Often, the best way of reducing work-related illness or injury is making it difficult for employees to injure themselves in the first place. Claire Glynn suggests three ways employers can ‘design out’ health risks.
More than 30 million working days a year are lost due to preventable issues including workplace stress and work-related back pain. How can this figure be reduced?
Trade unions are calling on the government to increase statutory sick pay, after data released by the Health & Safety Executive revealed there were more than 1.8m work-related ill health cases in 2021-22. Over half (51%) of these new and long-standing cases were due to stress, anxiety and depression, followed by musculoskeletal disorders, in particular back and upper limb or neck issues.
Although increasing statutory sick pay is one solution to the problem of many workers not being able to afford to live on SSP pay of just £99.35 a week, thus preventing them from taking time off to recover, a far better approach is to reduce the risk of employees becoming sick through work in the first place.
Make it difficult for employees to injure themselves
Although it sounds obvious, the fewer opportunities employees have to injure themselves at work, the less likely they are to become sick due to work.
Health and safety risks
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Unfortunately, when it comes to reducing workplace health risks it’s all too easy to have a health and safety team complete a risk assessment, and then file it without putting in place the measures that address these. This means employees are still able to physically injure themselves at work, typically through poor mechanics or using equipment in an unsafe way.
As part of the risk assessment, employees might even have been advised not to carry out an activity a certain way. Unfortunately, if you are serious about reducing workplace accidents, you can’t just tell employees to change the way they’ve always done something: you have to change the culture or design-out risk.
For example, when a factory realised workers were going off sick due to injuries linked to heavy lifting, instructing them to carry out two-man lifting didn’t create the necessary change. This was partly because workers were used to lifting heavy bags of ingredients out of habit and partly because many saw the lifting as part of their daily workout. It was only once the sacks were made too heavy to lift alone that they finally started sharing the load and using new equipment designed to help them.
Similarly, if you tell someone not to push a trolley or sit in the way they always have, they might be able to change this for a short time, until they habitually revert to what feels normal for them. However, if you adapt the handles of the trolley, or supply ergonomic equipment, they will have no choice but to work in a healthier way.
Enforce healthy working practices
If you told an employee to put their hand into a flame, they would probably refuse on the grounds that it would injure them. However, far too many employees regularly damage their mental health by working in ways that they know are detrimental to their wellbeing.
Simply telling people not to extend their day won’t create the change needed if they are also being set unachievable targets. Managing out mental health risks requires going beyond simply educating people about the benefits of working in short productive bursts, taking sufficient breaks, eating properly, exercising in the fresh air every day, having positive interaction with others, and getting enough sleep.
Most people are aware that they’re working in ways that undermine their health. They do this because, in the short-term, pushing themselves to hit that deadline or get that extra task done makes them feel validated. Given the choice between working late or prioritising their wellbeing, they will typically choose the former, even though this makes them less productive and more likely to become sick in the long run.
Simply telling people not to extend their day won’t create the change needed if they are also being set unachievable targets. Managing out mental health risks requires going beyond simply educating people.”
It’s therefore essential that employers compel workforces to adopt healthy working practices. Essential to this is obliging managers to not just tell employees to take a proper lunch break and make time for hobbies, relationships and physical activity outside of work, but creating a workplace culture that actually enables this. Critical to this is focusing on productivity and output, rather than hours worked, by properly prioritising what needs to be done, so employees have time to look after themselves.
Utilise positive peer pressure
It’s often the smallest tweaks that make the biggest difference when it comes to reducing work-related injuries.
Unsurprisingly, the people who are best placed to know what those tweaks are is the people doing the work. This means getting them to share best practice and tips with each other.
A useful exercise is to display a body chart and encourage all the members of a team, or those in a similar role, to add stickers relating to where they often have cuts, small injuries, or niggles. When we recently performed this exercise with a cohort of council employees, the majority of people had various hand symptoms from tools such as leaf blowers, apart from one individual who said he used to have those problems but now had a great pair of vibration-absorbing gloves.
Afterwards, everyone in the room was keen to get a pair for themselves. Many are now wearing them. This would have been unlikely to have been achieved had the council decided to impose its own solution.
Older workers may benefit from talking to each other about the niggles they might be experiencing as they age, and ways of mitigating these. Women in their 30-40s can benefit from workshops that facilitate discussion about the symptoms of perimenopause, which typically include weaker joints and brain fog, and can result in memory and anxiety issues that typically get misdiagnosed as mental health disorders.
Overall, the more you can do to support people to avoid injury and work-related ill health, the less likely they are to go absent. They are also more likely to feel cared for, which every employer should strive for.