A Safer Conversation: Wellbeing at Work – Part II

A Safer Conversation: Wellbeing at Work – Part II

Safer Work

What are the advantages of having wellness programmes at work and what the most common initiatives in the UK

Tim: The major advantage is all the work that falls under what we call organisational citizenship, which brings a lot of spinoff benefits. Presenteeism goes down, absenteeism goes down, behaviours like contributing and helping out go up, and all pro-social work is also affected positively with wellness programmes. It’s the intangible stuff that seems to make all the difference: conversations in the pub on a Friday night, and how that impacts on other people being likely to apply for the job. 

You know, one of the most famous psychological theories is ASA [Herbert Simon’s theory: attraction-selection-attrition]. Certain people will be attracted to an organisation, be selected for one, and then leave. So, there is all the intangible work that is massively affected by an organisation’s effort to make the workforce happy. 

Paul: I might be able to give a couple of real-world examples of this. We’ve been looking at NHS trusts. They seem to be extremely keen on wellbeing at work at the moment, but to varying degrees.  And I think a great example of a trust that has really embraced wellbeing at work is actually Addenbrooke’s Hospital. They may have embraced it beyond what anybody would have ever thought: they do have systems in place for direct referral for musculoskeletal problems, and the ability for staff to get instant access to psychological counselling services. And they even run exercise classes, book clubs and other wellbeing activities. Their presenteeism and absenteeism have decreased massively and they’re in essence being able to demonstrate a large fiscal gain from that.

I appreciate that I’m on this conversation with quite a few people who are interested in the psychology of the workplace, but actually accessing psychological services and counselling for companies can be very difficult, particularly the private services, and companies struggle with this, finding people who can offer those sorts of services with the right qualifications. And so I do appreciate why many employers have simply gone off into the musculoskeletal side of wellbeing because it does account for about 40% of the problem, and actually accessing musculoskeletal treatment, physiotherapy, doctors, nurses is much easier than accessing the psychological services.

Kevin: I think it might be possible certainly for larger organisations to access those services but it is really difficult for the smaller ones.

Rebecca: I come from a slightly different perspective, from real estate, and the slightly more physical than psychological element. But what we’ve done recently is a survey of corporate occupiers. So we’re not necessarily looking at public employers like the NHS, but big global occupiers of real estate, big global corporations.

As part of our survey we asked them about wellness programmes and the result was that across Europe, Middle East, Africa, three quarters of companies actually said they ran a formal wellness programme. That was a bit of a surprise that it was quite that high. But we also asked them about the main elements of their wellness programmes and I’ll run you through six of the big figures. So, 55% actually said just talking about health and wellbeing was a main element. They also mentioned organised exercise programmes; on site healthcare, mental health awareness discussions and relaxation and mindfulness sessions.

Of those surveyed, 29% said they had those programmes formally organised. And the final element of the top six was dear to my heart – being a sustainability professional – is around sustainable design and building certification, that is looking at the physical elements of the workplace. So that’s quite a variety but it really covers all the key elements I think high-performing employees expect.

Musculoskeletal treatment easier for employees to access than psychological services. Photograph: iStock / KatarzynaBialasiewicz  

Tim: There’s a lot of discussion about the efficacy of counselling, but from a broader cultural perspective I wonder if the fact that an organisation is geared up to look for people and offer people counselling if they feel they need it, it says more about the culture of the whole organisation, than actually the  counsellor service of whatever quality.

Paul: Certainly some employers are much more diligent about what is actually happening with their employees. But if I give you an interesting statistic that came out from the report of an NHS trust. I use it as an example because in the UK the NHS is the single biggest employer. A staggering percentage of NHS trusts couldn’t tell you how many of their staff are actually physically at work every day, never mind what they were off for or what they needed to put in place to get those staff better.

I think that unless employers know why people aren’t even attending, never mind being happy at work, it will be very difficult for them to talk about their wellness. And then, if services are harder to access, putting that in place is literally just harder. 

Some services are easier to access than others. Simple examples; if somebody needs access to a doctor, it can often be difficult to access a GP out of working hours. Are employers flexible enough to let people go out to access a doctor, or does that person just ring in sick that day? So there are issues around knowing first of all, who is and isn’t well, and issues about what you do when they’re not.

Tim: Don’t forget the importance of the tone of the exit interview for someone leaving the organisation; it is incredibly important, both for the likelihood of them coming back some time in the future, and the wider community. It’s amazing how often you get the response, what is an exit interview?

Many employers consider that complying with the legislation is enough and looking after your health is a personal issue. Do you agree

Kevin: It’s just a very simple question that I ask our management students, would you like to work for a company that merely complied to the minimum possible standards of health and safety legislation? And most people say no.  Tim mentioned the conversations down the pub. Good employers in an area get a reputation and they get the choice of the best people in the local labour market. There are very good reasons for organisations wanting to ensure that they’re good places to work. 

