Health and safety has traditionally been focused on the ‘safety’ side of things such as guarding machinery, addressing slips, trips, falls and developing control measures for areas of risk identified. However, health and wellbeing is now getting much greater attention from businesses and media alike. An increasing number of companies are launching initiatives to support employees’ mental health, wellbeing and safety in the workplace, even when the workplace is office-based. The media has also been keen to report on such initiatives and any research conducted in this field.
While trips, slips and machinery accidents are obviously less likely to occur to someone who is desk-based, in front of a computer for the majority of the working day, there are other risks to health, safety and wellbeing in this environment that need to be considered. Recent reports in the media from health professionals recommend one hour of exercise per day to offset the health risks of an ever increasing sedentary lifestyle – where we sit in a car or train to work, sit at a desk all day, and go home and sit on our sofa in the evening to relax. So with such a sedentary lifestyle for millions of UK workers, what can employers do to make a positive difference?
There is a legal framework in the UK that requires employers to identify and control risk in an office-based work environment. Sitting at a desk in an office would be broadly covered by existing Display Screen Equipment (DSE) regulations that require employers to assess the workstation of their employees with regard to comfort and support, provide training on how to operate the equipment they work with daily and provide access to free eye tests, etc.
The regulations also state that employees who are predominately working from a screen should take frequent breaks. While the length of time and regularity of these breaks is not defined in the regulations, common practice suggests that employees should have five minutes’ non-computer use every hour. This is to prevent eye strain, fatigue, backaches and upper limb problems. These health concerns may not seem as severe as a fall or an accident whilst operating machinery, but they can result in time off work and reduced productivity.
The DSE regulations have suggested the below as guidance on how to achieve this time away from looking at a screen:
- Stretch and change position
- Look into the distance from time to time, and blink often
- Change activity before users get tired, rather than to recover
- Short, frequent breaks are better than longer, infrequent ones
In addition to the DSE regulations requirement, there are other efforts employers should be considering to improve the overall health of their work force. Whilst not their direct responsibility, a simple cost-effective initiative that improves the health of colleagues will reduce lost-time absences, improve productivity, staff morale and retention.
For large organisations with various inter-dependant departments such as HR, Occupational Health, Risk Management, Health and Safety and sometimes a variety of policies and process, it can be hard to navigate the wellbeing arena and know how to ensure a co-ordinated approach to employee wellbeing. Involving all stakeholders in the beginning may make it easier to create a focused process that works both for employees and the organisation.
Health and wellbeing initiatives will not only improve productivity but can result in dramatic cost savings through a reduction in sickness. A recent strategic audit I was completing revealed a staff absence ratio of 10%, where each whole percentage point in absences was costing the organisation £2m per year. After implementing a range of health and wellbeing initiatives, the sickness ratio dropped to 4%, saving £12m each year.
Example initiatives include cycle to work schemes, where employees get discounted prices on bikes to travel to work. Another example could be a health, dental or life insurance scheme, offering employees access to private health and dental care for a salary sacrifice contribution.
For small organisations, who may not have the resources to implement structured initiatives, encouraging employees to stay active can help ensure a healthy workforce. If we consider that 42 flights of stairs are the same as climbing Big Ben and skipping the lift twice a day to the second floor might be four flights of stairs each time, this level of exercise for staff can be achieved relatively easily. Add in a walk to the office or a walk into town during lunch and it is actually quite easy to achieve one hour of exercise per day, as recommended.
All of this may provide a variety of health benefits for employees from reduced stress and anxiety, through to helping with weight loss, and improving overall cardio-vascular performance. A healthy workforce is a healthy, productive organisation. It is not surprising to see businesses taking an active interest in the wellbeing, health and safety of their staff, regardless of the role they do.