Do employers have a duty towards the wellbeing of their employees?

Now this may seem a somewhat unrelated question to those interested in the field of sport and exercise, but a few recurrent questions/themes have got us thinking about this at Vivi Nation.

Crudely, I’m sure we’re all in agreement that small measures such as readily available chilled water fountains, flexible working hours, or even free coffee machines, are of huge benefit to both employer and employee. As an employer, you get refreshed/enlivened staff and as an employee, you’ve got that minor incentive to keep cracking on due to raised morale. The question about whether employers should offer such benefits extends itself out to topics such as corporate health insurance and encouraging employee health.

Within a sporting remit, we’ve got the obvious related topic of the Cycle To Work scheme. This ‘Cycle scheme’ enables employees of participating companies to get a bike tax-free, saving on average about half the cost. This works on the basis of the HMRC salary sacrifice arrangement. It’s completely free to join, and easy to administer online. Public sector employees are granted relatively straightforward access to the scheme, whilst other employers can be invited to take part in the scheme by the employee. Encouraging employees to cycle to and from work will result in an increase in fitness, meaning improved health (both physical and mental), fewer sick days, higher levels of energy and so on. Scheme participation is a no-brainer – for the employers: a healthier workforce and a reduced tax bill, for the employee: a half price bike and reduced transport costs, along with the health benefits.

However, to truly encourage staff to subscribe to this scheme there are a vast array of questions that still need to be answered, such as should companies have shower facilities, changing rooms, bike sheds/locks and so on. To successfully encourage workers to commute by bike these issues need to be addressed.

Another debate bouncing around is the installation of workplace gym facilities. Now not all employers are going to be able to offer this, obviously. You may question why it would be worth them offering out both valuable office space and costs for treadmill and weight equipment. Studies have found that even though employees may not exercise the 5 or 6 days they are at work, having a gym at work provides the motivation and time to do so. In addition, as a generalisation (and mentioned before), fit employees tend to be healthier employees. This means that the employer saves money in health care costs, sick days and has less downtime. These intangible quantities mean that it’s hard for Human Resources departments to quantify and therefore a lack of evidence for the benefits of such expenditures are low, but Employee Benefits’ Benefits Research, published in May 2013, shows that only 12% of employers offer gym membership as a core benefit to all employees. This is a particularly important issue for employers with employees who continually suffer health issues or, say, are obese. A fitter and healthier workforce will work harder, be more productive and more efficient – driving profits – so encouraging (or even enforcing) staff to be active may seem extreme but could have a significant positive impact. Offering gym facilities, or subsidised gym membership is a start, actively encouraging staff to use the facilities is the next step.

Working time directives have been instated to protect staff from an emotional wellbeing point of view, with a recent vogue in being to support employees’ health in general, rather than just physical health. Mental health and mind, work-life balance, nutrition and sleep cycles are all frequently broadcast. This has resulted in the introduction of benefits such as flexible working, holiday trading, and the age old “team bonding trips”, which are classic examples of endeavours to motivate employees, and it’s an understandable effort to maximise output, which after all, is what the big boss is after.

Whilst data is hard to underpin, it is certainly crucial for employee output to be supported from a wellbeing point of view. This raises the debate on whether the employer is more duty-bound to offer wellbeing support, or in fact benefited by doing so. Sadly, in this financial driven world, it is likely to be the latter which sees support being put in place for staff. Whilst they’re not going to be major contributing factors in choosing a new job, wellbeing measures certainly are factors in your satisfaction of the one you’re in. For example, as a previous student on various workplace placements, I would always be pleased to receive news that a particular workplace had facilities to enable me to run or cycle to work without too much difficulty.

The importance of wellbeing in the workplace has been highlighted by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), who want employers to give line managers more flexibility and power to support their staff from a health and wellbeing point of view. The guidelines from NICE urge companies to focus on making health and wellbeing a key part of workplace culture, with Professor Mike Kelly, NICE Public Health Director, quoting: “Employers and managers need to recognise the value and benefits of a healthy workplace and what a difference it can make, not only to their employees, but to the productivity of their business. Each year more than a million working people in the UK experience a work-related illness. It is not only the physical hazards of work – long irregular hours, lack of activity or repetitive injuries – that damage people’s health. Other factors such as lack of control over work, conflicts, and discriminatory practices can also have an effect.”

With national issues such as obesity and stress related illnesses on the rise in the UK, employers need to start taking responsibility for their employees’ wellbeing and health – and remember, the benefits can boost business. Happy, healthy staff will perform much better than unmotivated, lethargic and stressed employees and it is easier than ever to implement wellbeing programmes at work, so really there is no excuse.

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