According to government data, illness among working age people puts a £100 billion dent in the UK economy every year. In a bid to address the issue, the government has announced a new initiative designed to promote a healthier workforce. Public Health England (PHE) has teamed up with workplace health provider Healthy Working Futures to set out new guidelines for SMEs to improve health and wellbeing.
The advice offers SMEs, which account for 60 per cent of private sector employment, questions on health and wellbeing covering areas such as smoking, fitness and sleep that staff can answer anonymously. The aim is for businesses to use the findings to create tailored steps that address the specific needs of its workforce and ultimately lead to health improvements.
PHE has also worked with Business in the Community to develop guidance for employers on issues including musculoskeletal (MSK) and mental health, in addition to advice on physical activity, diet and weight, drugs, alcohol and tobacco.
There is no doubt that such initiatives are needed and that government should take the lead on addressing the issue. However, responsibility for the health and wellbeing of staff also lies at the feet of employers. Finding skilled staff is difficult enough in today’s competitive climate, so ensuring that your best people are in the best physical and mental shape to produce top-quality work is surely a priority.
The stress of the commute
How – and crucially, where – people work is understood to have a significant bearing on workplace wellbeing. The stresses of the commute are well documented, so those businesses able to offer some flexibility around workplace location can contribute to a happier workforce. Indeed, it is now the right of every employee that has served more than 26 weeks with a business to request flexible working. Moreover, advances in technology such as cloud-based document storage have eliminated the need for all employees to be in the same physical location. So, offering employees the choice of where and how to work must become an integral part of modern business strategy.
Businesses must be careful not to confuse flexible working with homeworking. Certainly, the option to work from home once in a while is welcomed by most professionals, but home set-ups are rarely optimised in terms of important factors such as ergonomics and lighting, and many cite isolation and disruption from family members or pets as an issue. Too much time spent in ill-designed home-working spaces can have a detrimental effect on health and wellbeing.
The best remote workspaces are designed with both productivity and wellbeing in mind. These spaces now exist in almost every town and city in the UK, enabling people to turn up at a time that suits and to work productively among other professionals.
Flexible working and productivity
Compared to many homeworking setups, the latest workspaces deliver fast broadband, ergonomic desks and seating, optimised lighting and a variety of space either for collaboration or quiet concentration. Studies have shown that working flexibly in this way stimulates productivity and enhances wellbeing. Indeed, our own research, which canvassed over 2,000 small business owners from across the UK, showed that 69 per cent of respondents believe that working closer to home helps improve health, and the same proportion believe working closer to home would encourage them to go to the gym more often. In addition to this, over half (56 per cent) said that flexible workers are more ‘mindful’ and are better able to assess their levels of wellbeing.
The UK’s workforce takes around 137.3 million days of sick leave each year – more than one-third of which is down to poor mental health or neck and lower back pain. Whilst it is clear that there is no single solution to address this issue, there are steps that forward-thinking businesses are already taking – particularly around the offer of flexible working patterns.
Government action on this issue is important and to be welcomed, but we also have responsibilities as individuals and business leaders. Keeping people healthy not only benefits the individual but also has a significant beneficial impact on the performance of the business. This win-win scenario is one that many more firms can benefit from.
Richard Morris is UK CEO at Regus.