Our team at the Centre for Human Factors, University of Hull, works from a psychological and human factors perspective to explore health and wellbeing in the workplace. There are immediate challenges faced by local government in this area, and significant challenges we face as a society.

Local authorities are the most diverse organisations we’ve ever worked with – the sheer range of services, role types, the geographical coverage, the range of stakeholders, and the associated pressures – it is such a complex picture, and there is certainly no ‘one-size fits all’ approach to problem-solving. Our interactions with teams in the focus groups has certainly confirmed this.

But nationally, and even globally, prior to COVID we were facing a huge health and wellbeing challenge through work-related stress. In the two years before COVID hit, work-related stress was at its highest ever level; between 54 and 57% of lost working days in the UK were due to stress, depression or anxiety. Despite a focus on mental health in recent years, and a rapidly growing ‘wellbeing’ industry, the statistics suggested that things were not really improving. The WHO had previously called stress ‘the 21st Century Health Epidemic’. Clearly, that has now been eclipsed, but COVID-19 has brought with it changes to working practices on a scale never seen before, and the risks posed by this must be considered alongside any potential benefits.

We work closely with the HSE, and our shared view is that generally, employers have been implementing secondary and tertiary approaches to managing stress – offering employees courses that seek to enhance their coping skills, thus placing the onus on the individual to learn to cope with stress (secondary intervention), and having support services that deal with problems once they have arisen – so in essence, helping someone who has already been negatively impacted by work – such as mental health first aiders, counselling (tertiary interventions). These are all necessary and important parts of the puzzle, but what is lacking is the primary proactive approach – this requires that employers take the same approach to mental health as they do to physical health – preventing harm in the first place by determining the root causes and taking action to manage them.

We’ve never seen changes to working practices on this scale and at this pace before; we don’t yet know enough about the potential risks associated with large scale, long-term, remote working. There is, therefore, an urgent need to gather data and develop an understanding of the needs and experiences of people through the recent changes to working practices, and to then use this knowledge to design work that does not put employee health and wellbeing at risk. Making fast assumptions and seeking to reap quick wins at this point may lead to much bigger challenges further down the line, challenges with significant costs – financial, health and social costs.

From the psychology perspective, the approach we are taking in this project is a proactive approach to occupational stress risk management. Rather than making decisions about working practices and then waiting to see how people cope, risking negative impacts on employee health, the four LAs involved in this project are being proactive, preventative, and putting information about employee wellbeing at the heart of their strategic decision-making process. This is the optimum way to safeguard the health and wellbeing of workers – by designing work that puts psychosocial safety front and centre stage.

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