Take a break to find your balance

December 15, 2006

A happy and healthy workplace is a productive workplace, says Harriet Swain. So establishing an office environment that is physically, emotionally and mentally harmonious will benefit everyone.

Fancy a tea break? You can't? Too much work on, the boss wouldn't like it and you can't physically get out of the door until the person next to you leans sideways. Sounds like your working environment could be healthier.

Patrick Nash, chief executive of the College and University Support Network, says that research shows that a healthy workplace reduces staff turnover, increases loyalty and commitment, and improves morale, productivity and working relationships. But he says it is a complex issue and can be achieved only if both employers and employees take action.

First, Nash says, you need to ensure that appropriate policies and codes of conduct exist to tackle anything that could have a negative effect on wellbeing. These could cover flexible working, work-life balance, recruitment and retention and bullying.

John Bamford, health and safety officer at the University and College Union, says these policies should be drawn up after wide consultation among those who will be affected.

Managers have to consider what support is available for staff and know how to direct them to appropriate help. Lecturers and managers also need training on mental health issues so they are able to spot when intervention may be necessary.

Nash suggests setting up a pinboard dedicated to health and wellbeing, which could include news articles or research results on related issues, and encouraging people to talk to friends and family or their manager about any difficulties they may have.

Mark Wheeler, spokesman for the Health and Safety Executive, says sustained leadership from senior managers is essential. "Without it, an institution will not be motivated to take action," he says. "Where the vice-chancellor makes it clear that managing occupational health is a priority, the institution can really get things done."

He says it is especially important for managers to have regular and supportive contact with staff who are absent due to ill health, and to have the right systems in place to support absence management so that problem areas can be targeted quickly.

Bamford says staff can head off problems before they arise by joining and becoming active in a union, and making sure they have a union safety representative who is respected by employers. This should ensure that any risk assessment takes into account the potential for stress, that workloads do not become excessive and that overcrowding does not become a problem.

He says the trend towards open-plan workspaces can cause distress for some people. "One of the things academics do is think," he says. "It is very difficult to do that in an open workspace." They also need private space to speak to students or colleagues.

But for others, individual offices can be isolating, says Clive Parkinson, health and safety adviser for the Universities and Colleges Employers'

Association. He says that the problem is that individual ideas of an ideal working environment differ. What one person finds too cold, another may think is ideal. For this reason, he advises that managers take time to identify issues that need addressing, such as whether the temperature and humidity are right and whether noise levels are acceptable, and discussing them with colleagues. Once problems have been identified, managers can try to eliminate them.

David Harrison, assistant director of human resources at Birmingham University, says that management also needs to think about the different needs of individuals in promoting exercise and a good diet. They need to provide advice on diet, make exercise accessible and encourage staff to make the most of the sporting facilities that most universities have to offer, but they will have to bear in mind that individuals will want different things. "It is very important not to patronise people or force them down a certain route," he says. Middle-aged staff interested in taking up aerobics will probably not want to do it with their fitter younger students, for example. One of Birmingham's initiatives is to develop walking routes around the campus.

Peter Totterdell, senior research fellow at the Institute of Work Psychology at Sheffield University, says there are some elements of a working environment that most individuals will find difficult.

Research shows that excessive work demands, lack of variety in work or control over how and when it is done, minimal participation in decision-making and insufficient reward for personal effort can all badly affect psychological health. He suggests redesigning jobs so that they are more rewarding and involve more participation. He also advises allowing staff to have greater flexibility over their hours of work and trying to enable them to develop their careers in personally fulfilling ways.

Good work relationships are crucial to psychological health, Totterdell says. Clear and authentic communication, positive feedback and personal interactions that are fair and show respect will help here.

Bamford says that if any staff have a problem with health and safety issues at work, they should not just silently put up with it. They should complain. Put the complaint in writing and copy it to the union. While employers have a statutory duty to inform employees about any possible health and safety risks, employees also have a duty to let employers know if they think they are not meeting health and safety standards.

And if you do nothing else, take a lunch break, Harrison says. "Get away from your office and use some of the facilities there are in higher education. It's about remembering there is another world out there."

More information

Health and Safety Executive advice on improving occupational health: http:///www.hse.gov.uk/pubns/misc743.pdf

Universities and Colleges Employers' Association guidance on managing health and safety and on managing stress: www.ucea.ac.uk

College and University Support Network: www.cusn.org.uk


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