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Putting the ‘H’ in Health and Safety

Lesley_QuinnWhen people think of health and safety (H&S) the emphasis is usually on the physical risk, trips and falls, wearing PPE on site, preventing injury. There’s more to H&S than safety, however, and employers must consider the mental health, and general wellbeing of staff in order to create a happy and productive workforce. Lesley Quinn, QSHE director from Ergro, explains

Many facilities management companies operate in high risk environments, fixing dangerous plant, working at heights and often using chemicals for cleaning and hygiene purposes. Because of this, health and safety focuses on the obvious physical things that could cause harm to a person. Of course, robust risk management must be adhered to, but beyond the perils related to day-to-day tasks, good employers should also look to the mental health and well being of staff to ensure happiness and productivity in the workplace.

Work related stress costs Britain 10.4 million working days per year, so if nothing else, employers need to address this issue in order to save lost revenue to their business. In general, a good health and safety policy can also help in the tendering process, with many larger projects looking for companies that demonstrate excellence in this area.

Occupational health is the catch-all term to describe the impact of work, both physically and mentally. In the first instance, this must cover the basics of H&S, making sure office space and any on-site work is risk free and that staff have the correct tools and protective equipment to carry out their role properly.

Beyond that, a good occupational health policy should cover employee wellbeing, both in direct relation to their role (making sure staff aren’t too stressed and that they get the support that they need) and more generally; encouraging them to be active and eat well, as well as being sympathetic to issues they may be experiencing outside of the workplace.

One of the biggest problems the UK has when it comes exacerbating mental health issues in particular is the increasingly long hours we all work; 13 per cent of the UK working population now work 49 hours or more. According to the Mental Health Foundation, it is estimated that nearly three in every 10 employees will experience a mental health problem in one year, with these longer hours contributing to the issues.

In a recent Mental Health Foundation survey, it found that when working long hours more than a quarter of employees felt depressed, one third anxious and more than half, irritable. And, the more hours you spend at work, the more hours outside of work you are likely to spend thinking or worrying about it. Employers must be aware of this – getting more time out of staff may, in the short term, seem like a productive, value-for-money approach. If this results in absenteeism and staff resignation, however, pushing people too hard becomes counter-productive.

Working smart, not long, is the best approach. While the odd late night or early morning can be expected in most busy companies, if this is a consistent and expected practice, the way people are working and what they are doing needs to be examined.

Businesses should take an active role in improving work/life balance, by promoting its importance to staff. The association between work related stress and mental health needs to be addressed and workers should feel that they have someone to turn to who will listen to their problems should things get too much.

Encourage a culture of openness regarding time constraints and workloads – employees must feel able to speak up if the demands placed on them are too great. If staff have existing mental health issues or specific situations, such as a family bereavement, that lead to problems, allow them to take time off for counselling, as you would any other medical issue. Because mental health is invisible, it can often get overlooked.

A proactive approach to staff health, be that mental or physical, will prove that you care while helping to promote good health. We’ve worked with our local council (Kent County Council) and Wellbeing at Work, offering staff and other local companies free health screening.

Being understanding, helpful and accepting towards staff and any health issues they may have is not only good for staff morale and productivity, it is also a legal requirement. Under the Health & Safety at Work Regulations, all workers have a right to work in places where risks to their health and safety are properly controlled. You must take appropriate steps to prevent harm, complete appropriate risk assessments and provide staff with the relevant training and equipment to do their job properly.

In addition, The Equality Act protects people from discrimination, bringing together the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA), the Race Relations Act, and the Sex Discrimination Act. Covering gender, age or disability, mental health comes under this banner. Applying to all UK employers, including contract workers, businesses cannot discriminate and must be careful to provide equal opportunities and treatment to all staff, existing and potential.

One of the ways you can help staff enjoy work more and generally improve their own health and wellbeing is by encouraging fun and healthy activities as part of your business culture. These could be family sports days, sponsored bike rides, or staff competitions using fitness tracking technology. Simple things, like providing fresh fruit in the workplace can help promote better food choices.

Actively encouraging a healthy, safe and happy working environment, should not just be a ‘nice to have’. For businesses that value and want to retain staff, a broad and considered approach to employee wellbeing should be an extremely important part of the operational plan.


About Sarah OBeirne


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