If you believe the headlines, UK productivity is at its worst level since modern records began. Even the Office for National Statistics puts our output per hour 36 percentage points behind Germany – the biggest gap ever recorded with a fellow G7 country. This puts the UK broadly on a par with Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory.

But beyond these sensationalist headlines, what’s the truth on the ground? Is productivity really where leaders like you should focus your attention?

We put that question to Steve Beswick, our learning and growth director – renowned for his transformative front-line experience with clients as diverse 3M, Bombardier, Kier Group, Nestle Purina and Ipsen

Is productivity really a problem in the UK?

“I don’t believe that British workers work any less hard than their counterparts on the continent, or even the US. Which leaves us with a dilemma: how come productivity seems to be so low?

“My personal feeling is so much is wrapped up in the service sector. How can you even measure productivity in the finance sector? Especially compared to how much they earn.

“The other thing is we’ve closed down a lot of our big industries, so we’re a lot more reliant on SMEs these days.”

So you’re saying the nature of work has changed, and how we measure it isn’t so easy any more?

“Yes, but it’s deeper than that. I’m not sure I buy these headlines, I think they mask a bigger problem.

“We’re in a situation where small business in particular becomes very reliant on one or two individuals, who get into a mindset where they feel like they can’t let anyone down. Eventually their body says ‘enough’ and they get ill because they’re too stressed out.

“What you’ve got to ask yourself is how hard are people like that concentrating when they’re doing something dangerous like driving? When they have an accident, you’re in an even worse situation because your company’s got all your eggs in one basket [with one individual]. Everything goes off the rails.

“We started seeing this in larger organisations a few years back. Interestingly, in culture assessments you tend to find it’s the managerial staff who tick the box marked ‘I feel completely overloaded… I can’t cope’ rather than the shopfloor staff.

“When we repeated the same surveys recently it’s got even worse.”

So stress and overwork is the real problem in the UK?

“I’m convinced that well-being and welfare is now more of a concern for managers and leaders. Non-managerial staff get stressed too, of course, but there’s an acceptance among leadership grades that you should take on more than you can cope with, and just get on with it.

“Even more interesting, I once asked a client ‘You know what the results are going to be, don’t you?’ before we asked their staff about stress, and they laughed, because I was right – they did. People know there’s a problem but they seem to need objective proof before they’ll do anything about it.

“People won’t complain, you see. It’s not the done thing to speak up and say you’re overloaded. You don’t do that! You’re supposed to say ‘bring it on boss’.”

What has this got to do with productivity?

“What worries me is if government says Britons are unproductive and we’re falling behind other countries, it’s almost a green light for employers to pile even more work onto people who already find it tough.

“One of the criteria we look at with the culture assessment is to what extent do people feel that they can put their hand up and say ‘I don’t like the look of this boss. It looks dangerous to me.’ You get organisations where you get a massive positive response to this. People definitely feel they can tell their boss and there won’t be any comeback. But they still don’t do it.

“Why? Because they know the company’s struggling on throughput or productivity and they’ll have to do something about it at some point – whether that’s working late or at the weekend. So they look at the task, do a mental risk assessment and cut a corner.

“It’s almost like self-imposed risk-taking but it’s cultural. They might not impose it, but something about the organisation is saying ‘productivity targets are most important’ and that’s how people interpret it.”

Isn’t this a cultural issue?

“It’s called goal-conflict. Senior management are saying safety’s really important and so is production, and to be fair they probably are putting safety on a par with output – making the right noises and doing the right thing. But what they sometimes don’t appreciate is that managers, especially first-line managers are the ‘squeezed middle’.

“They’re under pressure to produce, and now they’ve got to do it safely, and they see the two as different, conflicting things. So they’ll make a judgement and see if they can get away with shortcuts to do that.

“You get this very strange situation where directors are feeling positive about safety because they believe in it, and people on the ground are feeling very positive, because they see things have improved and leaders are taking an interest in their safety. But managers and supervisors don’t feel like the situation has improved much for them, because they’re pulled in two directions.”

How can you deal with it?

“What’s interesting is that you can demonstrate unsafe companies are often unproductive companies as well. Especially when you work out the cost of losses when things go wrong. All these things are linked together.

“For example, suppose biscuits occasionally drop off a conveyor belt in a factory. People put up with it, so you’ve got a productivity issue from the waste, a safety issue from the slip and trip risk, a loss of output and time clearing up, and a quality issue because people may be tempted to put damaged product back on the line.

“What we’re basically saying is when you resolve these problems, guess what – productivity goes up, hygiene improves, losses go down and people stop getting injured. And if you’d have involved people from the start they’d have felt more inclined to tell you the conveyor belt was set up incorrectly in the first place!

“But we are seeing wellness coming through more. Dr Jenny Lunt [Tribe consultant] is doing more well-being and stress-related workshops for Tribe; so people are waking up to this sort of thing.”