CIPD Absence Management Survey 2016: the key findings

CIPD Absence Management Survey 2016: the key findings

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development’s (CIPD) Absence Management Report is the UK’s definitive annual study on employee absence.

It provides crucial intelligence on sickness absence trends, policy and practice, offering businesses fascinating insights that can be useful in shaping health and wellbeing strategies.

More than 1,000 HR professionals nationwide were surveyed for the 2016 edition of the report and we have scoured its findings to provide you with five of the most interesting.

Absence at lowest level for seven years

This year’s report revealed a fall in absence across all sectors – manufacturing and production, private, public, non-profit – to the point where it has reached its lowest level for seven years.

The average level of absence is 6.3 days per employee per year, compared to 6.9 days last year and 7.4 days in 2010, while the median cost of absence per employee has fallen slightly to £522.

The largest decrease in absence was noticed in the non-profit sector, where it fell from 7.8 days per employee to 6.9. But absence continues to be highest in the public sector (8.5 days), where employees average over three days more than their private sector counterparts (5.2). Absence also tends to be higher in larger organisations, regardless of sector.

Stress is still a big problem

Stress remains the number one reason for long-term absence, cited as the most common cause by 29 per cent of employees.

And the situation only appears to be getting worse. Almost a third of respondents report stress-related absence in their organisation has increased over the past year.

The study found workloads and volume of work are the number one cause of stress, cited by 55 per cent of respondents, followed by non-work factors (such as relationships/family) and management style, selected by 33 per cent and 32 per cent respectively.

As a result, there is an onus on organisations to put schemes in place to address the problem. These could range from flexible working to employee assistance programmes (EAPs) that provide access to 24-hour counselling support.

Mental health issues on the rise

Another problem related to the prevalence of workplace stress is the increase in reported mental health problems. Overall, two-fifths of companies claim to have seen a rise in the past 12 months.

The report claimed both mental health problems and stress-related absence are strongly linked to a long hours culture and less common within organisations where there is a stronger focus on employee wellbeing.

And while 55 per cent of respondents agree that their organisation is effective at supporting people with mental health problems, only 24 per cent agree staff are well informed about the common mental health risks and symptoms.

This highlights an education gap, which organisations may look to plug through greater education and engagement around the topic, aligned with a culture of openness.

Wellbeing more than just a buzz word?

There appears to be a growing recognition among businesses of the importance of employee wellbeing initiatives.

Almost half of respondents in the survey report an increased focus on wellbeing compared with the previous year, while just three per cent report a decrease.

The most popular wellbeing benefits are counselling, which 56 per cent of organisations claim to provide to all employees, followed by employee assistance programmes (52 per cent) and advice on healthy eating (34 per cent).

However, almost three-fifths of respondents claim their organisation’s approach to wellbeing is more reactive than proactive regarding wellbeing, showing there remains room for improvement in putting wellbeing at the centre of absence management and benefits programmes.

Presenteeism a growing concern

‘Presenteeism’ is the phenomenon of staff attending work when unwell and it appears companies are becoming wise to the negative effect it can have.

Almost half of respondents (48 per cent) report their organisation has taken steps to discourage presenteeism over the past 12 months, compared to 31 per cent in 2015 and 32 per cent in 2014.

The study found a link between presenteeism and stress-related absence or mental health problems, providing a strong reason why organisations should discourage the practice. More than half of those who had noticed an increase in presenteeism also saw an increase in stress-related absence compared with less than a third of those who hadn’t.

Organisations that noticed an increase in presenteeism were also twice as likely to see a rise in mental health problems.

View slider

A third of businesses fail to offer support for dementia sufferers (09/11/16)

One in three British workers (33 per cent)(1) say their employer fails to offer any additional help or support for dementia sufferers.

In a study commissioned by PMI Health Group, part of Willis Towers Watson’s health and benefits team, seven per cent of employees said they either have, or work alongside someone who suffers from, dementia. More than half (54 per cent) of these workers, however, said they received no education or training on the condition from their employer.

