Occupational Health: guide to keeping your employees healthy.

This article was written by Dr Charlie Easmon, founder of Harley Street practice Your Excellent Health Service. The company aims to provide excellent quality private health care, products and health screening without barriers to access at convenient times from a central location but with national and international partners.

Employees’ Lifestyles

The first stage for any company is getting a feel for the employees’ lifestyles. The latest research data tells us that lifestyle can contribute 42 percent to the risk of cancer. Excessive smoking and drinking, along with obesity, have a massive impact. As an employer, you may want to heighten general awareness about these risks, and if you observe that there are a lot of people smoking, or a heavy drink culture exists, or people are overweight, you could offer them routes – subtle or otherwise – to deal with those things. The NHS has very good smoking cessation services and literature to distribute.

Though drink can be a great part of social interaction, have an awareness of the culture around drink in your workplace. It can be very hard to counteract this culture, especially if there’s a bar nearby where staff naturally spend time. If you have employees who have to entertain often, you should be aware that you may be adding to their future problems. It may even just be simple things like explaining to them that they don’t have to drink every round - they can alternate with soft drinks.

Pre-existing health conditions

No matter what business you’re in, you will have people with pre-existing health conditions. One recommended action is to ask them to fill in a medical screening questionnaire after you have offered them the role. This should then be sent to an independent medical professional who can assess the issues on your behalf. Sometimes your employee may be advised to have a further health screen, and may discover that their treatment - whether it’s private or NHS - is sub-optimal. Obvious examples of that are people with diabetes, epilepsy, or asthma, who are not optimally managed. If you improve this, they will be more productive.

An example of this is a man who worked for an engineering company. He had Crohn’s Disease, a chronic inflammatory disease of the bowel. Intervention and enquiry into his treatment proved he needed further advice. With better management and care his productivity and utility to the company increased. Obviously the company in that case invested in him getting a better level of care - more companies should look into that.

If someone who is already in your employment develops a condition and tells you about it, always remember the Disability Discrimination Act. You should get an independent to check your employee is being properly cared for. This goes for any condition - even with a football injury A&E can advise six weeks of bed rest. Always consider other advice; maybe it would be better for that person to be in work and not bored at home. How can you facilitate that? Maybe arrange a taxi, or allow more flexible working hours to avoid the rush hour.

Mental Welfare

A further crucial aspect is the mental welfare of your employees. That can be affected by the culture of the organisation, the control people feel over their work, and the job design. It is very important, obviously, to ensure that there is not a bullying and harassment culture in the first place. Have a read of ‘The No Asshole Rule’ by Robert Sutton, who wrote articles for the Harvard Business Review on the issues caused by a negative atmosphere in the workplace. The Discrimination Act is also there to prevent these issues.  

If someone is clearly having mental problems, then the next step is facilitating access to proper mental health resources. Nationally there is a real problem with people not getting the right help when they need it. We need to treat mental distress like a fire – when you’ve called the fire brigade you need immediate attention; not a long wait before the issue is dealt with. The Centre for Mental Health runs courses for line managers on how to deal with mental welfare issues.

As a preventative measure, job design is incredibly important, and there’s plenty of research to suggest that if a job design is modified according to an individual’s quirks and personality, then engagement and productivity will increase. For example, agree the tasks that need doing, choose an individual to do them , then sit down with HR and that individual and work out how they are going to achieve that target. It might not be a rigid format that says, “Turn up at 9, leave at 5 and do this”; rather aim for a productivity target. Ask the employee how they will best meet the target. They may say, “Well actually, boss, could I come in at 11 and leave at 7, as I’ve got childcare arrangements?” It’s about understanding your employees’ personal circumstances and them as individuals; having a dialogue with them. As long as they get the job done, and reach the target, how it’s done does not need to be within a rigid structure.

Advice for start-ups and SMEs

There is a strong argument to have outsourced HR, which will ensure that all the contractual processes are right in the first place. It’s really important to appreciate the Peter Principle, in that many people become promoted to a level of incompetence. As an organisation grows, be aware that someone who was technically brilliant will not automatically be a good manager of people. For example, someone who is exceptional on the factory floor gets promoted to factory floor manager, then another level above that. There will come a point, if the company is not careful, when that person is promoted beyond their level of competence, just because they are a good and loyal employee. The problem will only exacerbate without the company’s input into training. Investigate how to help your employees - many law firms run relevant courses.

For companies of any size, be they start-ups or multi-nationals, following these basic guidelines will ensure that your workforce is full of happier and healthier individuals. Their output will be more focussed and your profits healthier as a direct result.