Steve Vale, HR consultant, summarises the main findings from a study on the changing nature of work and its likely impact on health and safety in the workplace and identifies the implications for employers.

In February 2018, the British Safety Council (BSC) published the outcomes of a study produced in association with Robertson Cooper, which sought to pull together research on the changing nature of work and its likely impact on health and safety in the workplace. Sir Cary Cooper CBE, Founding Director of Robertson Cooper and Professor of Organisational Psychology and Health at University of Manchester, pointed out: “Over the last decade, we’ve seen significant changes in the nature of the workplace and workforce, and they’re not showing any signs of stopping. As such, the topic of the ‘future of work’ is one that, naturally, is very much growing and dominating the conversation among health, safety and wellbeing professionals. Many industry think-tanks, conferences and thought leadership pieces are centred on the future of work and what that could look like — yet there has been less of a focus on what this might mean for our health, safety and wellbeing.”

Background

Great Britain has changed into a mostly service economy since the Health and Safety at Work Act was introduced in 1974, and, as a result, skilled and knowledgeable people should now be at the heart of the modern British economy. This economic change and the UK’s (and the EU’s) regulatory framework has driven a large reduction in accidents and safety issues, overall. The Robertson Cooper study is, however, aimed at preparing for and mitigating future risks. In particular, there is a focus on how 24/7 working, the platform or “gig” economy, and the drive towards automation, pose new risks to the mental and physical health of workers, even threatening their very sense of self.

Encouragingly, there is already a wealth of research demonstrating the benefits that focusing on employee health and wellbeing can deliver for businesses. Forty-five per cent of companies already have a clearly defined wellbeing strategy. But health and wellbeing are by no means at the heart of current working practice and culture. The last five years has seen increases in stress-related illness and presenteeism, which have had an impact on productivity, talent retention and attraction. The majority of employers still don’t have a wellbeing strategy, so there is still progress to be made.

There is also a concern that, with the recent emphasis on mental health, companies are gearing themselves up to focus on health and wellbeing for the here and now, rather than setting themselves up to be ready for the complexities of the future. All organisations, including those in the public sector, know that the nature of work is changing rapidly, but they know less about the risks this might bring to the health, wellbeing and safety of employees, and so face a challenge in preparing for this.

There are also some retrograde developments to contend with.

  • The period since 2008 has created a workplace where there are fewer people doing more work, working longer hours and feeling intrinsically insecure. This statement applies at least as much to the public sector as to other sectors.

  • Insecurity as a result of more contractors and people on short-term contracts, with the rise of the gig economy.

  • Technology is creating an “always on” culture.

  • An ageing workforce.

  • Uncertainty over employee rights, including those relating to health and safety, post-Brexit.

  • The development of a very different psychological contract, with loyalty between employers and employees decreasing.

The last point suggests that measures to retain healthy and high performing employees will be even more important to organisational success, with the need to develop a culture that prioritises employee wellbeing as a key driver for increased performance. Organisations of the future will need to trust their employees and manage by praise and reward.

The future of work

Anticipated changes in the nature of work have been well documented in recent times. They include the following.

  • Technological advances, with:

    • the development of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and job automation and predictions from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) indicate that 11 million jobs may become surplus in the next 20 years

    • technology that facilitates a modern way of working, leading to an “always on” culture in some professions, creating difficulties for people to integrate their work and life.

  • Changes in the labour market, with atypical forms of work increasing, against a background of uncertainty around the demand for labour post-Brexit. The number of contractors and freelancers is projected to continue rising, and the job market is likely to become more fluid and agile, changing the balance of power between employees and employers, as well as the way in which the skills required by employers are sourced and developed.

  • Issues over the future supply of labour, as:

    • people are working for longer as the state pension age rises

    • the supply of housing has not kept pace with digital/industrial developments, leading to rising house prices and the geographical definition of “work” changing

    • the emphasis on home-grown talent, post-Brexit, is likely to reinforce the trend of a short-term skills shortage

    • global shifts mean that sourcing talent online can deliver value for money for businesses for a range of roles.

  • Environmental issues, with research showing that we are moving towards an “increasingly unstable and unsustainable world” that will impact the supply chains of all businesses. For example:

    • climate change and international instability will have an impact on how and where we work in the future

    • current consumption levels of natural resources may create an unsustainable future.

What are the risks?

The risks inherent in the future world of work can be summarised as follows.

Resources and communication: The workforce will require a different kind of training and development, and the failure to provide this, alongside the introduction of technologies, could disrupt work as we know it.