“The number of people developing dementia is increasing year-on-year(2) and although it is commonly associated with old age, there are currently more than 40,000 people in the UK under 65 suffering from the condition,” said Mike Blake, Director at PMI Health Group.

“Employees can be affected as both sufferers and carers but companies can make a difference by introducing clear policies on how they can provide support and improve staff awareness.

“By establishing an inclusive, dementia-friendly, working environment, companies can give carers and employees with dementia the opportunity to continue playing an active and important role in the workplace. Furthermore, those diagnosed with the condition would be more likely to report it to their employer and seek support.

“Measures can include early intervention from occupational health professionals and the inclusion of information about dementia, and local support services, in staff newsletters and noticeboards.”

For more information on steps to consider when introducing, or reviewing, dementia policies, please see PMI Health Group’s guide to supporting employees affected by the condition.

(1) From research conducted among workers that have, or work alongside colleagues that have, dementia.

(2) According to the Alzheimer’s Society there will 150,000 more people with dementia by 2025.

Employee mental ill health: tips on spotting the signs

Spotting the signs of stress or mental ill health among employees can be vital to the effective management of staff wellbeing and sickness absence.

The workplace can, after all, have a significant impact on our mental health, either as a cause of problems or as a facilitator of wellbeing.

Where employees are struggling to cope, early intervention can hold the key to preventing situations from escalating into more serious, and potentially longer term, problems. Line managers will usually be well placed to monitor employees’ work activities, behaviour and general wellbeing, enabling them to identify early warning signs of stress or mental ill health.

Although symptoms will vary, there are a number of tell-tale signs – often be linked to a change in behaviour – that managers should be aware of.  These early warning signals can be categorised as being either physical, psychological or behavioural.

Physical symptoms

Physical pointers to cases of mental ill health may include the following:

–          low energy or fatigue

–          frequent headaches, back, chest or joint pain

–          a change in weight or appetite

–          physical shaking or verbal trembling

Psychological symptoms

Psychological pointers to cases of mental ill health may include the following:

–          aggression or extreme mood swings

–          a lack of motivation

–          unusual emotional displays, such as crying

–          confusion or memory lapses

–          indecision and a lack of self-confidence

Behavioural symptoms

Behavioural pointers to cases of mental ill health may include the following:

–          increased incidents of sickness absence

–          poorer workplace performance

–          poor time keeping

–          irritability or bouts of anger

–          an increase in drinking and smoking

–          withdrawal from social interactions

Addressing the issue: an intervention strategy

There is good evidence to suggest that earlier intervention leads to better outcomes. But how do you go about it?

Engaging with a problem calls for establishing open communication with the employee in a sensitive and supportive manner and then developing an appropriate action plan. This plan might include signposting advice and support, such as the employee speaking to their GP, undertaking OH assessments or arranging counselling through an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP). For more information, see our guide on possible treatments for tackling mental health issues.

Workplace triggers for stress should also be identified and addressed as required. For further advice on protecting employees from the harmful consequences of stress and anxiety, see our guide on implementing an effective stress management programme.

View slider version

Almost half of Brits would welcome use of wearables in workplace (18/10/2016)

British business could be set for a wearable revolution after research found 45 per cent of workers would welcome the introduction of the technology by their employers.

Wearable gadgets, such as fitness bands and smartwatches, have experienced a huge surge in popularity, with the global market expected to hit US$5.8 billion by 2018, a 800 per cent increase on its 2012 value.1 This popularity provides businesses with an opportunity to use the technology to collect valuable data on employee health.

The study commissioned by PMI Health Group, part of Willis Towers Watson, discovered almost one in 10 British employees (nine per cent) are already offered wearables by their employers, with the figure reaching 26 per cent in London.

