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Well@Work – SME Workplace Health and Wellbeing in the post-pandemic era of hybrid working

Well@Work – SME Workplace Health and Wellbeing in the post-pandemic era of hybrid working

In November 2020, a report by the UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE) (Labour Force Survey 2019/20)confirmed that 828,00 workers were suffering from work-related stress, depression or anxiety. A further 17.9 million working days were noted as lost due to work-related stress, depression, or anxiety.

Early on during the pandemic, in the UK, (Holmes et al (2020) expressed the view that digital responses such as apps have an important role to play in supporting workers who are experiencing isolation or long periods away from family, friends and work.

Now in the UK…

The number of private-sector businesses in the UK at the start of 2022 was

5.5 million

5.47 million businesses were small (0 to 49 employees)

(UK Office of National Statistics, 2022)

That is to say that over 90% o UK businesses are small businesses.

The vast majority of Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) have always lacked the dedicated Occupational Health and Safety and Human Resources support enjoyed by larger organisations. Now in a new post-pandemic era, the lack of such dedicated support has meant the health and wellbeing risks associated with home and hybrid working have not been addressed.

The business case for investing in health and wellbeing at work is well-documented and compelling. New estimates according to research by the European Network for Health Promotion (2022), show that work-related accidents and illnesses cost the EU at least EUR 476 billion every year.  The cost of work-related cancers alone amounts to EUR 119.5 billion.

Presenteeism or workers being present at work, but because of illness or other medical conditions, are not fully functioning – can cut individual productivity by one-third or more and is estimated to cost more than work-related ill-health and injury. Presenteeism is often linked to mental health issues such anxiety and stress. These are defined by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as the primary causes of burnout.

Th idea of digital wellbeing at work is a relatively new. It has many facets, including issues of workload, over-dependence/use of online communication, and reduced social interaction. It also has implications for productivity, management style and practice. Employee health and wellbeing has been brought sharply into focus by the COVID-19 pandemic. It has seen more and more people working from home or teleworking – connected by email and platforms such as Zoom, Teams and Slack.

Prior to the pandemic just 5% of the EU workforce were considered as teleworkers. The CoOVID-19 pandemic brought about a near 250% increase in their numbers, and while there will be some reduction in the short term as the risks of Covid recede, the perceived benefits of teleworking, improving technology and a changing labour market mean that large-scale teleworking is likely to remain.

This can offer many benefits for employees, employers, and for society as a whole. However, it is important that proactive actions are taken by all relevant parties to maximise these benefits and minimise potential risks. Unfortunately, the rapid expansion of home-working has meant that workplace and leadership culture and practice have often been unable to keep up. Teleworking is also described as – hybrid-working, full-time home working,  part-time working from home, centre-based working, mobile working, with some time spent in the workplace and other time working remotely.

These new forms of work pose challenges to both employer and employee in relation to a wide range of issues. These include management practice, meeting health and safety obligations, workload management, and the policy and practice on how and when computer based  technology is used to support the work process. For these reasons, it is crucial that measures addressing these issues focus on promoting the health of teleworkers within the wider context of workplace health promotion and health and safety especially within SMEs.

Recent decades have seen a rapid growth in the type and amount of computer- mediated work for most of the labour force across Europe. Integration with telecommunications has enabled work to be performed at a distance from workplaces as well as increasing the level of communications through e-mails, videoconferences, and social media. Taken together, these technological developments have transformed the nature and location of work, it’s timing during the workday, and how work is managed. They have increased the possibilities for productive work, the inclusion of groups who were previously excluded from the labour market and the skill levels of those who participate in it.

At the same time, these changes can have negative 24/7, electronic workload monitoring may be intrusive and relationships with supervisors and peers may deteriorate. These issues can lead to health and wellbeing challenges such as burnout.

In addition to these long-term trends, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought many profound changes to all aspects of society. The most significant change in relation to work and employment has been this explosion of digitally enabled hybrid working, with tens of millions of employees being provided with new and more flexible options on where, when and how they work.

We already understand the many benefits that digital technology brings to our working lives. It includes the enabling of teleworking at scale, with consequent huge increases in productivity, competitiveness, and innovation. Equally, it can increase the risks to employee mental health and wellbeing, The unrestricted use of technology beyond the traditional workplace can increase risk factors such as the negative effects of multitasking, in a 24/7 culture, with increased screen time and mobile device use.

The rapid pace and scale of change that took place due to COVID-19 accelerated this. While some employers had the experience to draw upon in scaling up their response, many line managers and their staff, had none, and were left to navigate this transition on the strength of often limited and generic advice published as part of wider COVID-19 guidance.

Due to its relatively recent emergence as a large-scale working practice, it is inevitable that there is little evidence specific to the cost benefit and impact of digital wellbeing at work.  There is a clear case for expanding and funding research in this area.