Paul: I absolutely don’t think it’s enough to do just the bare minimum and comply with the legislation. If you’re a radiographer working in the radiology department, where you are obviously potentially exposed to dangerous radiation every day, you have to wear a radiation monitor, and that radiation monitor has to be checked to make sure that you are not being exposed to that radiation. That’s the bare minimum. I don’t see what relevance that has; what that does to your wellbeing at work. Complying with the law would not be anywhere near enough for wellbeing. No, complying with the legislation just isn’t enough. If you’ve only complied with the legislation and you find a lot of the staff are off sick, or are present but not able to work to 100% then you’ve only yourself to blame. 

Tim: My answer is no because we all know from health and safety that broad compliance is a minimum, but far from excellence. If you’re not striving for excellence you’re probably a very ordinary organisation all round really.

Rebecca: I’d agree with that, and I think the high performing organisations that we work with are striving for high performance and to attract high-performing employees, especially knowledge-based and technology companies. They absolutely have to do everything to go out and win those people. We’re talking about young people in organisations such as Google, Facebook. They have to have wellness programmes; they drive their people hard but they make everything very easy for them when they are in the workplace.

Kevin: Let’s talk about safety, if you are well beyond being compliant in terms of safety, it actually benefits the organisation in terms of greater commitment and great satisfaction of the workforce. So, making an effort to ensure that workers really are safe and they feel safe and they’re well trained to look after themselves will have benefits in terms of wellbeing as well. There are lots of reasons to go beyond the law.

Paul: There are organisations where staff levels are at what is the minimum for doing the work day to day. The staff themselves find it very hard to do any more and to go any further, and to start looking at any other elements of the business or the job. 

Kevin: Yes, there’s a strong link between safety and work demands. And thinking of Toyota, they do train people, skill them and is able to spot where they can make innovations in processes and save time and reduce inefficiencies, and save resources. They don’t get rid of people because they can run on a skeleton staff, it’s important to have the right level of human resources and capability, or mistakes will happen.

Paul: I agree and in fact I remember a conversation with a friend at Toyota. She initially said to me: “If you want to produce more cars in a day, and part of that production is with robots, you can set those robots to run a little bit faster, but every time you do a process just remember you have to take some part of that process off to make it faster.

So if you’re putting a wheel onto a car and using a robot, instead of the robot lining it up, checking it, putting it on and putting the bolts on, it doesn’t work that way. The robot takes the wheel, puts it straight on and puts the bolt on. And you’ve missed the check.” She said that if you do that, you’ll end up with things that necessarily aren’t the same quality in the end and can only do it for so long, because eventually the robots will wear out and break down. She said why do you expect it to be any different with a human being? And I think she’s right. I think if you work and work and work people they will wear out and break down, and they will make mistakes. 

Wellness programmes are generally an expensive business. How do businesses with small profits or not for profit organisations can cope

Tim: If you’ve got no money at all, it is a struggle, you can’t do anything. But in terms of doing things cheaply, behavioural economics is important. Because the whole issue is you’re going to have a big impact with first input. So for example we had a client who decided their behavioural safety programme was merely going to focus on the supervisor and the relationship with their staff and they just trained everybody in soft skills.

Another good example of a nudge is that praise is 20 times as powerful at changing somebody’s behaviour than criticism is. So, if you can shift the balance of that, if supervisors praise a lot more than they criticise, that can have a big impact on behaviour. And listening to people costs no money. We talked before about mental health issues and stress and so on. So you can have a big win-win impact by doing something well targeted.

Paul: On the musculoskeletal side; if you were to take the top six musculoskeletal injuries, they actually account for over 80% of all musculoskeletal problems. If you were to just take those onboard and tackle them with early intervention there’s a direct return on investment. And we have statistics or management indicators of a direct correlation between investing early in musculoskeletal and the return on that investment in decreased sickness absence.

Paul: Certainly there are things you can do to reduce musculoskeletal injuries. And in fact a lot of those things are probably much simpler than you would imagine. A great example of that is using the 20/20 pointer rule for people who work at a desk. If you work at a desk, if you’re sat for 20 minutes you should get up for at least 20 seconds and look at least 20 feet away. It resets your posture and your back; your neck; your shoulders; your arms; your elbows; your hands; your wrists and at the same time resetting your eyes to avoid eye strain. And 20 seconds is probably enough, and then you can sit back down and start again.

You’d be amazed how many employers have staff sat for multiple hours at a time, and don’t simply have that sort of process in place, which is actually very effective. And 84% of people report eye strain when using a monitor at work if they use the monitor for more than two hours a day, and if they do the job for more than three years. 