“Wearables have become commonplace in recent years and their popularity provides employers with a golden opportunity to collect valuable data that can be used to improve health and wellbeing,” said Mike Blake, Director at PMI Health Group.

“Already, we have seen several examples of businesses operating company-funded wearable schemes, where employees accept devices in the understanding that the data generated will be shared with their employers.

“Such initiatives can form part of wider health and wellbeing programmes, helping businesses to identify areas of risk and empower staff to take positive action. Not only could this enable a more proactive approach to absence management, tackling worrying trends before they become problematic, but it could also help to reduce claims and health insurance costs in the long term.”

The research also found only 40 per cent of British workers would object to sharing personal health-related data generated by wearables with their employers.

“Businesses will find it encouraging that only a minority of staff are opposed to sharing wearable data as part of wellbeing schemes,” added Blake.

“But even when objections are raised, such barriers can often be overcome through clear communication and consultation with employees. It is important for companies to outline what data will remain anonymous and underline that data will not be used in a discriminatory or unfair manner. In cases where data has been used to secure a reduction in insurance premiums, employees may also benefit from reduced contributions themselves, which will help to further smooth the process.”

1 Wearable Technology Market – Global Scenario, Trends, Industry Analysis, Size, Share And Forecast 2012 – 2018, Transparency Market Research

Disability still seen as a barrier to career progression (26/09/16)

More than a third (37 per cent) of UK workers believe disability is still a barrier to career progression, despite anti-discrimination legislation.

In a study commissioned by PMI Health Group, part of Willis Towers Watson, nearly one in five (17 per cent)(1) also claimed employers fail to make adequate provisions to accommodate their, or their colleagues’, disabilities.

“Companies have a legal duty to make reasonable adjustments, where necessary, to ensure employees with disabilities are not disadvantaged in the workplace,” said Mike Blake, Director at PMI Health Group.

“In light of these findings, it would be advisable for businesses to ensure they are not falling foul of this legislation. Deploying pre-placement questionnaires that are reviewed by an occupational health professional gives employers the information they need to make reasonable adjustments from the outset. Physical assessments can be carried out by occupational health physicians if more detailed information is required.”

The government has set a target of halving the disability employment gap – the difference in employment rates between disabled and non-disabled people – which stands at 33 per cent(2). This is currently the subject of a parliamentary inquiry(3).

“Health and wellbeing initiatives, including the services available through group income protection and Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs), can help in establishing a more disability-friendly workplace so companies can attract and retain skilled staff from this important demographic,” added Blake.

“Health and wellbeing initiatives that facilitate early medical intervention for mental and physical conditions can play an important role in establishing a more disability-friendly workplace and reducing incidents of long-term sickness absence.”

(1) From research conducted among workers that have, or work alongside colleagues that have, a disability.

(2) Analysis of ONS Labour Market Statistics, 2016, by disability charity Scope.

(2) Disability employment gap inquiry, Work and Pensions Select Committee, 2016.

How to use wearable technology to help improve your employees’ health

‘Wearable technology’ has become a buzz phrase in HR thanks to the flood of new lifestyle gadgets that have hit the market in recent years.

From the Fitbit to the Apple Watch, these devices are now seen as essential bits of kit by many workers.

But not only do they help to enhance the personal life of the wearer, wearables offer value in the workplace too. This is because they collect, analyse and share information about the wearer, and such data could be valuable to an employer.

Data on things such as heart rate, fitness routines and daily habits could be very useful when tackling sickness absence, designing wellbeing schemes or even negotiating the cost of health benefits.

But should businesses embrace wearables? We take a look at some key considerations for all employers.

1. Employees show appetite

The pervasiveness of wearables in daily life already seems to be helping soften attitudes towards their application in the workplace. In this year’s Willis PMI Group Employee Benefits Index, only 37 per cent of British workers said they would not welcome the introduction of wearable health technology by their employers.

