by Jennifer Cashman, Practice Group Leader of Ronan Daly Jermyn’s Employment Group.
As reported by journalist Amelia Heathman in the Evening Standard recently, anxiety is a growing issue in the UK. According to AnxietyUK, one in six adults experience some form of “neurotic health problem”, with anxiety and depression being the most common. The World Health Organisation predicts that by 2030, mental health problems will be the leading cause of mortality globally.
Ms Heathman goes on to report that, in the London tech scene, there is a growing trend of “workplace wellness” start-ups, aiming to tackle the wider effects of stress and anxiety on the UK’s working population. For instance, Spill, founded by Calvin Benton and Gavin Dhesi in 2017, is a therapy chat app, which aims to democratise access to counselling. Companies pay to access Spill’s services, and then offer it as a benefit to their employees.
In Ireland too, workplace wellness has moved centre stage with many employers introducing wellness programmes and initiatives which are designed to attract talent and also designed to proactively address absenteeism in the workplace. Employers are now realising that adopting an integrated approach to health and well-being in the workplace may be the best way forward from a business perspective.
In terms of talent attraction, younger generations are actively looking for employers with comprehensive wellness programmes in place. The composition of the Irish workforce is changing with millennials now making up a large percentage of the working population. By 2025, 75% of the workforce will be Gen Z and Gen Y. More and more, these generations are researching the culture of businesses and seeking information on wellness initiatives when considering potential employers. On a national level, the Irish Government launched its ‘Healthy Workplace’ initiative in April of this year which aims to establish a Healthy Workplace Framework across both public and private sectors to encourage and support the development of health and wellbeing programmes in all places of employment.
In recognition of the important of this issue for employers, the RDJ Employment Team have partnered with LAYA Healthcare to run events entitled “Absenteeism and Wellness in the Workplace”. The purpose of the events is to assist employers to develop a framework for managing absence and wellness in the workplace.
The question of course is how beneficial are such integrated wellness programmes from an organisational perspective? According to a 2018 Department of Health Research paper, “An Umbrella Review of the Effectiveness and Cost-Effectiveness of Workplace Wellbeing Programmes”, there is strong evidence that workplace health promotion programmes have a favourable effect on workability and sickness absences. Laya Healthcare has experienced a decrease in absenteeism and an increase in turnover over the last three years since the introduction of their integrated approach to workplace wellness.
Many more employers are reporting positive results following the introduction of training courses on mental health awareness in the workplace and initiatives such as wellness programmes, which ensure employees focus on both their physical and mental well-being.
More than ever before, employers need to be cognisant of how to handle employee health and wellbeing and how best to avoid any issues developing. Continued absences can have a significant impact on general staff morale and can affect the overall culture within a business. The introduction of a wellness programme is one of the key proactive steps employers can take to avoid high levels of absenteeism and employee turnover as well as boosting the overall productivity of the workforce.
When introducing a wellness programme, employers should step back and identify the key focus points for their specific business and employees. A self-assessment is a useful starting point to ascertain what currently works well within an organisation and to detect any areas of concern. Staff surveys can be utilised to identify what initiatives employees may be interested in and how to best implement the programme to ensure staff feel valued and motivated. In some instances, an organisation may be multi-site rather than single site, and it is therefore important to ensure that there is an even spread of activities and events across all sites. The concept of wellness is somewhat of an umbrella term for a wide range of topics. An organisation may choose to focus on a variety of areas such as:
More and more, employees are eating more than one meal a day at work which gives employers the chance to encourage positive eating habits by increasing awareness and accessibility to healthy foods. An organisation may choose to add health options to vending machines or provide fresh fruit to staff. Employers may also chose to educate their staff on the importance of balanced diet and may also organise informative events such as talks by nutritionists.
The World Health Organisation has reported that only 33% of Irish adults reached their recommended physical activity levels in 2018 . Given the high percentage of employees working in desk jobs in Ireland, employers should encourage their staff to take every opportunity to get active. Employers should organise a variety of physical activities tailored to every level of fitness such as lunchtime runs, “step challenges” or lunchtime yoga. Such a community spirit may encourage employees to get involved in more charity runs and cycles and may motivate staff to set goals in terms of improving their physical health.
As part of a wellness initiative, it may be beneficial for employers to encourage management to attend mental health manager workshops. Line managers play a crucial role in taking a positive and proactive approach to the promotion of mental wellbeing and prevention in the workplace. As key players, managers should regularly check in with all team members. Another key wellness initiative which is already provided by employers is the provision of an Employee Assistance Programme (“EAP”). Many employees and indeed management, may be unaware of the wide services that are offered by EAP, which is generally available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and are accessible by phone, email and online. They are usually designed to cover a wide range of issues including work, family and personal issues. Employers should invite their EAP provider to give a talk onsite to educate employees on what services are covered by the EAP. Details of the EAP should be provided to employees on a regular basis and management should speak openly with employees about the benefits of participating in such a programme.
Over 80% of organisations having employee assistance programs (EAP) in place, while 45% have specific mental health support and awareness programmes. However EAPs tend to support individuals when they are struggling, more is required to create a healthy working environment where employee well-being is centre stage.
According to Laya, typical EAP usage is at 3-4%. Companies with >10% usage start to show positive impact. Highest companies at present are at >20% usage – this is changing the dynamic. Laya is at 24% – this is an integral part of their wellness strategy
Employee Health and Safety
Including employee health and safety as a priority under a wellness initiative goes beyond an employer’s legal duties to provide a safe workplace. Employers should engage with employees on a regular basis to identify common workplace risks and strategise on how these risks could be best avoided. The design and layout of a workplace can also play an important role in any wellness initiative and organisations should be cognisant of any proactive steps that could be taken to minimise risk. Employers should also ensure that every employee has a VDU or ergonomic assessment of their workspace completed.
Employers should liaise regularly with staff to ensure wellness initiatives and programmes are adapted to reflect the needs of employees as the workforce develops. The cornerstone of any successful wellness initiative is strong leadership and the importance of management getting involved in activities as well as encouraging their teams to do the same cannot be understated!
 World Health Organization – Ireland Physical Activity Factsheet 2018 < http://www.euro.who.int/__data/assets/pdf_file/0005/382514/ireland-eng.pdf?ua=1>
This article is for general information purposes only and does not constitute legal or other professional advice. Specific legal advice should be sought on any particular matter.
About the author
Jennifer Cashman is Practice Group Leader of Ronan Daly Jermyn’s Employment Group. Her focus is on providing strategic business advice and practical, commercial solutions for clients across a range of industry sectors. She advises multinational companies in the technology, pharmaceutical, medical devices and diagnostics sectors and also provides employment advice to Public Authorities, Universities and a number of primary and secondary schools. Jennifer is a member of the Firm’s Cyber and Data Protection Team and advises on a broad range of data management issues including GDPR, data breaches, data subject rights, international data transfers, employee data and compliance training. Jennifer has considerable experience advising clients on the practical application of all aspects of employment law and HR issues.