Health and wellbeing: creating a positive workplace

Veale Wasbrough Vizards’ Bettina Rigg writes on creating a positive working environment

Sickness absence in higher education cost the sector £228m in 2013–14, and on average 5.8 days were lost due to sickness per employee, according to the UCEA Sickness Absence in Higher Education 2013–14 survey. This equates to a staggering £500,000 for every 1,000 employees. It probably will not come as a surprise to know that mental health is the top reason for long-term sickness absence.

The 2014–15 survey is live as this article is written and anecdotal evidence suggests that at best, there is unlikely to be any significant improvement when the results of the survey are published early in 2016.

In this article we explore the reasons for this and, looking at the work that has been done in this area by the University of Exeter, we suggest what can be done to make a difference. The article focuses on staff but much of what we say also has application to the health and wellbeing of students.

The effects of work on health and wellbeing

It is often said that work is bad for your health! Certainly work can have a negative impact on health and wellbeing and may be the cause of various conditions including stress, anxiety, back pain, depression and an increased risk of coronary heart disease. Work can also have a positive impact on health and wellbeing and healthy well-motivated employees can have a positive impact on the success of a higher education institution (HEI).

The legal landscape

The statistics from the UCEA survey demonstrate that there are good economic reasons for improving the health and wellbeing of staff. There is also the moral imperative to have a healthy and thriving workforce. Alongside these reasons, are a number of legal obligations on employers which broadly fall into
four types:

   •   Health and safety
Employers have an obligation to ensure, as far as reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare of their employees and to assess the nature and scale of risks in the workplace. Employers risk enforcement action, including improvement and prohibition notices, and there is also the risk of prosecution in the criminal courts. It is the Governing Body/Council which is ultimately responsible for the health and safety obligations of an HEI.

In addition to the financial impact of a conviction for breach of health and safety obligations (and even just for an intervention by the Health and Safety Executive for which costs can be recovered), is the potentially significant risk of serious reputational damage. This can arise not only where there is a prosecution but also where there have been improvement and prohibition notices, as there is a public list of organisations who have been the subject of improvement and prohibition notices, and who are ‘named and shamed’.

   •   Duty of care/negligence
Employers may, in certain circumstances, be liable in negligence. Since the case of Walker v Northumberland County Council in 1995 it has been clear that employers may be liable for stress-related illnesses suffered by employees as a result of conditions in the workplace. Employees are regularly looking to push the boundaries of this duty and in October 2014 an employee brought a claim against her employer for breach of the duty of care, in allegedly causing her psychiatric injury by bringing disciplinary proceedings against her without undertaking sufficient enquiries. Whilst the claim did not succeed on the facts of that case, the Court of Appeal did not suggest that there was any reason why such a claim could not succeed in the future.

   •   Disability discrimination
Unlike the law of negligence, a claim for disability discrimination under the Equality Act 2010 does not depend on the cause of the disability; it is the fact that an employee is disabled that could give rise to liability. A disability is “a physical or mental impairment which has a substantial effect on [a person’s] ability to carry out day to day activities.”
There is no qualifying period of service for an employee to be entitled to bring a claim and there is no statutory cap on the compensation which can be awarded.

   •   Bullying and harassment
Workplace stress and other mental health illnesses can arise where there are allegations of bullying and harassment under the Equality Act 2010 related to a protected characteristic or under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997.

The University of Exeter Wellbeing Programme

Most employees have access to an employee assistance or counselling service, but employers can do so much more to drive the wellbeing agenda in their organisations. The work undertaken by the University of Exeter demonstrates how a wellbeing programme can deliver real benefits to the institution.

The University has a wellbeing vision that:

   •   Empowers employees to take responsibility for their own health and wellbeing and have a university environment and wellbeing programme that supports this
   •   Develops their managers to act as role models and inspire wellbeing at work and know where support is available
   •   Challenges the mental health stigma.

At the heart of the Wellbeing Programme is the creation of a positive working environment.

Jacqui Marshall Director of Human Resources and Interim Chief Operating Officer at the University of Exeter shares her experience: “Our wellbeing vision is to empower our employees to take responsibility for their own health and wellbeing and have a university environment and wellbeing programme that supports this, so that both staff and managers agree that Exeter is a great place to work. We identified the imperatives of developing our managers to act as role models and inspire wellbeing at work, and know what support is available, and challenging the mental health stigma. We established a Wellbeing Group which has been instrumental in driving the vision. We launched the Wellbeing Programme with a Wellbeing Summit in 2014 led by the Provost. We devised a menu of wellbeing tools including a wellbeing ‘self-assessment’ tool and campus wellbeing maps. We also appointed Sally Gunnell OBE as Staff Wellbeing Advocate and the University joined the Mindful Employers Charter and signed the Time to Change Organisational Pledge.

The key outcomes so far include: 63,000 new hits on the wellbeing website (9,000 a month), 900 staff (25%) completed the wellbeing self-assessment tool in the first six months, self-referrals to Occupational health dropped from 80% to 25% in one year and management referrals increased enabling managers to act and support staff appropriately. 

Practical steps to increase wellbeing

As can be seen from the work undertaken at the University of Exeter, there are a number of practical steps that can be taken to increase wellbeing amongst staff. Many of these can be implemented at little cost. These steps include:

   •   Encouraging staff to be active and take regular exercise
   •   Creating comfortable break-out areas and social spaces to encourage breaks
   •   Leading by example to create a culture of taking breaks and exercising
   •   Training for staff and managers
   •   Commitment to Time to Change (Britain’s biggest anti-stigma programme led by Mind and Rethink Mental Illness and funded by the Department of Health, The Big Lottery Fund and Comic Relief) which demonstrates leadership commitment and can be a key driver in bringing about cultural change
 •   Pastoral support such as mindfulness training and nutritional advice.

Bettina Rigg is a partner at leading education law firm Veale Wasbrough Vizards. Bettina can be contacted on 020 7665 0960 or at

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