Furthermore, only 40 per cent said they would not be willing to share personal, health-related data generated by wearables with their employers. This general positivity provides employers with an opportunity to use wearables to their advantage.

By finding ways to subsidise such technology, organisations can put themselves in a position to collect valuable data for proactive absence management, while providing staff with a perceived benefit. This way, data collection may be seen as less invasive by the employee.

2. Put a policy in place

If your organisation decides to embrace wearables, it is important to ensure clear policies are put in place for their use.

Where personal wearables are concerned, guidelines might be provided on how they are used at work and what types of data capture are permitted. This might form part of a revised ‘bring your own device’ policy, designed to protect the company’s data security, privacy and confidential information.

For company-sponsored schemes where wearables are provided to staff, the policy should also specify what data will be used, how it is used and any third parties it will be shared with.

It is also appropriate to consider anti-harassment, grievance and disciplinary policies, covering the misuse of wearable technology.  For example, the concealable nature of wearables might increase the possibility of covert recording of conversations without consent.

3. Beware big brother?

Some employees will understandably be wary about devices being used to collect personal data, so it is crucial to be clear about how staff data will be collected, managed and used.

If information is collected to inform absence management, it may be appropriate to appoint a third-party to manage the process and provide only anonymised data as a way of identifying general workforce trends. Otherwise, it is important to be very clear about what data will remain anonymous and underline that data will not be used in a discriminatory or unfair manner.

For wearable technology to be well received, employees will need to be clear on the benefits offered to them. Therefore it should be positioned as an aid that helps to improve overall health and wellbeing rather being used to assess working performance.

4. Covering the cost

To reinforce the benefits offered to employees by wearable technology, companies may look to subsidise devices as part of health and wellbeing programmes. This investment may be justified by potential reductions in health insurance premiums secured by sharing positive fitness data with insurers.

Already many forward-thinking organisations are taking this route, offering staff incentives for doing exercise and sharing data about their activities. Such data would be valuable in proving a reduction in risk profile to insurers, helping to fight the rising premium tide.

Employees, for their part, would not only receive the device but may also benefit from reduced contributions to healthcare schemes themselves.

5. A piece of the jigsaw

Wearables will be most effective when implemented as one complementary piece of a larger wellbeing programme. The data provided by wearables is only beneficial if it proves employees are living healthy lifestyles, so steps should be taken to ensure this is the case.

Wearable technology may work neatly alongside other initiatives, such as lunchtime exercise classes or regular breaks where staff are encouraged to take time away from their desk for a short walk.

Where wearable data highlights negative trends, action should be taken to provide support. For example, if employees suffer from sleep problems, counselling provided by benefits such as employee assistance programmes (EAPs) may help to address contributory factors. Workshops could also be organised to provide staff with guidance on how to get a good night’s sleep.

View slider

10 ways to fight fatigue

10 ways to fight fatigue

The impact of fatigue in the workplace is too often underestimated but has the potential to be significant and wide-ranging.

Its effects can be particularly acute in manual working environments and fatigue is said to cost the UK £115 to £240 million per year in terms of work accidents alone.

But fatigue is an important consideration for all employers, regardless of the industry or environment.

A number of studies highlight the link between fatigue and reduced productivity, as well as increased stress and absenteeism. Fatigue also results in slower reactions, reduced ability to process information, memory lapses, absent-mindedness, decreased awareness, lack of attention, underestimation of risk and reduced coordination.

Therefore, it should be treated in the same way as any other workplace risk or hazard, with steps taken to mitigate its impact. Here we outline 10 ways in which you can help to combat fatigue among your employees.

1. Give careful thought to shift patterns

Fatigue can be a particularly significant factor for shift workers, especially those regularly working night shifts or unusual hours.

Employers can use tools such as the HSE’s ‘fatigue risk index’ to conduct risk assessments around shift patterns, allowing them to design schedules that minimise risk and best suit their employees.