An NHS  Scotland Healthy Working Lives (2017) survey identified barriers to SMEs’ uptake of OHS as including:

  • Absenteeism not seen as a problem, despite evidence to the contrary
  • Presenteeism not acknowledged
  • The cost of engaging with external OHS providers
  • Too complicated and not enough time
  • OHS provision seen as nice to have as opposed to must have, despite awareness of duty of care legislation.

A digital approach to supporting SMEs to overcome these barriers could be based on an affordable blend of:

  • Engaging, motivating, and rewarding employees to continue to engage with programmes
  • Providing users with personalised feedback
  • Cost reduction through an automated blend of digital technologies that reduces dependency on face-to-face clinical consultations.
  • Focusing on the main reasons for absenteeism and presenteeism – for example, managing weight, mental health, alcohol, and drugs (both prescribed and controlled drugs) and muscular skeletal (e.g. back pain) issues
  • A mobile (smartphone/tablet) web-portal that can also be accessed from laptop and desktop computers
  • An engaging user interface e.g., dashboard reporting at a personal level
  • Personalised rewards
  • Supervised self-management with remote online consultations with OH practitioners
  • Real-time dashboard access and automated digital result reporting with notifications of next assessment ref compliance
  • Discounted data costs
  • Champions within each SME – could be linked to first-aiders including mental health first-aiders.

Such a digitally enabled environment could empower employees and employers to work towards developing sustainable personalised pathways to health and wellbeing in the workplace. If implemented it could help employers gain a reputation as a preferred employer, helping to attract and retain the most talented employees.

According to a recent article in the Harvard Business Review (Kalev & Dobbin, 2022), almost every employee, in order to succeed, needs support with their work/life balance at some point. They suggest that this ought to apply to employees at every level in a business. The data suggests that this applies especially to those engaged in what might be regarded as mundane and less emotionally rewarding tasks.

Kavlev and Dobbin note that,

Covid-19 provided the ultimate proof of the concept that firms can remain efficient while allowing employees more leeway in where and when they do their work: Even though millions switched to flexible and remote work arrangements during the pandemic, productivity didn’t decline. But as the pandemic faded, many companies reverted to what executives still perceive as their safe place: office work. However, two-thirds of Covid-era remote workers report that they don’t want to return to the office. When required to, many who can afford to resign do just that. Others who appreciate the extra time they’ve had with their families negotiate to keep their newfound flexibility. In fact, in a recent survey, 64% of employees at top companies said they would forgo a $30,000 raise if it meant they didn’t have to return to the office.

It is likely that this finding is replicated in SMEs globally in most developed economies. The increased ownership and use of smartphones during the COVID-19 pandemic has been key to this. It is an opportunity to implement digital OH programmes that reach out to and engage with previously unreachable employees. Moreover, it can offer a more holistic approach whereby employees’ families can join in and benefit from an online programme. Thus, improving the work/life balance of whole families and even extended families.

Well-designed work/life programmes that adopt a holistic approach can be a remarkably effective OH tool for employees and employers alike. Research suggests that when employees don’t have to worry about how to negotiate for time off to get to a school concert, ask for additional paternal or maternal leave to care for an unwell baby or a partner who isn’t coping, or to just help with everyday childcare, they can concentrate on their work. And when managers look at employees’ real contribution to the bottom-line rather than the time they spend in the workplace, they can focus on ensuring that their teams are performing to the best of their abilities.

COVID-19 highlighted that flexibility in where and when employees do their work doesn’t need to have a negative impact on the effectiveness of employees.  It may even improve it. The widespread reluctance described by Kavlev and Dobbin, to returning to the office confirms how important work/life balance has become to employees.

Many digital health programmes fail because they offer no inducement or motivation for the end users to remain engaged. Research by Pollock et al (2020) and other researchers indicates that if cohorts of participants from the target audience and involved are involved, from the very start, in co-designing digital OH programmes, there is a much greater chance of success. Pollock et al contend that flexible interventions that are visually attractive, culturally appropriate, adaptable and/or able to be tailored to meet local needs are key to successful implementation. They also are of the opinion that organisational incentives and rewards for employees are important in engaging, motivating and retaining employees with digital OH programmes. Such rewards require to be personal to the recipients. They could include, for example, discounts on healthy food options at supermarkets, gym memberships on mobile phone data, on tickets to sporting events and concerts. The ambition has to be to recruit, motivate and retain employees for the long term.

In summary and to quote Kavlev and Dobbin,

Employers sometimes worry about the bother or cost of implementing work/life programmes, but what they should really worry about is the bother and cost of not implementing them. Specifically, they should be concerned about losing workers who are good at their jobs, about the cost of finding and training their replacements, and about losing the battle for diverse talent.

The bottom line is simple: It’s time at last for firms to acknowledge that every employee has a life outside the organisation and to adopt programs that have been proven to help balance it with work demands. Why not give everyone a shot at success?

Alan White & Steve Bell, 2023



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