With the rise in concern about workplace stress (and its potential for legal claims from employees affected), employers are considering steps to reduce stress and improve wellbeing, both physical and mental, amongst their workforce.
Employers may consider investments in employee wellbeing for several reasons. They might want to increase morale, improve retention if they’ve been experiencing high staff turnover, increase productivity or reduce levels of absenteeism.
There are many different ways that employers can encourage employee wellbeing, both physical and mental.
The link between physical fitness and mental health has long been known about, yet how many employees have the chance to exercise during their working day?
Some workplaces have onsite exercise facilities where staff can work out (good for both stress relief and burning off the calories from another wellbeing initiative – free food). If there’s no room for an onsite gym, employers might want to look into discounted gym membership, perhaps with incentives for keeping going past the initial few weeks of endorphin-fuelled enthusiasm.
Whilst many employers have a workforce that comes from a wide geographical area and therefore need their cars to get to and from work, there may be those for whom cycling would be a good idea. Can the employer assist with bike parking, changing facilities or even a grant towards buying a bicycle?
Connecting with nature has been shown to improve mood and reduce stress, so perhaps setting up an outside work area might encourage staff to unwind and still fulfil their work commitments. If the weather doesn’t lend itself to such things, perhaps a covered area, bringing the outdoors indoors? Fresh air and vitamin D from sunshine (when it happens) can boost physical wellbeing and increase resistance to infections such as colds or flu, reducing sick days.
There have been several legal cases in recent years where an employee’s level of stress has been a major factor, particularly when it could be shown that the employer hadn’t made any appreciable effort to eliminate or alleviate the source of the stress.
In 2015-16 there were 488,000 reported cases of work-related stress, anxiety or depression.
77 per cent of employees have experienced symptoms of poor mental health in their lives.
In 2017, the cost of mental ill health at work was put at almost £35bn – £21.2bn in reduced productivity, £10.6bn in sickness absence and £3.1bn in staff turnover.
Whilst it’s not always possible to purpose-build (or even retrofit) a workplace to include such things as contemplation zones, communal collaboration areas or plants and artwork, there are always steps that can be taken to give staff the chance to change their mental state, including flexible working, training on stress management and handling busy workloads, employee counselling and job evaluation, to ensure that the worker and their work are still a good fit.
There are things that need to be kept in mind if you’re an employer who wants to adopt any of these measures (or other, similar ideas).
Some employers want to monitor the health of their employees, both to assess the current state as well as measuring any improvement. This is often done through the use of apps connected to smartphones or other wearable technology. However, employees who participate in this kind of scheme need to be clearly informed about what kind of information will be gathered, as well as how it will be shared and how long it will be retained.
Some of the information collected may relate to medical conditions and could count as sensitive personal data for the purposes of data protection legislation.
With the advent of the Data Protection Act 2018 and the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), this could take on even more significance as breaches under the regulation will attract a far higher penalty.
When designing a wellbeing programme, be it physical, mental or both, employers should take care to ensure that they aren’t inadvertently excluding a portion of their workforce.
Employees who have mobility problems may not be able to participate if the employer organises a running club. Similarly, those who are partially sighted may find participating in certain activities difficult if not impossible.
If a team building exercise or activity is organised at the weekend, employees who have childcare responsibilities may not be able to attend, and those with disabilities will need time to recover, which may mean they have problems on Monday morning.
For all activities, if the employer is providing refreshments, care should be taken that there are suitable choices for all lifestyles and protected characteristics.
It’s also the case that some workers, no matter how hard the employer strives to cater for them, won’t get on board with any kind of wellbeing programme and the employer will just have to accept that.
An employee who refuses to participate should face no sanction or disadvantage (known in legal terminology as a detriment) as a result of that.
Nkolika Oraka is an employment solicitor at Yorkshire law firm rradar.