Savings targets, lack of resources, Brexit on the horizon… It’s a stressful time to work in procurement, so putting your mental health first – and building resilience – is critical
Eight months after taking the top job at Lloyds, in 2011 when the bank was on the brink of collapse, CEO António Horta-Osório checked into a mental health clinic, suffering from severe stress. After five consecutive sleepless nights, he’d realised he was heading for burnout, and took action.
Writing in The Guardian several years later about Lloyds’ approach to mental health in the workplace, he says: “We must move to a way of thinking that recognises that we all have mental health just as we all have physical health.”
While Horta-Osório’s experience may be extreme, and his role larger and more accountable than most, his very public burnout will resonate with many people working today in high pressure environments, often with dwindling resources.
Procurement professionals are no exception. Sam Bugden knows the negative impact of work stress. He’s seen people burn out and hospitalised from working too hard. He’s worked in aggressive cultures where talking about how you are feeling falls upon deaf ears, or marks you out as weak.
Bugden is no stranger to pressurised environments. In his previous role as sourcing operations manager at insurance company Vitality, he led on General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) compliance. He had several hundred contracts to renegotiate before the tight May deadline: a huge workload with little resource, as well as the day job. It’s a familiar situation for most of us working today. So how did he avoid burning out?
“I had to be realistic,” he says. “GDPR had a deadline that could not move. So, I had to say, ‘I cannot deliver everything’. I delegated where I could. And while this initially added to the workload as I had to teach people what to do, I knew I needed to let go and have trust in people around me.”
Now procurement development manager at Specsavers, whose strong wellbeing culture was one of its attractions, Bugden believes the procurement profession needs to put more emphasis on helping people to develop resilience.
He’s not alone. Philip Hicks, European procurement director at manufacturers Formica Group, says it is time for the profession to reflect, share challenges and be honest about the pressures it faces. While procurement is not alone in having to deal with challenging targets to hit and multiple, often competing, demands on its time, being able to talk openly about the pressures of any job is critical to remaining mentally healthy.
“We talk about strategic procurement but in 80% of businesses we are trying to drive value through visible change and innovation from a position of zero or relatively little strength. In many businesses, where procurement is still establishing, the biggest challenge is earning the ‘right’ and the time to build the necessary relationships and infrastructure to realise value,” he says.
“We need to demonstrate results immediately while building profile, stakeholder relationships and business/industry knowledge. The urgency is a real challenge. You can identify the quick wins to start with, but then you have to take cost out year on year on year. We need more leaders talking about what they found difficult and how they dealt with it.”
High performing procurement functions drive change over a sustained period of time. There will always be resistance to this change and this is invariably uncomfortable and challenging for individuals. Dealing with this, says Hicks, requires resilience. “I believe resilience is one of the main challenges for experienced and developing procurement professionals. But it is not a skillset we have in abundance.”
Resilience and grit are hot topics. University of Pennsylvania psychology professor Angela Duckworth goes so far as to say grit trumps natural talent as a predictor of who is likely to succeed in life and who is not. Her book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, is an international bestseller while her TED talk on the same subject has more than 15 million views to date.
There are many definitions of resilience but, in essence, it is the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties and move on. Grit is about courage, resolve and strength of character. Both are increasingly relevant in a business world characterised by frequent and disruptive change. The ability to be resilient in the face of adversity and ambiguity is necessary for both high performance and personal wellbeing.
“Grit and resilience are critical personal resources and key contributors to individuals’ wellbeing,” says Janine Bosak, associate professor in organisational psychology and research director of the Leadership & Talent Institute (LTI) at Dublin City University Business School.
“Individuals who are more resilient are believed to be more adaptive within the changing workplace and may contribute to a more resilient organisation. Academic research shows that resilience is positively related to employee wellbeing – job satisfaction, work happiness and organisational commitment, for example – and negatively related to ‘illbeing’, such as burnout, sickness absence, and cardiovascular disease risk. It pays off for organisations to invest in resilience-building programmes, as even small preventive effects among individuals entail the potential to yield considerable benefits at the organisational level.”
Can you teach resilience?
There are disagreements, however, as to whether you can build these traits. Author and talent expert Marc Effron is adamant that you can’t develop grit by reading a book.
“Your core level of grit is fixed, so some people will always be more naturally ‘gritty’ than you. You can certainly try harder to stay focused on tasks and be less distractible, but that tactic is not new and is one that those with lower conscientiousness will find tough to master,” he says.
