Employer obligations for staff health and wellbeing
When it comes to ensuring the health and wellbeing of your staff, providing a comprehensive benefits package or reward scheme can go a long way – from helping with access to health services or something as simple as improving office morale, there are many ways to take care of your staff.
However, even if you're going above and beyond to support your staff with their health and wellbeing, there are still obligations that you have to meet by law to ensure your staff are safe. Here, we explore some of the main laws surrounding staff wellbeing.
Providing health and safety training
The idea of health and safety training can make anyone groan in despair – images of safety videos filmed in the late 80s, or embarrassing practice-runs of how to lift boxes properly immediately come to mind. However, it's essential not to forget about health and safety at work. Your employees should receive training in order to protect their health and wellbeing in the workplace, ensure best practice, and comply with the law.
The Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 requires employers to "provide whatever information, instruction, training and supervision as is necessary to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health and safety at work of your employees."
Work-related injuries are a leading cause of absence from work – and although the number of workplace injuries is falling, thousands are still injured every year in accidents that could be prevented with a little bit of awareness, and training of how to handle certain situations.
According to the HSE's statistics, in 2017/18:
- As many as 555,000 workers sustained a non-fatal injury at work – and this is likely to be a conservative estimate, due to under-reporting
- 420,000 employees took up to seven days off work as a result
- 135,000 took seven days or more off as a result.
Tragically, there were 144 deaths during this time as a result of a workplace accident, with the leading causes being a fall from height (35%) or being struck by a moving vehicle (26%). These causes are by no means confined to industries where you might expect risk to be higher, such as in construction or manufacturing. Even people working in offices can trip, slip, or injure themselves while carrying heavy items.
Check the HSE's guide to ensure as an employer, you’re doing everything you need to do, to provide appropriate health and safety training. For example, are you providing freelancers and independent contractors who work with you with training? Do you have first aiders? Are you working in an old building with a risk of asbestos exposure?
The eight-hour day might seem long sometimes, but the concept of "eight hours' labour, eight hours' recreation, eight hours’ rest" was hard fought for by campaigners in the 19th Century. Today the laws have progressed far further than their initial goal of protecting child labourers, and now employees of all ages enjoy the benefits of rules that entitle them to:
- One uninterrupted 20-minute rest break during a work day longer than six hours
- At least 11 hours of rest between the end of one work day and the beginning of another
- 24 hours without work each week – or 48 hours each fortnight.
This is, of course, is the absolute minimum, and ensuring staff are able to take regular breaks during the day and have adequate time between shifts (particularly when overtime is involved) is essential to promoting employee wellbeing. These breaks are important for reducing fatigue and exhaustion – which can cause a reduction in reaction times, cause memory lapses, reduce awareness, cause people to take risks, reduce productivity and cause injury.
Employees are entitled to time off – both holiday time, and sick pay. Many employees avoid taking time off for ill health because they're afraid of getting into trouble, but employers must allow staff time off without the threat of losing their job.
The government advises that employers can only dismiss an employee who has been absent due to long-term sickness (more than four weeks) as a last resort, and must first consider ways for an employee to return to work in either a different role, or on a part-time or flexible basis, and must discuss all potential options with them. An employee has the right to go to an employment tribunal if they think their dismissal on the grounds of ill health was unfair.
Organisations legally have to give their employees time off sick if requested. There is no obligation for an employer to provide full sick pay – or even any – although Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) must be given if employees have been ill for more than four days in a row, and must be paid for up to 28 weeks if needed. Also, employers cannot force employees to use annual leave in place of sick leave.
Speaking of annual leave, almost all workers in the UK are legally entitled to 5.6 weeks' paid holiday every year. Holiday is pro-rata, so if an employee only works one day a week, they're entitled to five and a half days of holiday time. Those who work a five-day week must receive 28 days' paid annual leave. This leave entitlement includes bank holidays – so you can dictate that your staff take bank holidays off as part of their leave. However, if your staff work bank holidays, they must receive another day off in exchange.
Display Screen Equipment
With roughly 60% of the UK's workforce using computers with internet access at work, we are well and truly in an age where computers dominate the workplace more than any other tool. Common sense (and parents everywhere) has always said that spending all day staring at a screen is bad for your eyes, but that's not all – excessive use of computers without adequate breaks, or when using equipment that is not set up and maintained properly, has been linked to a number of conditions, including:
- Musculoskeletal problems such as limb problems and backache, mostly caused by bad posture or unsupportive furniture
- Repetitive stress injury (RSI) from carrying out the same tasks (mouse and keyboard use) over and over
- Vision problems, eye strain and headaches caused by screen usage and light levels.
If your staff are sat in front of a computer screen all day, the Health and Safety (Display Screen Equipment) Regulations 1992 states that they should be able to take breaks from the screen, and that their display screen equipment (DSE) should be set up in a way that is optimised for safe use. DSE covers any computer or display screen, including laptops and touch screens.
As an employer, you have a duty to assess your employees' workstations to ensure there are no risks, provide training on safe use, and if requested provide eye tests for employees if requested. For a guide to proper DSE use, the HSE's guide is an excellent place to start.