Key risk factors include the workload, the work activity, shift timing and duration, direction of rotation and the number and length of breaks during and between shifts. Employees should also be consulted during this process to obtain their input and feedback.

2. Put a policy in place for working hours

This policy should provide specific guidelines on working hours and set limits for employees. It should also address factors such as overtime and shift-swapping, with arrangements put in place to monitor and enforce the policy. This may include a robust system for recording working hours, overtime, shift-swapping and on-call working.

If it is found that the policy is regularly being breached, efforts might be taken to increase staffing levels, rearrange workloads or provide employees with support.

3. Regularly update job descriptions

Individual job descriptions will inevitably change over time as employees take on new responsibilities and their role changes in relation to colleagues. Therefore, it may be appropriate to regularly audit job descriptions and workloads to see if there may be a reason why a certain person or department may be struggling with fatigue.

If you see that a job description is unbalanced or has had responsibilities added to it over the years, consider taking steps to redesign the job by varying the balance between mental and physical tasks, for example.

4. Ensure work stations are ergonomically designed

Postural fatigue caused by an awkward working position can also result in general tiredness, but ergonomic adjustments to the working environment can help to combat this. For example, steps should be taken to help employees sitting at a desk to ensure their arms are well supported, they do not have to reach for their keyboard and don’t adopt a slouched position.

Equally steps to reduce screen glare and ensure employees sit at a safe distance from their monitors will help to reduce strain on their eyes.

5. Provide water

Symptoms associated with dehydration include mental fatigue, headaches, poor concentration, and muscle weakness, so it can contribute to an overall feeling of tiredness or sluggishness.

Physiological reasons for these symptoms include a reduction in blood volume, which can result in less oxygen, glucose and nutrients being carried around the body.

Employers can take swift action here simply by providing a water cooler and offering staff education on recommended water intake.

6. Encourage a healthy diet

Diet is a big factor in levels of daytime fatigue, and brain function is dependent on adequate nutrition.

NHS guidance suggests a healthy, balanced diet containing foods from all four of the main food groups is essential, while it is important to eat at regular intervals to ensure your body learns to manage feelings of hunger and sustain energy levels.

Breakfast is also important to set us up properly for the day but, despite this, up to one-third of us regularly skip breakfast according to the British Dietetic Association (BDA). Employers can help by setting up breakfast clubs, providing healthy snacks and balanced meal options, or by providing general nutritional advice.

7. Provide regular health screenings

Health screenings can perform a key role as part of a more proactive approach to employee health. They can measure everything from blood pressure and body fat to lung function and hearing and act as a non-taxable benefit if conducted on an annual basis.

The information gained from such screenings can help to flag health or lifestyle issues that may contribute to fatigue, allowing employers to take appropriate action.

8. Think about the environment

General changes to the workplace can address fatigue and its accompanying risks, as there are a number of environmental factors that can contribute to feelings of tiredness. For example, fluorescent lighting or lighting that is too bright can contribute to eye strain and fatigue, so it may be appropriate to reduce lighting levels or fit dimmer switches.

Even music has been found to have a positive effect on fatigue, so it is important to consider creative methods for keeping staff engaged and happy.

9. Allow staff to take 40 winks

Some companies may find it appropriate to provide a ‘nap room’ for their employees, giving them somewhere to rest during the working day. This could be a cool, dark and quiet room for sleep breaks, complete with eye masks and ear plugs.

However, it may simply be a space for quiet reflection, allowing staff to take breaks in a peaceful space away from the usual pressures of the working day.

10. Encourage more active lifestyles

It may seem counterintuitive, but studies show expending energy by engaging in regular exercise may pay off with increased energy in the long run. So a walk may be better than a nap for boosting energy and fighting fatigue.

This means employers should consider offering exercise classes or discounted gym memberships to employees in order to encourage them to perform more regular exercise. But action in this area may also be as simple as allowing employees regular breaks to escape their working environments and take a short walk.

