Employee Wellbeing

    25/09/2018


    Although British workplaces have greatly improved safety standards (though perhaps without putting enough energy into health), it’s fair to say that many employers don’t put much thought into employees wellbeing in general. ‘Wellness’ may be a nebulous concept, but what we’re really talking about here is how employers can create the conditions for their employees to be happy, healthy, and therefore more creative and productive. Approached in this way, improving employees wellbeing isn’t simply being nice; it’s really about increasing profits.
    When you think about it, most workplaces aren’t really set up to get the best out of us as humans. We evolved to chase prey across the savannahs of East Africa; some scientists believe our strategy was running or walking for many hours over long distances (rather than sprinting) to steadily tire out animals until they could be killed, and our physiology reflects this. In short, we are designed for endurance exercise.
    Nowadays, many of us work in offices where we sit at our desks all day under artificial lighting staring at a screen. Many workers skip their lunchbreaks to continue working and get next to no exercise. 40% of British office workers spend a maximum of 15 minutes outside each day excluding their commute (which for many involves driving or taking a bus or train).
    The same research suggested British workers spend more time at their desks each day then in bed, and pressure to work out-of-hours mean many are checking their emails in the middle of the night (even worse because use of screens at night interferes with the body clock and disrupt sleep patterns). These factors can all contribute to exhaustion, bad mood, poor concentration and poor health, with eye strain, back pain and levels of inactivity that contribute to Britain’s obesity crisis. This lowers productivity, raises stress levels and leads to more sick leave.
    Exercise, natural light and healthy food all help increase mood and concentration. For example, studies have shown that fatty or sugary foods lead to a crash in mood and productivity later on, while healthy food like fruit has the opposite effect. Furthermore, exposure to natural light makes us more alert and improves mood – which is why during the winter some people experience depression. However, wellness isn’t as simple as providing free fruit, and the physical design of many office buildings precludes the possibility of working in the sunshine.
    The most important thing in improving wellness is to abandon the idea that the more time workers spend at their desks, the more productive they are. It’s obvious that if employees spend half the day away from their workstations that they won’t get as much work done. However, by ensuring employees take breaks and giving them opportunities to stretch their legs and get outdoors, businesses can ensure their employees are more alert and get more done when they are at their computers.
    What’s more, employees need to be able to make the most out of their free time, without feeling pressure to work without pay after office hours, at home and during their holidays. This means recognising when an employees workload is unsustainable and needs either to be reduced through more efficient processes, shared more amongst existing colleagues or to be picked up by a new hire. In the long term, this avoids burnout and the potential for the employee to simply walk away, as well as improving their efficiency. Less can sometimes be more.
    This simple change in mentality can be complimented by other concrete steps. Yes, providing healthy alternative snacks to crisps and chocolate is one thing. It’s also worth considering if some meetings could be conducted outside or at a coffee shop when possible, giving the opportunity to enjoy the sunshine, stretch the legs and have a change of scenery. Perhaps a one-to-one could be conducted during a walk in the park? This is fairly dependent on the workplaces physical surroundings, but is something worth considering for many business.
    The Welsh Government has recently adopted a ‘wellbeing hour’ each week where civil servants are paid to do something to release some stress or improve their health, and crucially, this hour can be taken flexibly in chunks, allowing employees to simply take longer walks during lunchbreak or giving them the chance to go to the gym without running overtime. Employees can either do this individually or organise activities in groups, like squash or yoga classes. The fact that this is included in paid working time means that employees are incentivised to do something to improve their health and wellbeing that that may not have much time for outside of work, due to commuting and family commitments.
    While many business don’t get the chance to design and build their offices from scratch, making access to fresh air and natural light difficult for many employees (both top gripes) there are small steps employers can take to improve their office environment. Employees surveyed suggested that indoor plants, nicer artwork and a more interesting colour scheme could all improve their working environment (despite the trend for all-white and neutral interiors in homes).
    There’s also studies that suggest using special blue-enriched lighting as opposed to standard white light can boost alertness and performance, and help workers sleep better at night. There’s plenty of evidence to suggest our lack of exposure to blue light in daylight during working hours and our exposure to blue light from screens in the evening is extremely detrimental to our ability to get enough sleep.
    Although these matters may lie within the jurisdiction of HR teams, if you’re an occupational health professional, you’re well placed to authoritatively state the benefits of these kind of changes, many of which have an impact upon physical and mental health. When the possible benefits are increased mood, productivity, creativity, health, employee retention, and a reduction in stress, sick leave and mental health issues, all with a cumulative impact on increasing profitability, OH professionals have plenty of reasons to advocate wellbeing policies to their employers.