Are you making your staff ill?

There are some jobs that obviously carry a health risk. Bullfighter or bomb disposal expert, for example. But, according to the latest Health and Safety Executive (HSE) figures, every job carries some element of risk. The HSE’s statistics show that two million employees are suffering from an illness they believe was either caused or exacerbated by their job.

And while working on a construction site is clearly an occupation that requires a hard hat, it is office life that is making most of us hide under the duvet – whether the direct cause is unrealistic deadlines, incompetent line managers or poor seating. Despite all the rhetoric, work is still making us sick.

Under pressure

But why is this? Dr Les Smith, head of clinical governance for health programme provider First Assist, says many employees feel trapped in the workplace.

“The biggest issue for staff is mental health – pressure and demands, and a lack of physical activity. On one level, we are just too cooped up,” he says.

“We spend our time stuck in traffic jams, sitting down all day, drinking coffee for a caffeine hit, then feeling dehydrated, getting home too late to exercise, then eating late and having disturbed sleep,” adds Smith.

Given the amount of lip service currently being paid to wellbeing at work, this appears to be something of a paradox.

HR directors with time on their hands could easily fill their diaries with ‘wellness’ conferences, or spend hours reading books and papers about the importance of having happy, healthy staff.

Dr Jenny Leeser, clinical director of occupational health at Bupa Wellness, believes that the amount of talk may lull some HR professionals into thinking they have all the angles covered.

“Employers would still do well to revisit the HSE website and measure their practices against the checklists,” she says. “Even stress is covered by management regulations. You can do a lot just by making sure you are compliant with all the legislation.”

Positive thinking

As for the catch-all concept of ‘wellbeing’, Leeser believes this is just a matter of common sense.

“It’s both physical and mental, and it’s about feeling positive, and having enough energy to be productive at work, and to enjoy your non-working life,” she says.

Achieving this balance means treating your employees with respect, argues professor Frank Bond of the department of psychology at Goldsmiths College, University of London.

“The most important factor is the degree of control people have over how they do their jobs,” he says. “The more repetition there is, the more stressful it is; the more variety there is, the more engaged they are.

“And knowing they are contributing something worthwhile is also important – not necessarily in ethical terms, but in the sense that they can see how what they do fits into the overall scheme of things.”

Just a small increase in the amount of autonomy people have can have a disproportionate effect on their satisfaction at work, says Bond. For example, call centre employers could institute daily rather than hourly targets, so that employees make more calls in the afternoon if that is a better time for them.

Dr Mark Simpson, managing director of health provider AXA PPP Healthcare, agrees that this is a key issue, even in the much-maligned call centre sector. “The more engaged people feel in what they are doing, the more likely they are to be able to handle stress,” he says.

“People in call centres running helplines – like those we run at AXA PPP – actually enjoy their role because they aren’t trying to sell a product; they are there to help people with problems.”

Open all hours

This message has yet to get through to some employers, however. Many still respond to the pressure of market competition by putting equal pressure on staff, with potentially disastrous results.

One HR manager, who prefers to remain anonymous, left his job in professional services because he was so stressed by the company culture.

“The drive was to employ people as cheaply as possible, and then get them to work flat out, arriving early and leaving late. Anyone who packed up before 6.30pm was frowned upon, and at appraisal time it was the ones who put in the longest hours who got the biggest promotions,” he says.

“Managers were arriving at 7am, working a 12-hour day, then occasionally appearing on a Friday afternoon at 5.30pm, saying: ‘Come on guys, time to go home’. But they were setting a terrible example and, of course, everyone else followed suit.

”The effect was to create a company where sniping and frayed tempers made the working day not only long, but stressful.“The tension rate was high and so was turnover,” says the HR manager. “The targets got tougher and tougher, and people just couldn’t take it. One woman only stayed for 48 hours – and she wasn’t untypical. Whereas most people would give a company a couple of months when they join, it took new recruits just days to work out that they didn’t want to be part of it.”

In this situation, employees experience stress, low morale, poor motivation and cynicism about their role: the precise opposite of wellbeing.

Collaboration culture

The message from experts is that getting out of this pattern means both changing management styles, and making it easier for staff to make healthy choices about how they live their lives.

“The first step for a healthy workplace is inclusivity; you need to gain everyone’s trust,” says Pauline Crawford, founder and director of management consultancy Corporate Heart. “You need staff engagement; they need to buy in. People don’t always use free gyms because they don’t feel they have invested anything in them. Pharmaceuticals giant GlaxoSmithKline sells pedometers to staff at cost price because they are more likely to use them than if they are free.“

Management style is the key. There’s more to it than providing facilities; it’s about the way people treat each other. Which means that HR cannot manage alone,” says Crawford. “Collaboration between HR, occupational health and senior management is vital. The danger is that everyone passes the buck,” she says. “It’s about the overall culture of the organisation. It’s not necessarily a health issue.”

Leeser thinks employers that approach wellbeing in this holistic way are on the right track, but should not expect the pay-off to be immediate. “There is no magic wand,” she stresses. “Running a promotion about going to the gym when your staff are stressed and overworked is not going to go down well.”

Leeser’s final piece of advice is one all employers would do well to take on board. Quick fixes can be counterproductive, she says. Work systematically across all levels of the organisation, and it could make everyone fitter, happier and more productive.

Case study: Oracle

Vance Kearney, vice-president for HR (Europe, Middle East and Africa) at business software company Oracle, believes that healthy messages for staff have to be part of a comprehensive management attitude.

“You can’t impose wellbeing on people,” he says. “But what you can do is raise awareness of the issues, and give people the tools to be healthy. Work is only one element in stress levels. If things are pressurised at work, and not going well at home either, then you have the opposite of work-life balance.”

Making these tools easily accessible and attractive is important, says Kearney. “If you look at our restaurant, it looks like the restaurant at [health farm] Champneys. There’s a huge variety of salads, but we always have an unhealthy option.”Staff can also use company bikes to get into town from Oracle’s office on the Thames, and there is a range of health assessments available to all staff as part of the flexible benefits scheme. These include EPT scans, which can give an early warning about a range of cancers.

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