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Fit for work: why you should take workplace health seriously

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Creating a healthy workplace might seem like one more corporate burden. But an environment where employees’ wellbeing is protected, encouraged and enabled has a multitude of benefits that outweigh the initial investment required.

After all absence from sickness can be extremely corrosive to both budgets and business if left to fester, so doing everything possible to ensure people don’t fall ill at work makes sense. A survey looking at sickness absence published by manufacturers’ body the EEF in 2006 found a definite relationship between those who addressed staff illness by improving workplace conditions and better business performance.

The World Health Organisation carried out research in 2011 that showed how healthy workplaces had a huge role to play in people wellbeing, leading to better physical and mental health. Keeping your workforce healthy will not only help boost your staff morale, but also help showcase your corporate social responsibility. Here we look at why you should and how you can create a healthy place to work.

A healthy workplace can mean less sick leaveAccording to the Health and Safety Executive, over 27 million days a year are lost to work-related illness and injuries, so maintaining a healthy workplace is a serious matter.

Guidelines published by the NHS Staff Council in 2012 also stated some of the risks at work. From workers being exposed to dangerous chemicals in the workplace to poor lighting and inadequate refreshment facilities, failing to look after your workforce can have a detrimental effect on business.

Getting the basics right is a good place to start. Your staff will spend a lot of time at work and, ensuring high standards of hygiene and cleanliness are met is vital. Giving your workforce adequate access to kitchen and toilet facilities that are cleaned rigorously and regularly with specialist cleaning bleaches and chemicals is essential – make sure this is done on a daily basis at a minimum to combat potential germs, especially in the washrooms. Keep soap supplies replenished at all times, and place hand sanitising stations around the office.

Make waste management a priority, by having all your office bins emptied regularly. From the waste paper bin next to your employee's desks, to the food waste bins in the kitchen, having well-suited bags will ensure any rubbish is disposed of correctly and, more importantly, hygienically.

Design for health
Good ergonomic design – where the workspace fits an employee’s individual needs – has a major role to play in creating a healthy working environment. High quality seating, regularly inspected and replaced when faulty, and desks at the right height, are basic essentials that will cost you less than extended periods of sick leave.

Getting the seating right is important but there is more that you can do to prevent injuries such as back pain or carpal tunnel syndrome (an occupational hazard for people who type at a keyboard for prolonged periods). It may seem counter-intuitive but encouraging your employees to take regular breaks can make them more productive.

Keeping your staff engaged and happy
It’s not just about them turning up to the office – showing your employees that their health matters is a powerful tool for keeping them engaged and motivated. It will also show the world that you’re a responsible business that knows how to look after its most valuable asset

Our working culture often rewards people for the number of hours they put in – with employees feeling that they need to be seen to be present for long hours if their workload dictates so. However, research shows that this has a negative impact on the quality of the work that those ever-present employees are producing.

It seems that we all have a limited tank of cognitive resources, which are progressively drained when we continually work without a break. Non-stop working leads to negative stress reactions which prevent people from concentrating and can build up over time and damage emotional and mental wellbeing. Taking a pause from work is essential to allow creativity and thinking power to be replenished. Allowing your employees to take a ‘micro-break’ away from the computer can be effective.

Regular refuelling is essential to keeping the brain working at its best. People will only feel empowered to do this if they are encouraged to do so, and the best way to make this happen is to lead by example. Taking a walk at lunchtime, leaving work on time and taking your annual leave are good ways to start.

The extra mile
Once you have taken care of the basics – by creating a clean, well-lit and ergonomically designed workplace where people are encouraged not to burn out through stress and long hours – it may be time to think of taking that extra next step. Workplace stress, anxiety and depression account for almost 450,000 sick days a year, according to the Labour Force Survey, so introducing new ideas to help them stay refreshed and relaxed whilst on the job, and get them up and out of their seats is key to a healthy mentality. 

This is true even in physically active people – going on a run before work won’t counteract the harm caused by sitting in the same position throughout the working day. Think of ways to get your employees moving – such as walking meetings, or encouraging face-to-face conversations instead of emails.

Embracing your corporate responsibility
Taking all of the above into consideration, it is your responsibility to ensure that workplace health is taken seriously. By keeping your employees well looked after, as well as developing an active, hygienic office environment, you will be seen as a sociably responsible company, who takes all aspects of their staff's working day into consideration to meet the needs and demands of everyday business.

Not only will you be looked upon more favourably by your workforce, as you're looking out for their wellbeing, you'll receive acknowledgement from your industry and wider business world. Becoming a leader in employee wellbeing will stand you and your company in good stead externally, and in the long run you'll be able to reap the benefits of a healthy workplace.

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