Your problem comes if you don’t really have any money to spend, but there are certainly proactive things you could do to get employees’ physical wellbeing, musculoskeletal wellbeing better without having to spend any money at all actually.

Kevin: There’s a stream of research about breaks and physical fatigue, but there’s a stream of research started now about breaks and mental fatigue and wellbeing in the workplace. And one of the things that’s coming out is if you can take a break when you need it, and then do something enjoyable during that break, your fatigue goes down.

For a lot of knowledge workers if they’re working on a task that’s mentally draining, there might be a temptation to switch to doing a less mentally draining task, like your email. But the evidence we’re finding is that actually it’s much more beneficial to take a complete break and try and do something social or enjoyable during that break. It doesn’t have to be a particularly long break, it might be just a few minutes. And that can be enough to improve mood, reduce fatigue, those kind of relatively simple things that you can do in most office environments, a little bit more difficult in manufacturing.

That really speaks to the physical layout as well, the natural environment; the way buildings are designed to have breakout spaces that can have probably quite a significant impact on people’s sense of wellbeing in the workplace.

Rebecca: I must agree with you. Wellbeing and workplace design are so inherently linked at the moment.  At CBRE we’re doing some research to work out what are the best triggers, the best initiatives to put in place that will have the biggest impact and the most productivity for employers. Because they do require investment of course, but certainly most modern knowledge workplaces that we are involved with today are making such investment, they have varied areas for breakout and are increasingly trying to bring nature into the building, trying to get a view out, which obviously helps taking a visual break as well.

But it’s not so much in the job design as I see it, but very much in the workplace design, trying to create varied activities throughout the day. The idea behind many modern designs is bringing the natural environment into the workplace, either in reality or in a visual format. I think it’s been proven that you still get a good improvement from pictures of plants and oceans as you do as the actual plants and oceans. It’s not as good but there’s still a beneficial effect. I think we’re looking at green walls. It’s kind of plants inside, but getting views of nature I think is very important. 

Paul: I once went on a tour of the Ferrari factory at Modena, and was quite surprised to find they actually had trees and bushes inside a manufacturing environment. They actually had them within the production line. They looked lovely. Actually it strikes me as being one of the nicest workplaces I’ve ever visited.

How does UK compare with the rest of the world in wellbeing practices at work

Kevin: I’d say the institutional set-up in terms of the educational systems, the longer term focus of government in Germany, the Nordic countries and the Netherlands model is actually more conducive to high quality jobs. For example, BMW makes cracking good cars and they’ve made cracking good cars for a long time, because the education system in Germany does make it easier for car manufacturers to design higher quality jobs for higher skilled workers, and it gives them more job security. So, more levels of commitment that go with satisfaction and productivity too.

We have a big productivity gap in the United Kingdom, and some of that is because of the institutional things around work; we possibly don’t skill people enough, or in insufficient ways. So I think in terms of job quality it’s harder in the UK compared with some of our European competitors. And that can explain some of the productivity gaps.

Paul: I find that if a manufacturer has activities in another part of the world where those practices have been proven to be effective, they often try to translate those practices back to the UK.

But I do wonder sometimes if we have this sort of magic answer, dreaming approach, this magic panacea that somewhere else in the world somebody does it better than we do, when actually that might not be true. And often people say to me, because I’ve been out to Japan, they say, well in Japan it’s a lot better. I say, well, Japan it’s different, there is a different culture. So when you compare practices in the UK to practices in Japan or practices in other parts of Europe, I think we need to take into account the fact that people and cultures and working practices are different. What is effective in one country may or may not be effective in another for various different reasons. 

But certainly yes, I have some good experiences of seeing different wellbeing programmes around the world. I’m not convinced all of them would translate back to the UK.

Tim: The best I’ve seen tend to be from multinational companies. But to be really UK-specific, obviously the Olympics building activities and initiatives is a good example. But just an example of a UK construction company in London, a very small company, and they did screening
and they found that 80% of their workforce had very high levels of cholesterol and blood pressure. One guy had a resting heart rate of 140 or something. They saved his life by taking him straight to hospital.

There is also an example of a senior safety advisor; a part of her job was to go around and talk to the workforce and just ask, how are you, just as a general question. It created a culture where people would talk to her about safety issues and about everything. And it just set a really good tone generally. That is a cheap and easy thing to do. 

Kevin: In the north I have seen a lot of collaboration across the regulators and the fabrication companies and the designers and the oil companies. So I reckon it’s possible that they have this long hour culture in the UK compared with the rest of Northern Europe, relatively low-skilled jobs, long hours, a productivity gap. I think it’s possible to look at things happening in oil and gas and the construction industry in terms of wellbeing and see how it can influence a culture change elsewhere in the UK

- See more at: https://sm.britsafe.org/safer-conversation-wellbeing-work-%E2%80%93-part-ii#sthash.YNqoT83L.dpuf

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