Improved productivity is one of the primary measures of success within manufacturing.
And as UK manufacturers seek to address the challenges of increasing efficiency, there's a greater emphasis on the value of high-performance working practices such as lean manufacturing.
At the heart of the lean methodology is the commitment to maximising customer value while at the same time minimising waste.
The lean manufacturing approach relies on employees being able to manage multiple metrics or processes. It can also demand higher levels of accountability and the capacity to focus on more complex and interdependent tasks.
When done correctly, it can lead to huge improvements in manufacturing productivity, product quality, cost-effectiveness and competitiveness.
But, as a recent report commissioned by the EEF has highlighted, the emphasis on continual quality improvement processes can also have a knock-on effect on employee health and wellbeing.
The Unlocking Employee Productivity report was published in May 2018 to coincide with the UK's mental health awareness week and draws on the responses of more than 100 manufacturing businesses in the UK and Europe.
The study provides evidence of the relationship between performance and productivity and it shares some compelling sector-focused insights - featuring case study interviews with four firms that are actively engaged in initiatives to improve employee wellbeing in the workplace.
The business case for investing in wellbeing
According to the report, while many employees can be motivated and stimulated by the increased pressures and pace of work that lean manufacturing requires, for others these same pressures can trigger psychological or physical stress - often leading to lower engagement, reduced satisfaction and poorer performance.
The concept of individual health and wellbeing can encompass a combination of physical, mental and emotional elements. And, while these are often influenced by non-work factors, the effects can have a direct impact on their work environment and levels of productivity.
The report cites for example the fact that more than 70 million working days are lost each year in the UK due to mental illness. Crucially too, it references recent US research that has found that improving mental well-being at work can boost employee productivity by 10%.
When it comes to issue of physical health and safety in the UK manufacturing sector, more than 60% of the manufacturers surveyed said they were committed to assessing the risk of physical injury and to promoting physical safety in the workplace.
For just under a third (31.9%) of respondents, a key motivation was the desire to improve employee engagement. While 28.6% of respondents said their most significant driver was reducing absence due to sickness.
In sharp contrast though, only 2.2% percentage of employers said they were actively engaged in measures to support the mental health of their staff.
Workplace wellbeing initiatives
The report suggests that a significant area of opportunity lies in providing mental health and psychosocial support for employees and it recommends some practical strategies including the provision of resources, training and feedback. The aim, it says, should be to encourage greater autonomy and give employees more control over their workload and the pace and sequence of the tasks that they’re responsible for.
It also offers insights into some of the health and wellbeing workplace initiatives currently being implemented by manufacturing firms in the UK and Europe - from companies that provide their staff with access to online mental health support, to those that are offering on-site flu jabs, nutrition advice, healthier on-site meal options, outsourced occupational health services and workplace exercise programmes.
There's no doubt that lean manufacturing, and similar process efficiency measures, are key to competitiveness, efficiency and productivity within manufacturing. But how happy and well your employees are at work can also be a vital contributor to success.
As the report emphasises, employees who are happier and more fulfilled, who enjoy autonomy and control in their jobs and who experience less strain and anxiety as a result of their work will often be higher performing and more productive than their competitors.