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Health and wellbeing at work

Karen Baxter and Rhian Hall

There is no doubt that working life has changed over the course of the last few years. In many lines of work, we’ve moved away from traditional, office-based, fixed hours work towards a more flexible approach. Contributor Karen Baxter, Partner, and Rhian Hall, Senior Associate – employment law specialists at Lewis Silkin LLP.

Working remotely, accessing emails any time and taking devices on holiday are all commonplace, meaning that for many there is no clear line between work and home life. Whilst there are a lot of positive effects of this more flexible way of working, the blurring of personal and work-life can adversely impact a worker’s sense of wellbeing. In particular, the more we are tuned into work around the clock, the more we may feel stress. Chronic, long-term stress can lead us to a state of poor physical and/or mental health.

There are lots of possible causes of stress in the workplace. Examples include too much screen-time, poor diet, a lack of physical exercise, overwhelming workloads and a lack of a support networks. Never being able to switch off can also lead to poor sleep; this leaves employees less inclined to make positive choices about diet and exercise, and more prone to feel unable to cope with day to day pressures.

A recent survey by Aon[1] of 200 UK organisations found that 96% of them were concerned about current and future issues relating to employee mental health. The same number recognised that they had a role to play in improving employee health behaviour. So what can an employer do?

French legislators have recently introduced a legal right for an employee to disconnect from work; larger employers are obliged to negotiate with employees on their right to switch off their work phones and email accounts outside working hours and during holidays. We have heard stories of some companies agreeing to cut email connections in the evenings and at weekends, or automatically deleting emails which are sent to an employee who is on holiday.

Not many UK employers have followed suit, but we are seeing more initiatives designed at tackling employee wellbeing. This can be anything from simple low-tech solutions such as encouraging people to take a break from their screen during the day, or incentivising people to eat lunch away from their desks, to the more time or money intensive options. Gym subsidies, on-site yoga classes, visiting therapists and the engagement of sleep consultants are popular options.

Some insurers can help employers by using claims data in relation to employee policies to produce statistics which can help analyse and identify institutional problems. If employees in a particular office are making a disproportionately high number of claims for mental health medical treatment, this can help the employer to identify where specific measures are needed.

Organisations with a sophisticated approach to employee wellbeing may have a full programme of initiatives including mindfulness apps, annual health-checks and wellbeing sessions. At least one major international company uses ‘wellbeing scorecards’ which collate data obtained from its insurers and from its own records (e.g. ill health absence data) to compare the wellbeing of staff in different business units or locations. Wellbeing targets are then set for senior management, who are tasked with developing and embracing initiatives to improve the employee experience.

Reducing interruptions can also have a positive impact on employee wellbeing; interruptions cause momentum-loss, errors, stress and fatigue. To mitigate the impact of interruptions, employers can encourage staff to take breaks during the working day, carry out “walking” meetings so that the employees can exercise and focus on one discussion at a time. Organisations can work to create a culture where staff know that it is acceptable for them to create “windows” of time when they will not be interrupted by email, phone calls or physical interruptions. For instance, encouraging staff to use “out of office” notifications or to divert calls when they are working to a deadline can help to create the space employees need to thrive.

Getting wellbeing right can improve productivity, absence rates and morale. Getting it wrong can be costly and, in extreme situations, can give rise to claims for discrimination or personal injury. It can only be a positive thing that employee wellbeing is starting to rise to the top of the HR agenda.


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