How to safeguard staff wellbeing and protect workplace productivity

We explore the link between lost productivity and workplace stress on World Mental Health Day – Monday, 10 October 2016 

ACAS (the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service) estimates that mental health problems are costing UK businesses £30 billion a year through lost productivity and the cost of replacing staff.
These findings are echoed by research from Britain’s Healthiest Workplace (BHW), the UK’s most comprehensive workplace wellness study, which found that employees in overstressed, inactive and underproductive industries lose 27 days of productive time each year.
Data from more than 32,500 employees shows large productivity disparity between industries and that those in the healthcare and financial services sectors lose the most productive time each year. It also showed that lost productivity is generally down to high stress and lack of physical activity.
While poor diet, alcohol and cigarettes have a severe effect on long-term health, it’s stress and physical activity which have biggest impact on day to day productivity.
The study, which was conducted by VitalityHealth, Mercer, the University of Cambridge and RAND Europe, found that productivity varies enormously between industries, with some industries losing almost 27 days of productive time per employee per year, compared to a national average of 23.5 days. Healthcare and financial services lose 26.6 and 24.9 days per employee a year respectively, while high-tech loses just 18.9 days per employee per year.
The financial implications of this productivity loss are huge, with the UK losing £57bn a year on average in lost productivity. Work-related stress plays a significant role in the productivity losses incurred, with 73% of employees nationally suffering from at least one dimension of work-related stress. Those industries with higher productivity losses typically have higher levels of work-related stress.
Physical activity levels in financial services are in line with the national average, but in healthcare fall below the average of 64.4%, with just 62.2% of workers falling into the healthy range. Transportation, shipping and logistics – the worst industry for stress and lack of physical activity and the third least productive industry – also highlight the correlation between these two factors and productivity output.
The high-tech industry, on the other hand, scores highest in the productivity stakes, losing just 19 days per employee per year. High-tech employees are the most physically active, with 71.5% of employees in the healthy range, and are also the least stressed.
Shaun Subel, strategy director at VitalityHealth, a specialist in health and life insurance, said: “Although alcohol consumption, poor diet and smoking have a significant impact on long-term health, it is clear to see that day-to-day productivity loss centres on physical activity and stress levels.
“Within the significant industry fluctuations, it is quite worrying to see that even in high-tech, the best-performing sector in terms of productivity, 19 days of productive time is still lost by each employee each year.
“Encouragingly we note that on an individual company basis, where there is an increased investment in health promotion, the proportion of employees in good or excellent health grows, while the costs to productivity associated with absenteeism and presenteeism reduce.
“We would urge all companies, and especially those in sectors suffering from acute productivity loss, to invest in the health and wellbeing of their staff. Reducing workplace stress and encouraging employees to stay physically active should help increase productivity levels and protect the business bottom line.”
Chris Bailey, partner at Mercer, a global consulting leader in talent, health, retirement and more, said: “Modern working practices and the make-up of roles within the UK’s workforce has impacted on the health of individuals significantly. Technology has allowed a more sedentary working life to become the norm whilst the rise of the UK’s service economy has reduced the number of manual workers and physical activity.
“But individual employers can, and do, act to buck these trends and create competitive advantage within their peer group by doing so. It’s no surprise that new tech firms without legacy working practices have lower levels of stress, and lower lost productivity, whilst more established industries sometimes struggle to implement change and create a healthy working environment.”
According to HR consultancy professionals at Willis Towers Watson (WTW), which has offices throughout the UK, including in Edinburgh, it’s younger workers who are bearing the brunt of workplace stress.
Half of younger (Generation Y) UK workers (50%) have reported experiencing heightened levels of stress in the workplace according to WTW’s latest 2015/2016 Global Benefits Attitudes Survey (GBAS).
The equivalent figures for generation X (44%) and the baby boomer generation (35%) suggest that younger workers are more affected by workplace stress than their older colleagues.
The study of 1,895 employees in the UK found that, the top causes of workplace stress for generation Y were inadequate staffing and low pay, which mirrored the top two causes across all generations in the survey. This is followed by a lack of work/life balance and unclear and/or conflicting job expectations whereas for baby boomers it is company culture and excessive organisation change.
Rebekah Haymes, senior consultant at WTW, said: “Work/life balance appears as a stronger stress driver for generation Y employees, while the characteristics of the organisation play a more prominent role for older employees.”
The report also shows generation Y are more worried about their finances than older workers, with 64% of younger workers reporting being worried, compared to 55% of generation X workers and 38% of baby boomers. However the cause of worry for generation Y appear to be about their future rather than their current finances, with just 20% reporting that they are currently struggling financially.
WTW’s Global Staying@Work Survey indicates that employers prioritise different sources of stress, primarily a lack of work/life balance and excessive amounts of organisational change.  Low pay, which plays an important role in financial worries, comes in 13th place of employers’ views on sources of stress.
Haymes added: “In an environment with tight margins, employers cannot easily manage issues around low pay and staffing levels.  However, they can marshal resources and focus on providing guidance on stress management and coping strategies through their wellbeing programmes”.
The GBAS report also suggests that younger workers are more likely to indulge themselves and engage in unhealthy behaviours as a coping strategy compared to their older colleagues, but they are also more likely to seek support from their personal network, including their managers, as well as seek professional help and use the services provided by their employers.
Haymes said: “Most employees seek to tackle stress on their own, but education against counterproductive behaviours could prove helpful, particularly for younger employees.”
The research continues to report that highly stressed employees lose almost twice as many days at work to short term absence and presenteeism, and are almost twice as likely to be in poor health and disengaged from their job compared to their low stress colleagues.
“Companies cannot afford to ignore the issue of stress for workers. To address workplace stress, employers first need to understand its root cause from their employees’ point of view.
“Those who base their efforts on misguided assumptions risk trying to solve the wrong problems, and could end up wasting money and alienating employees. Understanding employee views is key to ensuring support is directed to known issues and leads to more successful outcomes.”
With one in four people experiencing a mental health problem in any given year, the issue has rapidly scaled the social and political agenda.
So, on World Mental Health Day, are workplaces doing enough to safeguard wellbeing?
According to Shaun Baker, head of Crown Workplace Relocations, employers can take some simple steps to make the physical working environment a more mindful place for employees.
“It doesn’t have to be expensive or difficult to make changes to your workplace to help lift the mood,” he says.
“Our research has found that it’s the simple things in life which top staff wish lists.”
Crown Workplace Relocations recently commissioned a survey among employers and employees, asking which factors which would most improve their wellbeing. One in five (22%) of those polled said office clutter bothers them, while over a third (37%) said more natural light would make them feel healthier and happier at work.
“In its simplest form, de-cluttering and redecorating can have a positive effect on morale and encourage fresh thinking,” says Baker.
“But, with a little more thought, much more can be achieved to improve staff morale and wellbeing – and with that comes increased productivity.”
On World Mental Health Day, here are Crown Workplace Relocations’ top tips for improving staff wellbeing: 
 