Control: A reduction in the amount of control employees have over when, where, how and until when they work, will ultimately change the psychological contract between employee and employer in a way which could be damaging to the interests of both employees and the organisations they work for.

Workload: The damaging effects of over-engagement with work and the potential for neuroenhancement drugs to become commonplace to sustain performance.

Job security: Insecurity, reinforced by the threat of automation, will encourage employees to work when they are ill, with implications that will benefit neither employees nor employers.

Work relationships: Major risks from remote working over long periods and from generations being required to work together.

Job conditions: Organisations may struggle to keep pace with approaches to support employee health and the wellbeing of workers, in particular the needs of an ageing workforce and a closer relationship with technology.

Mitigating the risks

How can businesses and other organisations, trade unions, education and regulators/Governments act to mitigate the impact these risks may have in the future?

Organisations

Organisations are already starting to take employee health and wellbeing more seriously — the number of organisations with a wellbeing strategy grew 20% in 2017, taking it to 45%. But this is a relatively new move, as 75% of strategies have been in place for less than three years.

The fact that the phenomenon of organisations looking at health and wellbeing as a strategic issue is still in its infancy is likely to be contributing to a lack of sophistication in the approaches taken. Thus, employee assistance programmes (EAP), health screening and discounted gym membership are the top three initiatives on offer, and only a quarter of organisations are measuring the effectiveness of their initiatives.

It will be vital that more sophisticated approaches are developed which go beyond providing traditional support services like EAPs and health screening, and that seek to ensure that the effectiveness of any work on health and wellbeing is measured and reported. This will enable organisations to ensure that they deliver the impact they set out to, and will safeguard budgetary commitments in the future by demonstrating the return on investment in employee wellbeing to senior stakeholders.

The risks and opportunities that wellbeing strategies are built to tackle now are unlikely to be the same as those of the future, and so a data-driven approach to identifying risks and issues will prove hugely valuable for organisations to ensure they focus on the right areas. Organisations will require cutting-edge employee wellbeing data, in order to act in a targeted way.

Over the next two decades, it is inevitable that jobs will be designed and redesigned by organisations to meet the challenges they face. The most forward-thinking businesses will build protections for employees into these processes and the changes made, ensuring that they take a balanced view to the associated risks and benefits. For example, flexible working should be designed to deliver a range of benefits for employees and employers, including lower home/work conflict and increased job autonomy, and should address the potential risks to the employee arising from lack of detachment from work and poorer work relationships, creating optimal levels of remote working (eg 14–15 hours per week), fostering positive leader-worker relationships and building high degrees of trust.

Although some roles may move close to 100% automation, knowledge workers are unlikely to be replaced, particularly in parts of the public sector. This will put an emphasis not only on supporting employees once they are inside organisations (whether as employees or contractors), but also on effective recruitment of pivotal people — individuals who contribute vast and critical value to their organisation. Finding and retaining such people will become a challenge for organisations to address. Recruitment will need to make use of new techniques such as virtual reality in selection. The need to retain such people may also mean that reward and benefits will become even more important than they are today, creating a market where employees who are vital to organisational success are able to negotiate higher rewards more easily.

Finally, organisations will need to respond to the situation where the average age of workers, and working lifetime, are increasing. In the UK, the retirement age is on a gradual rise from 65 to 68 by 2037, and by 2022 there will be 700,000 fewer people aged 16 to 49 in the country. In contrast, 3.7 million more people will be aged between 50 and the state pension age. So as elders remain in the workforce, organisations may need to retain older workers in order to gain a competitive advantage. As such, organisations of the future should support continuous learning and development and create the conditions for lifelong learning so that their workforce can evolve to meet changing work demands and conditions.

Trade unions

For many years the trade unions have played an important role in economies, including through their safety representatives, to reduce accidents and injury, and promote safer and healthier workplace cultures. But membership in trade unions has declined rapidly over the past four decades. In the 1980s, 50% of employees were members of a trade union, and in 2016 this had dropped to 24%. The age profile of typical members has also changed considerably, with older workers making up a much higher proportion of members than previously, as two in five union members are over 50. Even in strongly unionised sectors (such as local government), the power and influence of trade unions has declined markedly in the last 20 or 30 years.

If there is a further reduction of the trade unions’ influence on the workplace, it is not clear who or what would replace the role that they play in promoting employee wellbeing. This is particularly concerning when 1 in 10 workers could be said to be in “precarious jobs”, including in the gig economy, where workers have less access to sick pay, redundancy and job protection, and may earn significantly less than typical employees.

The future of the labour market is likely to be fragmented, with increasing individual contributors and lower strength in numbers. Representing workers and creating labour standards for such workers will become an increasing challenge, not only for regulators and enforcement bodies, but also for unions.