View slider version

True or false: Test your nutritional knowledge to help promote a healthy and productive workforce

Nutrition should form an integral element of workplace health and wellbeing strategies.

Poor nutrition, after all, can increase the risk of many chronic conditions, from heart disease to diabetes.

The impact of obesity on business has been well documented with an estimated cost to the UK economy of £47 billion a year – and a study by Willis PMI Group found that nearly a third of employees believe their employers should help them lose weight.

Nutritional advice, wellbeing schemes and healthy canteen food can all play an important role in achieving this, helping protect the long-term health of businesses by reducing sickness absence and promoting improved productivity.

Nutritional myths and dietary misinformation are commonplace however, often sabotaging employees’ best efforts to live fit and healthy lives.

Test your knowledge with our ‘true or false’ quiz – and get the facts.

1/ Carbohydrates make us fat

True

NHS Choices points out that eating too many calories, whether carbs, protein or fat, will contribute to us gaining weight.

The school of thought that carbs are bad, however – perpetuated over recent years by low carb diets – can be misleading. Gram for gram, carbohydrate contains fewer than half the calories of fat and, in a healthy diet, they are a vital source of energy.

It should be remembered that not all carbs are the same. Sweets and cakes, for example, have limited nutritional value while containing high levels of sugar and calories that can increase the risk of weight gain and tooth decay.

Carbs found in fruit, vegetables, pulses and starchy foods, however, can be particularly beneficial to our health, providing us with a variety of nutrients, including vitamins and minerals.

For employees that exercise regularly, carbs also fuel the body’s muscles and aid recovery.

2/ Eating more frequent meals burns more calories

False

A theory is frequently championed that the more often we eat, the more our metabolism is stimulated, which results in more calories burned.

However, most research studies suggest this is a myth. A 2009 review* of 179 abstracts found “no significant relation between meal frequency and weight loss”. Nutritionists tell us that calorie intake is what really matters when it comes to weight loss.

Despite this assertion, it is generally believed that eating more frequently throughout the day helps maintain our energy and blood sugar levels and reduces our hunger cravings. For employees, this may translate to improved levels of concentration, job focus and productivity.

*Association between eating frequently, weight and health, Nutr Rev. (2009)

3/ Science shows that eating breakfast helps us lose weight

False

Dr James Betts, a senior lecturer in nutrition at the University of Bath confirmed to the New Scientist that there is a lack of scientific evidence to back up the claim that eating breakfast boosts our energy and kick-starts our metabolism.

This suggestion is rather the result of powerful advertising campaigns.

A University of Bath study* published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that skipping breakfast did not affect fat levels or make people gain more weight. It did however show that eating breakfast could encourage obese people to exercise more.

“If weight loss is the key there is little to suggest that just having breakfast or skipping it will matter,” said Dr Betts. “However, based on other markers of a healthy lifestyle, like being more active or controlling blood sugar levels, then there’s evidence that breakfast may help.”

* The causal role of breakfast in energy balance and health: a randomized controlled trial in obese adults. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (2016)

4/ Good hydration helps us concentrate

True

Poor hydration can affect employees’ memory, attention, concentration and reaction times.

Research* from the University of Connecticut’s Human Performance Laboratory and published in The Journal of Nutrition found that even mild dehydration alters a person’s mood, energy levels and mental function.

The National Hydration Council provides guidelines for the types of fluid to drink. Water is the only fluid they recommend drinking “plenty” of as it contains no sugar, calories or additives. The European Food Safety Authority advises a daily intake of 2.5 litres of water for men and two litres for women.

*Mild Dehydration Affects Mood in Healthy Young Women (2011)

5/ Science has linked eating fruit and veg with greater creativity

True

Researchers at the University of Otago have looked into whether frequent fruit and vegetable consumption can be linked with this state of mind – known as eudaemonic wellbeing.

