It is well known that having a healthy workforce increases productivity, profitability and morale. Employers that breach their legal duty to safeguard the mental and physical state of their workers not only run the risk of low productivity and having to manage the unnecessary expense of increased attrition, but will also be exposed to healthy and safety and employment claims, particularly under disability discrimination legislation, should staff health issues go unchecked and eventually manifest as a disability.
There is an increasing consensus that strategies addressing both the body and mind are essential. Understandably, tackling the issue head-on can seem daunting, particularly given the perceived costs and cultural sensitivities surrounding mental health issues. However, there are some practical steps employers can take to implement and maintain an effective, healthy and thriving workplace.
Fuelling your workforce
Provide your workforce with access to and information about healthy and nutritionally balanced food can help prevent diseases such as diabetes and cancer. Simple steps such as providing a fridge for staff to bring in healthy lunches from home, offering healthier and affordable alternatives in the canteen and at team meetings, and encouraging staff to bring in a mixture of healthy treats to mark an occasion rather than the normal mountain of sugar, are affordable yet effective strategies.
Focus on general prevention
During the cold winter months, the sound of sneezes, coughs and general spluttering become commonplace. To minimise the impact on your workplace, consider offering discounted or onsite flu vaccinations and encouraging staff to use their sick leave entitlement when the cold strikes. Another effective practice is to arrange for a medical professional to visit your workplace to speak to staff about common health issues and provide access to follow-up appointments either onsite or close to the workplace.
Encourage more exercise
As the old saying goes, a healthy body makes a healthy mind. There are low-cost ways of encouraging participation in activities, including: introducing flexible lunch breaks to allow staff to exercise; encouraging employees to get up and communicate face to face rather than via email or phone; creating and funding an inter-office sports team or incentives for staff to take part in ‘walking lunch breaks’; and arranging for a qualified yoga instructor or fitness coach to come in and run sessions in the workplace. If you have keen cyclists within your workforce, installing office bike racks and implementing a cycling to work scheme may be a good and sustainable option.
Improve mental health
According to the government's Thriving at work report, fewer than one in 10 employees suffering from a mental health condition would confide in their employer. A top-down approach needs to be adopted to make mental health a non-taboo topic within an organisation. Managers might benefit from training on how to effectively communicate with their workforce on mental health issues, making it clear that talking about mental health will lead to support and not judgement.
Creating and implementing a company-wide mental health plan also sends a powerful message to staff that mental health is being taken seriously. Such a plan could include hiring a professional to regularly visit your workplace to speak to staff about stress management techniques (for example, offering in-house meditation sessions or access to meditation apps) or providing access to a counsellor. It is also excellent practice to train your first aiders to spot and be able to deal with mental health issues sensitively.
Today, a healthy and supportive working environment is becoming accepted as the norm and employers that fail to maintain these standards put themselves at a disadvantage in a competitive jobs market. Ultimately, this is about effecting cultural change. To do so, it is essential that changes are supported by management who truly practice what they preach when it comes to maintaining a healthy workforce.
It is therefore important to monitor any programme that you put in place and seek feedback to ensure your health and wellness plan is a good fit for your workplace and workforce. It would also be prudent to monitor staff wellbeing through anonymous wellness surveys. When it comes to a healthy workforce, prevention is definitely better than cure.
Gina Unterhalter is a senior associate at Dentons