Unions can only operate within the regulations set at a national or international level, and as such may be in a powerless position with decreasing membership numbers — especially among younger workers — and outdated regulations that don’t match the make-up of the workforce. But there are signs (eg the Taylor report) that there will be legislation, enforcement and a strategy for quality work that is fair, decent and has realistic scope for development and fulfilment.

The European Commission is currently considering two legislative measures on the protection of rights for those employed on short-term contracts, including the gig economy and zero-hours contracts, which may affect the UK (depending on how trading continues) beyond 2019 and the UK’s agreement with the EU. The first is the “Access to Social Security Initiative” which looks to ensure similar social protection rights for similar work, regardless of how a person is employed. The second is the “Written Statement Directive” where all workers, irrespective of their employment status and contract type, would be entitled to the same information on their contract of work, and on measures that ensure that core labour standards are upheld.

Pursuing these developments (either within or outside EU frameworks), and representing those they are designed to protect, will offer fresh opportunities for trade unions, as the number of self-employed workers overtakes the number of public sector workers. As the balance shifts over time, workers in these so called “precarious” positions need to be protected and represented, but protection will need to be very different to that of thousands of employees working for one organisation all represented by the same union.

Education

The report notes that a huge proportion of the workforce of the next two decades is still in education at the moment. At the same time, mental health for young people is also a growing concern — rates of depression and anxiety among teenagers have increased by 70% in the past 25 years, and that is a cause for concern for the future. (Stress, anxiety and depression is the leading cause of absence from work, and despite the best efforts of businesses, work is still a contributor to these problems.)

The UK Government has recognised this as an issue, and a 2017 House of Commons report called for schools to take a “whole school” approach to embed mental health and wellbeing inside the curriculum. Thus, it would appear vital that schools are funded in a way that enables them to follow such an approach. Half of all mental illness starts before the age of 15, giving schools a huge responsibility.

However, education must not be limited to the compulsory education system. As the risks to employee health, safety and wellbeing change, educating employees to create an awareness of the risks they face and how to manage them for themselves will be important. Educators, employers or Governments must create the right environment for employees to make the right choices which maximise their health, wellbeing and safety. A shared understanding by employers and employees of their individual risk factors and knowledge on how to act on these will become a pre-requisite for all organisations.

As an example, educating people on the way to work and interact with co-bots (ie in semi-automated environments) will be fundamental to their success and acceptance inside society and workplaces alike.

The need to educate people in this way cannot be left to employers alone in the future, because the rise of the “gig” economy will shift the balance of responsibility for learning increasingly to the individual worker. As discussed in the previous section, consideration of the issues raised in the Written Statement Directive means that the right to education and training may soon be extended beyond employees only. While there may still be a responsibility for employers to provide access to training and education, a world where automation threatens to replace human input in many jobs will require employees themselves to take ownership of their own education and development in order to thrive.

Regulators and Governments

As the nature of work changes, it will be vital that Governments and such bodies have a mindset grounded in adaptability. What exactly work will be and look like over the next decade is unknown, and it is impossible to predict what lies ahead. Making simple predictions about the impact that a particular change may have is unlikely to give an accurate basis for action.

Organisations can only operate within the frameworks and conditions set for them, so adaptability among regulators and Governments is of equal importance to the actions of employers and individuals.

The report notes that, currently, changes in policy can often reach the agenda long after the impact of new developments is being felt by society, and, once there, can take time to be implemented. In the future, there will be a need for flexibility as the basis of quicker action. This could include easing the routes to training and retraining, and encouraging and incentivising adaptability and paying greater attention to the critical and increasingly valued skills of leadership, creativity and innovation.

There will be a need for timely guidance, regulation and regulatory frameworks for developing technologies. Regulators and Governments will need to host address the ethics associated with robotic and autonomous systems, such as driverless cars, along with policies that govern the impact of technology and automation on jobs.

As the risks to health, wellbeing and safety in the future world of work will grow in a somewhat unpredictable fashion, there is a risk that they will negatively impact businesses, and in turn GDP. One potential role for the Governments is therefore to incentivise employers to act to mitigate the risks on health, wellbeing and safety of their workforce. One example of this already taking place in the public sector is the NHS Commissioning for Quality and Innovation (CQUIN) funding, whereby NHS Trusts must demonstrate positive action on health and wellbeing (among other areas) to receive parts of their funding from commissioners.