The study*, published in the British Journal of Health Psychology, found there was a link between the two, with a healthy diet being related to “other aspects of human flourishing, beyond just feeling happy”. People who ate more fruit and veg were also found to display greater curiosity and more creativity during their day-to-day lives.

While the researchers acknowledged more research is needed, they suggested that Vitamin C might be the magic ingredient. Vitamin C is related to the production of dopamine, “a neurotransmitter that underlies motivation and promotes engagement”.

Fruit and veg can also reduce the risk of health problems such as heart disease, strokes and some cancers. The ‘five a day’ campaign is based on advice from the World Health Organization.

*On carrots and curiosity: eating fruit and vegetables is associated with greater flourishing in daily life (2015)

 

View the quiz on our factchecker

Debunking the 5 biggest back pain myths

It is believed eight in 10 people in the UK suffer from back pain at some point in their lives.

This stat is hardly surprising. Back pain has long been a concern for employers and the CIPD Absence Management Survey 2015 revealed it is among the top-five causes of both short and long-term absence in the UK.

But despite their familiarity, many myths are perpetuated around back problems, which may hamper proper diagnosis and treatment.

Here, we attempt to unravel five of the biggest myths related to back pain, from the belief that ‘rest is best’ to the idea that you can ‘slip’ a disc.

Rest is best

Bed rest is often recommended as a step to reduce acute back pain by reducing pressure on the spinal discs and stopping any mechanical stresses that may be causing irritation to pain receptors.

However, prolonged bed rest can actually make the problem worse because inactivity can cause your back to become weak and stiff. It may also lead to muscle atrophy or cardiopulmonary deconditioning. There are also possible emotional side-effects related to the feeling of helplessness that can come from lying in bed all day, and such factors will serve only to delay recovery.

Generally, one or two days rest is recommended to ease the initial pain, followed by moderate, gentle exercise.

Always sit up straight

It is true that slouching is bad for your back and a good posture is helpful in avoiding chronic pain conditions, particularly for those workers who spend long hours sat at a desk.

But sitting up too straight and still for long periods can also be a strain on your back. Instead, workers should aim to vary their posture throughout the day and take regular breaks to avoid putting unnecessary strain on their back.

This might mean standing for part of the day or taking a brief walk to break up long spells in a sedentary position. It may also be helpful to lean back in the chair with both feet on the floor, allowing the spine to curve slightly.

Stretching relieves back pain

Stretching can be effective in relieving back pain related to muscle tightness, but it is not always the right course of action.

In fact, stretching can actually cause further damage in certain cases when the sufferer is unsure of the cause of their pain. For example, if the nerve from the spine is inflamed, stretching the hamstrings and quadriceps will often do more harm than good, so it may be better to avoid these stretches until the symptoms begin to subside.

It is important not to make assumptions on the cause of back pain and apply a one-size-fits-all approach to treatment. However, if it is clear that back pain has resulted from mechanical reasons, stretching is a recommended cause of action that can contribute to overall back health.

Heat will soothe inflammation

Although there is a common perception that heat helps to soothe back pain, this isn’t always the case. In the same vein as stretching, heat is only effective in certain situations – when helping to soothe muscular spasms and trigger points.

In the case of acute injuries, such as a freshly-pulled muscle, heat can actually increase related muscular inflammation and cause the pain to become worse. Instead, it is better to apply ice to such injuries for a short period within 48 to 72 hours.

Heat can be used to soothe more persistent mechanical problems but, equally, should not be relied on as a solution. It helps to manage pain, addressing the symptoms of a back problem, but does not tackle the root cause.

It is possible to slip a disc

The term ‘slipped disc’ has become an incredibly common feature in our vernacular, yet it is not actually possible to ‘slip’ a disc.

Discs consist of metabolically-active tissue and they sit between the vertebrae in the spinal column, acting as shock absorbers. Rather than ‘slipping’, discs simply age and the gel-like centre becomes more stiff and brittle.

