It’s not so very long ago workers were expected to ‘clock in’ for work each day and at the same time leave their personal life at the factory/office door. Personal issues were not supposed to affect or impact productivity or distract focus from the tasks at hand.
Back in the 1960s and 70s, most working environments were still very ‘male’ and the overriding culture was that work and personal life were very separate. Looking back, we might wryly smile at this situation with a sense of nostalgia; time moves on and we are much more enlightened these days, aren’t we?
Although a façade of compartmentalising work and life may have been presented by many workers in the past, I think we all now acknowledge that work and personal life issues are intimately linked – a bad day at the office is likely to impact life at home and conversely personal/family problems can’t always be left at the workplace door.
Having said this, there are still some people who feel that personal life shouldn’t impact on work, so let’s look at providing some details as to why they are mistaken and how enlightened employers can support their employees with personal issues, not only because that’s a good thing to do but also because it will have a direct impact on improving productivity.
German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer said, ‘Health isn’t everything, but without it, everything else is nothing’.
An employee with a physical health issue is inevitably going to spend time away from work, either ill or attending appointments/treatment. Even while in work they may be distracted by their condition or worrying about it. An employee with a health issue can’t just switch it off and forget about it at work.
Employers can support these employees by trying to understand how their health impacts on their day-to-day life. Obviously, one shouldn’t pry into personal health issues, but some insight into the situation will help the employer comprehend the effect of the illness. The Equality Act 2010 gives employees the right to request ‘reasonable adjustment’ to their work to accommodate disability/health needs. This could include flexible working, change in working hours, and many other modifications. The key is the fact that changes should be ‘reasonable’; however, businesses should also be sympathetic. Providing support for an employee with a health issue can help to minimise the effect on the business:
- The employee is likely to feel valued and more engaged with the business. When their condition allows, they are more likely to be as productive as possible.
- They are more likely to enhance the reputation of the business by extolling the support provided by the employer to colleagues, friends and family.
- Colleagues seeing a fellow worker being supported in a time of need are also likely to be more engaged.
This is a more difficult situation; an employee’s chaotic lifestyle will obviously impact on their performance and it may be difficult to provide support. The only solution in some cases may be disciplinary.
Examples could be:
- Regularly arriving at work with a hangover.
- Lateness or absence due to drinking, recreational drug use, etc.
- Attending work unkempt or inappropriately dressed.
Support could be provided via an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) or substance abuse healthcare services. However, these issues could directly impact on workplace health and safety and therefore suspension/termination may be the only option.
Employers need to be aware that some employees will have significant care responsibilities, caring for children, elderly parents, disabled relatives or partners with health issues. In some cases, the so-called ‘sandwich generation’ may be in full-time work and juggling care for both children and elderly parents.
Care responsibilities can impact on employee productivity, especially if there is a change in the situation that places additional or new pressures on the carer.
Employers can support carers by offering flexible working practices. Employers may also be able to offer ‘emergency leave’ days, giving the employee options to manage work and care responsibilities. Access to EAP services may help carers under stress and be a valuable source of information and pre-vetted providers if childminders/home help services are disrupted.
With the increase in general longevity, more and more employees have eldercare needs. The NHS/social care system is complex and difficult to navigate. The system may present employees who are carers with problems that, if they had the correct information, could be solved by the NHS/social care services. Employers could support employees by providing access to specialist advisers who are able to signpost carers through all the red tape and bureaucracy, so they can obtain the best outcome for their relative. Once again, the help and compassion that an employer offers at a time of stress is going to be valued by the employee and will have a direct impact on future engagement and productivity.
A recent survey by Capita* revealed that 35 per cent of employees felt stressed about their current financial situation. Of those questioned, 21 per cent said that financial worries impacted their work; for those at the younger end of the workforce (under 35), this figure increases to 35 per cent. By any measure, this is a substantial drain on workplace productivity.
Often the main issue behind these financial worries is the fact that employees simply have little or no knowledge of basic money management – budgeting, interest rates, taxation, savings, mortgages – and even how to read a payslip! Employers can help by investing in financial education. Once employees gain basic knowledge and skills they will be more able to manage their personal finances and reduce financial stress.
We have left this one until last because each of the other issues is likely to have a direct impact on employee mental wellbeing. Worries over physical health, substance abuse, caring for a relative, financial issues and many other anxieties may add to the stress an employee operates under while at work. Thriving at Work, the Stevenson/Farmer Report October 2017, revealed that 15 per cent of the UK working population displayed symptoms of mental health issues (sleep problems, anxiety, stress, panic attacks, etc.).
The true impact of mental health issues in the workplace has only recently been measured. Stevenson/Farmer estimated the cost to UK employers at up to £42 billion per year. Over half of this figure is down to presenteeism – lost productivity due to underperformance while at work. The total annual cost of mental health issues to the UK economy could be as high as £99 billion.
It is obvious that employers need to treat employee mental wellbeing seriously. Employers should encourage their staff to discuss issues and concerns openly and without prejudice. With decades of silence around this subject, support is needed. This can take several forms:
- Education – training in awareness, personal resilience and mental health first aid will help the workforce be more understanding of colleagues who are struggling and signpost them towards help.
- Direct intervention – support such as EAP services, access to counsellors and therapists via private medical insurance (PMI)/Cash Plans, etc.
One of the key economic questions that has faced successive governments is that UK workers, on average, work longer hours and have fewer holidays than our European neighbours, but our productivity is the lowest of the G7 countries**. Perhaps the answer lies not in working harder but in employers providing additional support to their workers, so they can deal with the pressures of modern life and therefore become significantly more productive.
* Capita Workplace Wellness Employee Insight Report 2019.
** International comparisons of UK productivity (ICP), final estimates: 2016