Kelly Feehan 7 Jan 2019 04:29pm

Workplace wellbeing predictions for 2019

Believe it or not, another year has come to a close. As we think back over what happened in 2018, it’s clear that employee wellbeing was one of the trends dominating the headlines – from the state of the nation’s mental health through to whether working whilst commuting should be counted towards an employee’s working hours

Thanks to this continued air time, many employers are now putting in place innovative programmes for financial, mental and physical wellbeing. The aim? To both increase worker productivity and meet new social expectations. As the line between our professional and personal lives continue to blur, providing a robust suite of wellbeing initiatives is becoming a corporate responsibility and a strategy to drive employee engagement and retention.

In the accountancy industry, "employee wellbeing" has been climbing the corporate agenda and is now one of the most important issues facing firms. We know from our own research that 34% of ICAEW members aren’t happy about their physical and mental health, with 31% stating they’d experienced mental health issues. Additionally, the research revealed that 31% of millennials (such as those currently combining work and studying) wouldn’t tell anyone at work if they were suffering from mental ill health.

It’s positive then that last year we’ve seen the Big Four firms adopting a more serious approach to workplace wellbeing. For example, PwC is now allowing some new recruits to work the hours they want to through their Flexible Talent Network, whilst EY has launched a financial wellness hub for its staff in the UK, with the aim of helping them to manage their personal finances and improve their financial wellbeing.

Following what we’ve seen last year, we’ve compiled our thoughts on what we think will be the major workplace wellbeing trends for 2019, and why employers should think about them seriously.

1. The evolution of the working week

Since the Industrial Revolution, one workplace trend has remained an almost constant – working 9-5, five days a week. Granted this is not the case for everyone, but for most employees, this is stipulated in their employment contracts. However, is this going to change? Increasingly we are hearing calls for a shift to a four-day week, to allow employees more time to relax and recharge as the pressures and strains of work become more intense. The TUC recently called for this change to best benefit workers, and in New Zealand, a trial was carried out to test if employees reacted better to working a shorter week. The results? Work was completed, and both teamwork and engagement increased. It wasn’t all plain sailing – some employees had to revert back to a five-day week during a busy period and whilst the quality of work didn’t drop, it didn’t improve either. So, it may not yet be the productivity fixer we’re all craving, but it could be a way to engage employees and encourage a more rested, relaxed workplace. And this was just one experiment – with a tailored approach to different workplaces, some employers may find the results are more positive, so if you’re looking to shake up employee wellness, a four-day week might be the answer.

2. "Hidden" diseases being properly addressed

Over the past five years employers have become increasingly aware of the threat of "hidden" diseases, such as mental ill health. Following business leaders’ calls for better mental health training and the government’s commitment to mental health first aiders, we fully expect businesses to soon be able to support mental ill health as comfortably as they do physical health. However, the next challenge is getting employees to speak openly about these problems – including the more taboo physical health problems. Be it OCD, ME, Dyslexia or endometriosis, these hidden diseases have a significant impact on an employee’s wellbeing, and if employers really want to boost employee wellbeing, they need to continue finding ways to break down barriers and have open conversations about the health of their workforce.

3. The rise of the robots

In 2018 the conversation around Artificial Intelligence (AI) has really ramped up. As companies become more used to automation, they are starting to see how technology such as AI or machine learning can work to complement their workforce. For example, Commerzbank has started trialling AI to write analyst reports to save employees time. In the legal sector, firms are using machine learning to help code and sort previous cases, freeing up legal teams to add value in other places, and allowing them to partake in more interesting, career advancing work. Whilst AI won’t add value to every workplace, or may be too expensive to implement, for some workplaces, it could help lessen the burden of menial, administrative tasks on employees and help them advance their career by letting them learn skills in other business areas.

4. Microchipping

Whilst slightly reminiscent of 1984, another workplace wellbeing trend we’re seeing is employee monitoring. Or more specifically, microchipping. Biohax, a Swedish company has already microchipped 4,000 employees internationally and is coming to the UK following increased demand. Ease of access to buildings, alongside making travel easier are the benefits cited, which for many time-poor employees could be appealing. It may take a while to take off and won’t sit comfortably with everyone, but it’s already making waves and we won’t be surprised if we see more about this trend next year.

5. Out of hours

Our recent research revealed that the amount of time that employees spend working outside of their contracted hours was significantly high. In fact, of those surveyed almost two in five (38%) regularly work on their days off, including putting in hours at the weekend, on annual leave and during public holidays. Unsurprisingly, working long hours has been linked with depression, anxiety and other health issues due to emotional exhaustion. Additionally, being constantly connected to mobile devices can leave people susceptible to digital burnout. Earlier this year, Lidl announced its HQ staff wouldn’t be able to send emails between 6pm and 7am in an attempt to reduce employee stress. So, if businesses are wanting to improve their employee wellbeing, introducing email blackouts may be a trend we see gain momentum this year.

As this year begins, it’s important to reflect on the progress made over the previous 12 months and learn what more can be done this year. It’s undeniable that the workplace is changing at an exponential rate, so employers need to keep up to make sure they’re not only offering their talent the best support, but also to attract new employees to help drive the business forward in 2019.

Kelly Feehan, service director, CABA