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Employer responsibilities in a digital world

A lot of how we avoid burn-out depends on a conscientious employer. We take a look at the responsibilities our employers have.
Rumpelstiltskin checks up on the straw-weaving.
© CC0 - Warwick Goble

Studies show that work should generally be good for your health: it gives many of us self-esteem, companionship and status (Acas, 2012). The impact work has on our health and wellbeing is reliant on a range of factors which fall into both employer and employee responsibilities. So what should our employers be doing to ensure our health, safety and welfare at work?

Under health and safety laws, although these will vary across jurisdictions, employers have a duty of care to protect the health, safety, and welfare of their employees (HSE, 2014). The laws entitle all workers to work in environments where risks to health and safety are properly controlled. In the UK the Health and Safety at Work Act (1974) places the primary responsibility with the employer.

In the past the employer focus has been on the safety of employees in the workplace, minimising the physical hazards. Now there is a growing concern around work-life balance, including its relationship to digital technologies. Employers are becoming more aware of the relationships between our jobs and our mental and physical wellbeing. In the UK, mental ill health is the most common cause of long-term sickness absence (59% – CIPD Heath and Well-being at Work Survey 2020). 37% of organisations reported that over the past year stress-related absence had increased, and only 9% reported that it had decreased (CIPD, 2020). The top three causes of stress-related absence were:

  • 60% workloads / volume of work
  • 41% management style
  • 27% non-work factors

The increase in workloads, a culture of long working hours, and periods of job insecurity, have also lead to a culture of presenteeism: 89% of respondents to the CIPD survey reported observing presenteeism. This culture can result in mental ill health and increased stress for employees, which can lead to long-term sickness.

In the UK, employers have a legal duty to protect employees from stress at work by doing, and acting on, a risk assessment (Health and Safety Executive). Stress is defined as ‘the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressure or other types of demand placed on them’ (HSE). An employee may feel stressed when they can’t cope with the demands made by their employers. The HSE identify a number of areas that can affect stress levels, including:

  • Demands
  • Control
  • Support
  • Relationships
  • Role
  • Change
There can be stigma associated with workplace stress and mental health issues, making it difficult for employees to talk about issues and report problems. The Stevenson / Farmer review of mental health and employers, commissioned by the UK Prime Minister in January 2017, stated we should take the position that:
The correct way to view mental health is that we all have it and we fluctuate between thriving, struggling and being ill and possibly off work.

The review identified employers as the group with the potential to have the greatest impact and scope to make changes and create a positive and supportive workplace, with a culture where mental illness is stigma free. It proposes a set of ‘mental health core standards’ – a framework of set actions which all organisations are capable of implementing quickly to promote mental health and wellbeing. These mental health core standards are:

  • Produce, implement and communicate a mental health at work plan;

  • Develop mental health awareness among employees;

  • Encourage open conversations about mental health and the support available when employees are struggling;

  • Provide employees with good working conditions and ensure they have a healthy work life balance and opportunities for development;

  • Promote effective people management through line managers and supervisors;

  • Routinely monitor employee mental health and wellbeing.

The introduction of health and wellbeing initiatives and strategies can start to address cultures of presenteeism, high workloads, and ‘always on’ approaches. They can improve employee health and develop a culture where mental health is talked about openly. Employees also need to take on responsibilities within the organisation to make positive changes to promote their own health and wellbeing. As we’ve already explored this week, this can include strategies for switching off outside of work.

© University of York (author: Susan Halfpenny)
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