1.    Consider your office design: The furniture and colour of an office can lift the mood. Create an inviting office that is modern and fits the brand personality.
2.    Install break-out areas: Rest breaks help improve productivity. Provide staff with an area away from their desks where they can eat, relax and socialise.
3.    Encourage fitness: Exercise helps boost brain power. Consider fitting bike racks and showers to inspire people to cycle, run or walk to work.
4.    Let the light in: Natural light aids concentration. Avoid placing things in front of windows and blocking out the light – unless it shines directly on someone’s computer screen. If adding or enlarging windows or skylights isn’t possible, make sure artificial light is of high quality and mimics natural light as a much as possible.
5.    Create private areas: Open plan often doesn’t reflect the modern desire for privacy and can heighten anxiety. And just as importantly it doesn’t provide an environment in which people can concentrate and get their job done.
6.    Take a different approach to meetings: Being stuck in a stuffy board room is not very inspiring. Create more intimate meeting zones and put tables and chairs outside when the weather is warm.
7.    Be clutter-free: An office without piles of paperwork can help organise minds. Encourage a clear desk policy and move overflowing filing cabinets into the cloud.
8.    Listen to your staff: A happy, enthusiastic workforce is key to business success. Before introducing anything, undertake workplace surveys to find out what employees want from their office environment. You don’t always have to spend a lot of money.
For more information on how to support employees and colleagues in the workplace, visit the World Mental Health Day 2016 website. 
Or, for HR support in your area, contact The HR Dept for Edinburgh and the Lothians, which specialises in employment law and HR support and services for SMEs.

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