From the TUC

Work and Well-being – How to get involved

11 Dec 2015, By

In the past year or so far more employers in the UK have been introducing “well-being” schemes in the workplace. This follows a trend that we have seen in the USA where 70% of Fortune 200 companies and half of companies with over 50 staff have such programmes and over $6 billion is spent on workplace well-being initiatives. So is it good or bad? Well, like most employers initiatives, the answer is “it depends”.

Firstly, what is well-being? Usually it is defined as “the state of being comfortable, healthy, or happy”, although it is sometimes portrayed as “the absence of physical and mental illness”.

Now, using either of these definitions, if you want to improve the general well-being of workers then it is pretty simple. There is  irrefutable evidence that the biggest determinant of health is income, and that poorer people have worse health and shorter lifespans. So if you want to improve health through work, increase wages and reduce social inequalities.

We also know that one of the biggest barriers to mental well-being is stress, so again the answer is pretty clear – manage and reduce stress. The same applies to many other causes of ill-health such as back pain, asthma and many cancers. Often they are caused by work with 1.2 million people currently in work suffering from an illness that they believe is caused by work. The best way to improve their well-being is to prevent these illnesses in the first place. Even problems like diabetes, alcohol abuse and heart problems can be caused or made work by work and so can be prevented by changing how work is organised or managed.

Part of the problem with many of the well-being initiatives is that they do not tackle the causes. They put the emphasis on the worker, rather than changing the work. Instead of removing stress, they seek to help the worker deal with it through “mindfulness training” or cognitive behavioural therapy. Now these may help a person suffering from stress-related depression or anxiety, but they are not a substitute for preventing the illness in the first place.

Well-being initiatives also very rarely look at another cause of unhappiness and stress at work which is personal relationships, such as bullying or bad management. Promoting dignity at work is just as important a part of well-being as providing fresh fruit or subsidised gym membership.

And of course many of the “well-being” initiatives are aimed at professional people with groups like cleaners, catering workers etc. rarely included or considered. Research from Scandinavia showed that workplace initiatives were more than twice as likely to be aimed at management, however even if they are open to all, they are not always suitable. Lunchtime yoga classes are not of much use to groups like canteen staff who work irregular hours.

There are also cases of employers excluding trade unions from involvement in issues around well-being by appointing their own well-being champions or well-being committees rather than encouraging union health and safety representatives to be involved. Even the National Institute for Care and Excellence, who have produced what is meant to be the most authoritative guidance on well-being, recommend that employers set up “staff engagement forums”, rather than work jointly with unions. Yet, given the huge link between well-being and prevention, especially on issues such as stress, joint health and safety committees should be an integral part of well-being work in any workplace.

In fact unions are doing a huge amount to help promote well-being at work in a positive way that is making a difference. Examples like the “Constructing Better Health” which involves both unions and employers in the construction industry, or the Northern TUC’s “Healthy Workplaces” project are having a massive impact on the lives of those in the workplaces they cover.

The TUC has drawn on this experience and produced a 30 page guide to what union activists can practically do to help promote good health and well-being in the workplace, including supporting some of the initiatives that are being run by outside bodies.

The workplace is a place where many people spend perhaps a third, or more, of their waking hours, so it is only right that we should look at whether there is a role in helping prevent major public health issues such as obesity, depression, and drug or alcohol abuse. The TUC guide will help signpost what you can do and also avoid some of the pitfalls.

So let’s make sure that we embrace the idea of promoting well-being in the workplace, but on our terms, not theirs, and never forget what an employer, Martin Temple of the Engineering Employers Federation, once said ““Those who promote well-being in the workplace should not allow it to be confused with health and safety requirements”.