The most common issues are a prolapsed (bulging) disc, where inner portion of the disc protrudes and causes the entire disc to bulge, or a herniated disc, where the inner portion breaks through the outer ring. Bulging discs can result in muscle spasms and referred pain down the leg, while herniated discs often result in sharp and shooting pain when the disc compressing spinal nerves. The latter is what we call a ‘trapped nerve’.

View slider version

Building emotional resilience in the workplace

Emotional resilience – an individual’s psychological ability to cope with, or adapt to, pressure, change and stress – has infiltrated the world of the workplace.

Promoting the emotional resilience of employees, enabling them to function more effectively in all areas of their lives, can play an important role in helping them to enhance their productivity and performance. Such efforts also complement more traditional and widely recognised strategies to manage and reduce workplace stress.

Building the requisite mental skills means equipping staff with the tools to cope with the prevailing working environment, whether this entails multiple tasks, challenging managerial relationships or high workloads.

Willis PMI Group outlines five key steps to help employers to achieve this and to support their employees’ mental wellbeing.

Step one: profile the health of your staff

Support and advice for staff on how best to build mental resilience can deliver significant benefits, but employers should first establish if, where and how employees need support and coping strategies.

By building a health profile of your workforce, businesses can determine the most appropriate plan of action.

This can be achieved by mining staff health and management information, such as employee assistance programmes (EAP) data, sickness absence data and mental-ill-health-related PMI claims.

In many cases, line managers will be best place to identify where help is needed but appropriate training is important to help them recognise early signs of stress, changes in behaviour or general performance.

Step two: Establish a supportive environment

Business in the Community and the Mental Health Foundation have recommended fostering a healthy psychological environment in their collaborative ‘Emotional Resilience Toolkit’. This environment can be characterised by factors such as employee reward and recognition, employment security and a management style and culture that promotes mutual trust and respect.

Research* supports this suggested approach, demonstrating that a supportive workplace environment in which employees feel empowered can help enhance employees’ stress-management capabilities.

*Meta-analysis of 27 research articles conducted by Barak et al (2009)

Step three: Identify benefit support

Support for staff can be found in employee benefits – notably in Employee Assistance Programmes (EAP).

EAPs can offer one of the most effective methods of building emotional resilience, offering confidential advice and counselling. EAPs, which provide access to experienced counsellors and a 24/7 telephone helpline, can help staff address and tackle a range of issues, such as anxiety, stress and depression.

EAPs provide a particularly cost-effective solution, providing staff with access to experienced counsellors and a 24/7 telephone helpline. They allow employees to confidentially discuss any issues arising from, or affecting, their work whenever they need support. The helpline enables more reserved employees to communicate and discuss problems without having to engage in face-to-face conversations.

Step four: Introduce resilience and mindfulness training

Emotional resilience capabilities will vary from individual to individual and cannot be taken for granted. Resilience, however, is a skill that can be learned.

Techniques to deal with pressure and stress can be taught through structured resilience training and mindfulness programmes.

Resilience training teaches employees to feel empowered, confident, proactive and decisive. It teaches them not to view difficulties as paralysing events, but rather as challenges. As the benefits of this become more widely recognised, more service providers are looking to offer resilience courses and workshops.

Mindfulness, involving meditation and breathing exercises, provides employees with the tools to improve their awareness of the present moment, rather than being consumed by unhelpful, stress-inducing, thought processes.

Step five: Promote spiritual resilience

Finally, there is a school of thought that suggests spiritual resilience – an individual’s personal life values and goals – can help to support an individual’s emotional resilience.

Building spiritual resilience, it is claimed, can have an important role to play in bolstering employees’ inner strength and general sense of wellbeing. If employees believe in their work, regarding it as meaningful and purposeful, they can have a greater ability to cope when faced with difficult or challenging circumstances.

Spiritual resilience is regarded, alongside emotional resilience, as being one of the key ingredients to mental health by the World Health Organization.

View slider version