Employee Wellbeing: Do employers have a duty of care?

Two articles on the Employee Benefits website had me contemplating the same question. Could there be a point at which the inability to get to grips with employee wellbeing starts to become a breach of an employer’s duty of care?

The HSE explains the duty of care as follows:

It is an employer’s duty to protect the health, safety and welfare of their employees and other people who might be affected by their business. Employers must do whatever is reasonably practicable to achieve this.

While it’s fair (and understandable) to say most effort over the decades has gone into fulfilling the duty of care in terms of the physical risks employees face, there’s growing acknowledgement of the fact that mental health and wellbeing is a vital part of employee welfare. But articles like ‘39% view investment in employee wellbeing as too expensive’ and ‘59% say CEOs are focused on finances rather than their employees’ indicate that, despite knowing wellbeing matters in theory, the reality is many employers aren’t doing anything very meaningful about it.

So could this apparent reluctance to properly address employee wellbeing become a breach of an employer’s duty of care? Some may argue the principle of ‘reasonably practicable’ is relevant here. In other words an employer might not need to take measures to reduce or avoid the risk if those measures are technically impossible or time, trouble or cost is grossly disproportionate to the risk.

So is there a risk?

When it comes to wellbeing the 2014/15 HSE statistics are telling us there seems to be substantial risk. Reports by GPs and other specialist medical practitioners reveal mental ill health gave rise to the most working days lost. Self-reported illness data indicates an estimated 234,000 new cases of stress, anxiety and depression. Let’s reiterate that – 234,000 in addition to the ones identified in previous years. This isn’t an issue that’s going away any time soon without any help.

Technically impossible?

So if the risk is there, what’s the justification for not tackling it? Is it really technically impossible? There will always be people who are dealing with personal and health issues that fall well outside employers’ remits for sure. But that doesn’t account for everyone. There are plenty of companies out there that are recognised as great places to work and that provide very supportive environments thanks to their approach to wellbeing.

Time, trouble or cost?

Which leaves us with the question of whether employee wellbeing is too demanding when it comes down to time, trouble or cost. As those two headlines hint, that may be the perception many employers have. But is it a justifiable reason to do nothing about it?

Scrutinise the cost argument and you’ll find plenty of evidence showing that investment in wellbeing actually increases engagement and improves business performance. The cost of taking action to improve wellbeing must be offset against the cost of working days lost as a result of inaction. And while many companies believe employee wellbeing means huge expenditure, that doesn’t have to be the case.

So can employers claim time and trouble justifies a lack of action instead? It’s a complex area for sure and one that’s historically been difficult to get a grasp of. But in part it’s been revolutionised by developments in technology that have broken down communication barriers and enabled employees to be heard properly. This technology is facilitating the development of cultures of trust and greater transparency and is helping to nurture supportive environments. Crucially it doesn’t demand vast quantities of managerial time or effort.

Creating an environment where people notice one another and take time to show their genuine appreciation is a big step in the right direction when it comes to employee wellbeing. These tools and platforms won’t solve everything but for a company struggling to know how to get a handle on employee wellbeing, they’re a very good starting point towards fulfilling that duty of care.

And I would argue it goes beyond that. Looking after your employees is a fundamental moral duty. Not an optional extra. How much better to be the organisation that makes a positive choice to improve employee wellbeing because it’s the right thing to do. Not just because you’re obliged to do it.