Health, Safety & Wellbeing

HR: Health Resources? – July 2021

If you asked any HR professional at the beginning of 2020:
“How do you see your role changing in the next year?”,
None of them would have answered with:
“Protecting the employee population from a global pandemic.”
And yet…
HR has been the business area responsible for responding to most of the impact of COVID-19. We’ve been police, lawyers, firefighters, and counsellors.
Now, the unwinding of restrictions means HR can start focusing on business as usual. But it’d be wrong to think business as usual, will be business as before.

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Whilst May’s edition of Shaping Workplaces looked at the impact of the pandemic on working practices, in this one we’re looking at the impact on people.
Mental health has always been under-supported in the workplace, but it’s seeing a renewed focus as employers recognise their contribution to their employee’s ill-health.
Prior to the pandemic we’ve never thought ourselves responsible for illnesses sweeping the workplace. Equally, our health and safety has looked at accident prevention, and rarely the risks of sedentary lifestyles and job roles. Look at a call centre, for example, where workers are expected to remain seated at their phones outside of breaks (which are inevitably the legal minimum).
Could we also be about to see a wider change of attitudes to sickness in general? We’ve always been aware that coughs and sneezes spread diseases, but let’s be honest, we’ve never actually applied that to our sickness policies.


One change we might see is focusing on team illness levels, rather than individual sickness records.
Sure, Steven may have an unblemished attendance record, but he’s caused the other twenty members of his team to take 3 days absence each for flu.
That’s 60 sick days caused by Steven, and several deadlines missed. Should we really be giving him full marks at his annual review when it comes to attendance? Or should we be discussing his poor attitude to his colleague’s wellbeing?
After all, if this occured during the pandemic, Steven’s approach to sickness could have closed down the entire site!
But did Steven feel he needed to come in or face penalties? Would he not have been paid for the first three days of sickness? Would he have been unable to survive on statutory sick pay?
Many of our policies are so focused on tackling absence at an individual level that they actually cause it on a larger scale. These policies have been caught out by covid – but you can be certain many employers are expecting to reinstate them as soon as they can.


In a way, certainly for most of my career, we’ve been lucky. We’ve been able to encourage, incentivise and demand presenteeism, and our employees have responded with approval. But that’s changed. In just a year we’ve gone from complaining about having to pick up the workload of an absent colleague to glaring suspiciously at anyone with mild hayfever.
And with half an eye on a future pandemic, there’s no way we can go back to policies that encourage people to come in when sick. Which means two things. We need to make sure people aren’t infecting others. And we also need to make sure they’re not getting sick in the first place.
Even before the coronavirus pandemic far too many of us neglected our mental and physical health. Our working styles have been causing ill health, in the knowledge that health systems will fix the damage.


I can see two reasons why employers are running out of time to change their ways. 
The first is the ability of our health systems to deal with career affecting, but not life threatening, illnesses. The NHS, for example, has an elective treatment waiting list of over 5 million operations. Employers simply won’t be able to rely on employees being fixed up and returned to the workforce. We’re looking at long-term restricted duties, an increase in reasonable adjustments and an increase in absences.
The second reason is lack of mental health support. Mental health was underfunded before the pandemic, and some of the mental health implications of both the pandemic and lockdowns are terrifying.
You may have already seen the new report ‘Out of the Woods?’ from Resolution Foundation. Just one of its shocking finding was that fewer than half of respondents aged under 25 describe their mental health as ‘good’.
And we already know that mental health provision through the NHS is severely limited. Set against a backdrop of monumental waiting lists, we really can’t expect public services to deal with all of the impact.
Now, our employees have always had failing bodies and struggling minds. They are, after all, humans. But we’re about to enter a world where if the employer needs a fit and healthy workforce, they’ll need to bloody well make it happen themselves.
So expect to see increased focus on employee benefits like gym membership and workplace classes to improve baseline health; private healthcare to fix employees faster; access to on-demand mental health support.

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There’re a few things you can get started with immediately.


Review your employee benefits package. Private healthcare and support for healthy lifestyles is hugely desirable in a world where NHS support is more limited than we’re used to. It’ll also improve retention, reduce absences and showcase your employer brand.


Identify mental health weak spots. We can target and prioritise our efforts on those working in areas most at risk of suffering poor mental health. Mental health first aiders, awareness campaigns and toolkits are all low-cost, high-impact and uncontroversial initiatives that everyone in your organisation can get behind.


 Go back over all your wellbeing policies to identify discriminatory practices. Be devil’s advocate and approach every line as the most vexatious litigant you can imagine. Most wellbeing policies are written with the best of intentions – you’re encouraging employees to be healthier and happier. But it’s easy to exclude employees with different abilities or needs.
Most of the time the solution is as simple as developing an alternative with the same outcome or reward.

Next Steps

Our Health and Wellbeing guidance provides practical advice for line managers and HR when either implementing a new or revising an existing Health and Wellbeing Strategy.

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