because one place you shouldn’t be getting grief from is work. That’s why the North of Tyne has made Good Work our number one priority.

We’ll use public procurement to increase the quality of jobs here. Our Good Work Pledge requires employers to reward people fairly – paying the Real Living Wage. And no exploitative contracts. Good employers will develop a balanced workforce, with diversity. They’ll provide training so people can progress. They’ll work with trade unions. They’ll show social responsibility through positive environmental practices. And they’ll look after their workers’ wellbeing and mental health.

Wise employers know their workforce is their biggest asset. Look after your workers, and they’ll be more productive, more innovative, and more loyal. We will acknowledge good employers who look after their staff. And give other employers a leg up to match that standard.

Determination is a wonderful quality. But some of us are already running to stand still. We cannot go back to the economy we had before this crisis. No more stripping everything down to the lowest cost. We must rebuild for resilience.

Published in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 20.7.20