On a societal scale, the role of the Government is not limited to those in work — it is likely that the increased use of automation inside some roles, along with increased reliance on technology more generally, will, in the longer term, drive unemployment (although there are few signs of this at the moment). Therefore, suggestions that Governments could test social safety nets such as universal basic income, recently piloted on 2000 people in Finland, and focus on identifying new sources of income for citizens deserve to be taken seriously.

Recommendations for action

The research reviewed in the report confirms that we are living through fundamental and potentially disruptive change to how we live and work. There are a number of recommendations that can now be made to Government, business, trade unions and educators to ensure that we will be better prepared to face any health, safety and wellbeing risks that are likely follow these changes.

These are the following.

  1. Promote good work and better quality jobs

    Government and organisations need to make sure they have the right policies to ensure that work is safe, healthy and rewarding. The state of our children’s and workers’ mental health in the UK continues to be a concern, and there is strong evidence to show that good work makes for healthier and more productive workers. New technology has the potential to give workers more tools for self-determination, and enable older workers to stay fitter for longer. Businesses, trade unions and others should share their experience of good work and work design as the UK Government implements its Industrial Strategy.

  2. Build resilience

    The ability of workers to cope with the mental pressure of a changing world of work, including increased collaboration between workers and intelligent machines and robotics, is going to be a key attribute in the future. Worker health and wellbeing demands it and, at a macro level, if we are to have a sustainable and productive economy, then we must do more to help workers build their resilience. The Government needs to look at incentives (such as tax breaks) for employers to introduce health and wellbeing programmes, schools should include resilience and wellbeing in their curricula, and employers should test innovative approaches and wellbeing programmes in consultation with workers and trade unions.

  3. Ensure education is relevant and forward thinking

    There is a risk that changes to the world of work could leave educators behind. A more insecure and inexperienced workforce (who are therefore more likely to suffer injury or ill health), will mean that risk education before work, along with induction and training at work, will become even more important. Schools and training bodies need to focus on both transferable “soft skills” such as collaboration, creativity and leadership, and skills associated with new technology, such as working in collaboration with intelligent machines and robots. Occupational safety and health professionals, as well as safety representatives and HR professionals, should champion such training, with a larger emphasis on how to reduce “stressors” and promote wellbeing and resilience.

  4. Keep the regulatory system up to date and inclusive

    Changes to the world of work will present challenges for how legal and regulatory systems operate. With working networks, including between humans and machines, sometimes operating across different organisations, or even across borders, there is a question about where ownership of the risk and liability lies — who should take responsibility if something goes wrong? The cost of ill health remains high, with sickness absence costing UK businesses an estimated £29 billion per year. As contracts between employers and workers become more diffuse (where people in the “gig” economy are often not classified as workers), businesses might increasingly avoid the costs of sickness absence or employer’s liability insurance. Government should do more through its Industrial Strategy to enable gig workers to take certain minimal social protections and rights with them, wherever they work. Good work must be for all.

  5. Extend the understanding of the future risks

    It is vital that determining the risks of the future becomes a key role for the research community and people practitioners. Existing research strongly indicates that there needs to be a greater emphasis on soft skills such as leadership, communication and innovation to face these future risks. However, research on the risks of new technologies, new materials and new ways of working is quite thin in places. For example, research into the risks associated with real world applications of nanomaterials and the impact on mental and physical health of those people working with co-bots would contribute to a more coherent view of current and future risks to worker health, safety and wellbeing.

Commentary

While the real world applications of nanomaterials may appear to have little relevance (or even meaning!) to local government or the public sector, the strong message from the BSC/Robertson Cooper study is that, given the sweeping changes to work we are facing, the impact of new ways of working on employee and organisational health is fully and continuously assessed alongside and (if possible) in advance of the changes facilitated by technological change and the resulting changes in the psychological contract between organisations and those they engage to work on their behalf.

To give a very simple and practical example, a combination of budgetary pressures and new technology has led to a rapid increase in local government employees working remotely or working from home. But there is a danger that, where this has happened very quickly (driven by the need for cost reductions on office accommodation), the full impacts for employees and the services they provide have not been properly assessed, and employees are not fully aware of the new risks they potentially face. Given local government’s previous experiences (eg with stress-related claims from social workers), it is important that the consequences of failure to properly assess risks at the right time do not come back to haunt it years later.

References

The BSC/Robertson Cooper Future Risk Report: The Impact of Work on Health, Safety and Wellbeing is available at www.britsafe.org

Author

Steve Vale is a consultant in human resources and is a regular contributor to Croner-i HR for Local Government. Croner-i HR for Local Government is an online employment law and practice reference source designed specifically for HR managers and their teams in local government.

Last reviewed 30 May 2018