Yet, research suggests anyone can become more resilient. Geoff McDonald is the former global vice president HR, marketing, communications, sustainability and talent at Unilever and has dedicated his life to breaking the stigma around mental health since suffering a breakdown himself. He says people can develop habits to help them build resourcefulness (he personally baulks at the word resilience, which implies the need to ‘toughen up’).
“It’s about giving people a ‘buffer’ to draw on so they can continue to perform in today’s very demanding workplaces,” he explains. “How resourceful are you at looking after your physical health? What are you eating and drinking? Do you think of sleep as a resource? How can you draw on your emotional resources to help manage your feelings and relationships? How purposeful are you in what you do?”
One of the most powerful ways of busting the stigma around mental health is through sharing personal stories, he adds. Hicks agrees: “Getting a view or perspective from someone you respect that has been there and seen it, and lived to tell the tale, is enormously helpful. Strong, trusting, open team relationships, including leadership sharing challenges, is absolutely key to resilience.”
While organisations can do much more to help procurement staff from entry level right up to directors have better awareness about resilience, individuals also need to take personal responsibility. “You need to know your limits,” says Bugden. “When you are in the situation of having to justify yourself, it is hard to say no, you are always trying to please. But be brave and put your hand up and say, ‘I cannot do any more’. It is better to deliver 12 things well than 20 [poorly].”
Aamir Shaukat, head of global procurement (CPO) at coffee and tea company Jacobs Douwe Egberts, agrees. “People need to be a little more courageous, to say: ‘I need help, there’s something going on, I need a bit of a break’. Otherwise it really starts to impact on performance and the individual’s personal wellbeing.”
And that is the business case for investing in resilience. The return is more engaged, positive and motivated people, with a sense of mastery of their lives, performing at a more consistent and enhanced level. And with major challenges like Brexit and further market volatility on the horizon, the ability to respond with resilience will be a critical organisational and personal behaviour for success, growth – and even survival.
Creating a culture that acknowledges limits
“When I was new to procurement, I was thrown into a very big role. I had hiccups for three days. This was a pure sign of stress. I learned how to cope but it is something you have to keep working on. I feel I’m becoming more and more resilient over time because I have certain habits I focus on.”
When Aamir Shaukat, head of global procurement at Jacobs Douwe Egberts (JDE), walked out in front of 40 of his procurement colleagues at the company’s first resilience training day, he knew that sharing his personal journey would be one of the most impactful things he could do.
“I shared some personal stories and, at the end, I said: ‘Hey, guys, I believe in vulnerability. Ask for help. You can’t be strong all the time.’ We have to show compassion and we have to tell people that this is normal.”
Creating a culture where people feel safe sharing their stories is key to starting the conversation around resilience. But in the competitive and fast-moving consumer packaged goods industry, showing vulnerability is not something many people are comfortable doing.
Yet for Shaukat, it is precisely because of this high-pressure environment that resilience is so important.
“We are very results-oriented, and we are working in a very fast paced environment with a fair amount of ambiguity,” he says. “JDE was created by merging two companies three years ago. There’s a lot of consolidation going on in the coffee industry. We are buying or acquiring new companies almost every quarter. We constantly need to deliver high results and over-deliver. So, how can you make sure your people bring their full energy to work every day and learn how to bounce back when they’re dealing with personal or professional setbacks?”
With JDE’s annual engagement survey showing Shaukat’s team wanted more focus on personal development, he and his procurement leaders had a conversation about the areas to concentrate on and decided training should be both functional and non-functional. He identified resilience as a core skillset.
Shaukat organised a training day, bringing in an external expert who focused on four elements: how to take care of your body; purpose; mental fitness; and emotions. They were discussed in groups, then teams worked on action plans and commitments on helping each other.
The day was a good way of introducing the subject but Shaukat acknowledges that, with hindsight, a group of 40 was too large to enable a deeper dive into the subject. “The training helped as we could give advice and tools. However, it is hard to dig deeper into such challenges in such a big group. In the end, you need a smaller group or even a coach at a personal level for those who need more focused help,” he advises.
Linking the issue with the team engagement action plans was perhaps the most powerful lesson. “Connecting into the action plans helps the teams to be more resilient because then team members can decide how they want to work with each other, and what the most important things for them as a team are.”