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Health > safety: how to improve workplace wellbeing

Photo shows a healthy lunch optionModern day employees can receive training for site safety, fire safety, construction safety, food safety, and a million subjects besides. In short, safety is a pretty tightly controlled and well understood discipline. Yet many of the industries where health & safety training and protocols are most prominent - manufacturing and construction, for instance - also have the most severe issues with mental health. It seems the H in H&S is not being given the same level of attention.

The majority of employees in these industries are men - and it’s men who are overwhelmingly affected by suicide, which is the leading cause of death in men under 35. In addition, a shocking 454 construction workers took their lives in 2015; this is four times the industry average, and more than ten times the number of deaths by other causes. Long hours, as well as a widespread ‘macho culture’ may be to blame, but so is the failure to address these issues on the part of businesses and industries.

Lunch breaks

Lunch breaks aren’t just an opportunity to refuel - they’re a break from the bustle of the working day, and an opportunity to put your obligations to one side, at least for a short time. A longer lunch break gives employees the time to have a proper lunch in the destination of their choosing, and perhaps even run errands, freeing up time in the evening. This is particularly important if your facility or worksite is some distance from the cafeteria or local amenities; a 20 or 30 minute break often isn’t enough when factoring in travel and a toilet break.

It’s also important to provide options other than eating at workstations or on site. While employees may enjoy this option, it is not only unhygienic, but also does not represent a proper break from work. Work will still be on your mind, and if you’re in an office, you will likely be staring at your screen again. The HSE recommends (but does not enforce) a 5-10 min screen break for every single hour of computer use, but few employers actually implement this. Ensuring that lunch breaks also provide rest from screen use is an important compromise to ensure good eye health.

Paid leave

While many employees do genuinely enjoy their work, we all need a break from time to time. For those people struggling with anxiety and other mental illnesses, the pressures of work - such as deadlines, meetings and presentations - can easily lapse into their home lives. Proper breaks and holidays are crucial to demarcating your work life and home life, and setting aside time to fully relax and recuperate.

The more holiday you can provide, the better. However, it’s equally important to ensure that people take their holiday, and don’t feel obliged to work through the year. A target-driven culture is likely to annul the benefits of holiday, and make people feel as though they cannot take time off due to illnesses or emergencies. Apart from impacting on people’s mental health - as they can not delegate time to forget about work - coming into work while ill often spreads the illness, negatively impacting on productivity.

You should also try to limit the impact of work on employees’ home lives. France has now enshrined in law the ‘right to disconnect’, whereby employees cannot be expected to answer calls, texts or emails outside of work hours. While no such protection exists yet in the UK, you can always choose to apply this as a business. A proper work/life balance is essential in allowing people to truly relax at home, and get the rest and recuperation they may need to start the next day afresh.

Work environment

If your job is office bound, the working environment should be designed to eliminate distractions - yet it can often be a source of discomfort. Noise is a common issue, and an unwanted side effect of the much vaunted ‘open office’ design. A less obvious example however is the brightness of lights, and how they interact with the decor. Strong lights and bright colours can be disorienting and cause eye strain, while dim lights can cause fatigue.

An absence of natural light has the same effect, interfering with our Circadian rhythms and impacting on our mental health. There has also been some research done into the effects that different colours have on productivity and fatigue, with some suggestions that yellow promotes creativity, and green reduces stress. This is hotly disputed, but a splash of colour in the workplace will certainly make it a more interesting place to work.

Another factor in workplace comfort is temperature. The optimal office temperature often differs between men and women, as well as different age groups. Too warm and you can cause fatigue; too cold and you can cause discomfort, distracting employees and making them ill. Employees should be polled for their preferences, and where possible adjustments to office layouts should be made to accommodate all preferences.

Proper HVAC maintenance and placement is also important, as this can potentially spread & exacerbate illness. Air quality improvements can increase productivity by as much as 11% according to the World Green Building Council, with pollutants like dust contributing to long term illness and allergies. This doesn’t have to take the form of an expensive HVAC system - it can be as simple as buying some potted plants, and using non-toxic cleaning products.

Healthy lifestyles

While it shouldn’t be taken as a cure, the simplest and most effective treatments for anxiety, stress and depression are a good diet and plenty of exercise. Improving productivity and happiness could be as straightforward as incentivising this behaviour through the workplace - in other words, providing the means and the encouragement for employees to exercise and eat well.

Some employers have gone as far as to offer staff Fitbits, or used other apps and devices to physically track their activities. If this doesn’t fit your business - for privacy reasons or otherwise - there are other approaches. If you have a canteen or cafe, look to provide healthier options at lunchtimes, and make these cheaper or part of a reward scheme.

Any vending machines should also provide healthier snacks, such as fruit and cereal bars. Be careful however - even seemingly healthy snacks can be full of sugar, which may be even more detrimental to health than fats and salt. Staying hydrated is also important to maintaining concentration, so providing water coolers closer to workstations could make a big difference.

None of these suggestions should take the place of proper treatment, and the most effective way to deal with mental illness is still to talk about it. However, changing the culture and stigma around mental illness, particularly in the more stubborn industries, is as much about tangible actions as words and well-wishing. By making some of the changes above, you can foster a more welcoming climate for people with problems, and help to stem issues from arising to begin with.


Author bio:

This post was contributed by Lee Sadd, a senior trainer and consultant at health & safety firm SAMS Ltd. SAMS is a leading provider of online safety training, and offers a range of classroom courses, business advisory services and event management solutions.

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