Nanny State: Should workplace health be dictated by employers or the government?

Posted by Dieter Wood on 16/10/2015

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As a nation, how can we adapt our workspaces to encourage our workforce to be healthier? 

Last week I went to a meeting on the fifth floor of a major office building in central Bristol. I wanted to take the stairs. The staircase wasn’t immediately obvious. Once I had found it hidden round the corner I tried to open the door. I couldn’t. It was locked. I spent another few minutes persuading the busy receptionist to find the key and come and unlock it for me.  This was not nudging healthy behaviours. It was the opposite. This was discriminating against healthy behaviours. It got me thinking about the government’s role in encouraging health behaviours in the workplace. 

Conveniently some new guidelines on employee wellbeing have just been published from the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE). NICE is considered the number one authority on health and they provide national guidance on health issues on behalf of the Department of Health.  These latest guidelines address workplace policy and management practices that aim to improve the health and wellbeing of employees.

Work related illness leads to absences totalling about 27 million working days a year which costs the economy a very significant £13.4 billion. From an individual business’ point of view, it has a large influence on service delivery. Absence is a key indicator of how well an organisation is managed. Most of the adult population spends the majority of their waking hours at work. So this was a great opportunity for NICE to make some clear recommendations about how we can adapt our workspaces to encourage our workforce to be healthier. 

And what did NICE recommend?

The guidance is aimed at employers, senior leadership and managers, human resource teams, and all those with a remit for workplace health. It covers a range of areas such as organisational commitment, physical work environment, organisational culture and leadership style of line managers.

They state that there should be an organisation-wide commitment to making health and wellbeing a core priority for top management. Health and wellbeing should be incorporated into all relevant corporate policies and communications, for example, by ensuring employees work reasonable hours and have regular breaks.

Notably, the main focus is on organisational culture and on psychological wellbeing rather than physical health and the workplace. 

So what recommendations were made for the physical work environment?

“Employers, senior leadership and managers, human resource teams, and all those with a remit for workplace health should:

  • Develop and implement workplace policies and procedures to reflect statutory requirements and existing best practice (for example, manual handling and display screen equipment).
  • Ensure all facilities and equipment are clean, safe, well maintained and of a good standard.”​

And that’s it. What a lost opportunity! 

Breakout in Curo, Bath

The breakout space in Curo acts as a real Hub and offers a dynamic and comfortable area for staff to socialise, prepare and eat lunch.

Earlier this year Interaction wrote about how we can use workplace design to nudge employees towards healthier behaviours at work. There are so many different ways of doing this. But the new guidelines said nothing about active design. What about strategic positioning of staircases and lifts, the provision of sit-stand desks, or changing rooms and showers for cyclists? They did mention that employees should take regular breaks. But that is as far as they went. Nothing about providing attractive, well-equipped breakout spaces to encourage employees to take a proper break and prepare and eat fresh, healthy food.

Of course wellbeing is very important. But the guidelines don’t acknowledge that wellbeing is challenged equally by poor physical health as it is by management and leadership style. It is not news that encouraging people to be more active and eat healthily increases their energy and concentration, and therefore their effectiveness and productivity. So how are we going to achieve a significantly more effective and productive workplace?

Why didn’t the guidance go a little further by setting out some minimum requirements for encouraging physical health and preventing illness in the workplace? The World Green Building Council have recently set out a simple, high level framework for relating the physical features of buildings to organisational outcomes. It would be beneficial to the economy, employers and employees alike if NICE could pay more attention to these issues in the future.

Shower rooms at Homelets of Bath and Regulatory Finance Solutions, Swindon.

“Health-promoting workplaces are obviously good for millions of employees and ultimately for taxpayers too, so the time is right for all employers - including the NHS - to raise our game.”

Simon Stevens, Chief Executive of NHS England

Interaction Insight | How can we encourage healthier workplaces?

Nanny state?

Perhaps you think it would be too ‘nanny state’ if the government started making rules and recommendations about what employers should do to encourage their employees to be healthy. Let’s consider an example from Health and Safety in relation to construction. This was one of the most dangerous industries with comparatively high fatality rates. HSE laws are often thought of as a burden. But since the Health, Safety and Welfare in Construction Regulations were introduced in 1996 both fatality and injury rates have dropped significantly.

Opinion is often divided on whether we should dictate to people how they should live their lives. Isn’t it up to the individual about how much exercise they get and what they eat?  Of course it is.  But the success by the HSE shows us that intervention is beneficial. If we want our employees to be healthier and happier because that makes them more productive, and it has been shown that this can be achieved by making simple changes like introducing sit stand desks and providing better breakout spaces, then why not at least set out some basic guidelines?

Do you think the guidelines went far enough? Have you got an exemplar healthy office or would you like one? We’d love to hear from you with your ideas, comments and questions.

If you would like some suggestions for making your workplace healthier, take a look at my article on healthy workplaces from earlier this year.

If you are interested in the full NICE guidelines NG13, June 2015 you can read them here.