Sunday 11 December 2016

De-stressing the workplace: employers focus on health and well-being

With workplace stress on the rise, Irish companies are tackling the growing trend by offering a more calming environment, and are reaping the benefits

Tanya Sweeney

Published 27/10/2016 | 02:30

Mindfulness: Darren Coen and Cleo Hubbard take time out in the Think Well room at the Vodafone HQ in Leopardstown. Photo: Tony Gavin
Mindfulness: Darren Coen and Cleo Hubbard take time out in the Think Well room at the Vodafone HQ in Leopardstown. Photo: Tony Gavin
Michelle McCarthy and Robbert Feeney spar in the gym at Vodafone HQ. Photo: Tony Gavin

Industries in flux, long hours, emails at 10pm, water-cooler politics… no one ever said office life was easy (emphasis on 'ever').

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But now, workplace stress is officially something to get concerned about, according to new statistics.

In 2013 alone, about 55,000 workers in Ireland were affected by work-related illness, resulting in a total loss of 790,000 productive days.

According to the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI), musculoskeletal disorders - affecting different parts of the body used for movement including the skeleton, muscles, tendons and ligaments - is responsible for the vast majority of absences, at 50pc.

This is followed by work-related stress, anxiety and depression (SAD) at 18pc. The research, published on Thursday, found the average length of absence in 2013 was 17 days for stress, anxiety and depression and 15.9 days for MSD. The average duration for all other types of work-related illness was 12.8 days.

It goes without saying that a stressed out and weary workforce serves nobody, but pretty soon, productivity goes down the plughole.

Employers body Ibec estimates that absenteeism costs Irish businesses as much as €1.5 billion a year, the equivalent to €818 for each employee. What's more, a recent study undertaken by insurer Aviva Health found that 'presenteeism' - the act of attending work while under the weather - cuts productivity by as much as a third, making it a serious challenge for management.

It's not hard to find causes: technological developments mean that contact between boss and staff is often terse. And while technology has certainly greased the wheels of industry, it often means that the lines between home and work are blurred.

Psychotherapist David Kavanagh has recently launched Mindlab, a training company that presents a suite of wellness programmes to workplaces. Among the services he provides for staff are mindfulness, an online marriage bootcamp, and even programmes on how to stop smoking.

"In Ireland, the majority of workers in every industrial sector claim to be stressed," he reveals. "No matter what job you do, the likelihood is that it stresses you. Of course, different people handle stress differently and so one individual may perform poorly under stress while another views it as driving them on to work even better."

Among the most commonly reported causes of stress are: no clear job description or chain of command, no reward for doing well, no way to voice complaints, too much responsibility with too little authority and job insecurity.

"If ignored, workplace stress can have a knock-on effect on personal relationships, and on the family," adds Kavanagh.

Happily, there are a number of Irish workplaces who have acknowledged staff well-being as a sound investment, and have made their workplaces not just tolerable, but enjoyable.

1. Vodafone

Vodafone's holistic view of Think Well, Live Well, Feel Well is managed, predictably, through an app downloaded by all staff.

"The Thinkwell app is on everyone's phone, and it includes a virtual gym," explains HR director James Magill. "We set up competitive fitness games to see who can run or cycle the most miles."

Vodafone's Sandymount office also boasts a wellness centre, complete with a free-to-use gym. "We asked staff what services they might like to see on-site, so we have nutritionists, barbers, optometrists and masseurs that can be booked through the app, and generally paid for by the employee."

Also in the mix are free mindfulness and yoga courses, sleep management sessions, and a tranquil spa.

"We've seen engagement levels go up, a reduction in absenteeism, and people noting that they have more pride and trust in Vodafone.

"On an executive level, we have a strong belief as a responsible employer, and we owe it to our people to manage their well-being," he adds.

As to what measures are in place to safeguard against that blurred line between home and work: "We're rigorous in making sure people switch off, and we focus on digital balance, reveals Magill. "We record if someone does too much overtime and we intervene.

2. Zahra Media Group

Over at Zahra Media Group in Bray, the company's most effective stress-buster came by accident rather than design. "Penny, our lovely dog, was getting a little older and we didn't want to leave her at home," says MD Gina Miltiadou. "We noticed the huge difference it made to people; she's a very calming presence and she just seems to know when people are stressed. She goes over and puts her head on their laps, and it makes them smile. It's a really subtle thing but people love having her around."

Additionally, a masseuse visits the office every Thursday to give 10 massages to staffers; the tab is picked up by the company.

"When John (Mullins, co-founder) and I set up the company, we made a mission to create a company we wanted to work in," says Miltiadou. "We employ creative people and they need to be treated in a certain way and offered the chance to work in a stimulating environment."

Occasionally, pressing projects can have staffers working long hours: "If we're working on a big thing, I'd expect people to be on call, but I wouldn't expect someone to work until 1am unless I was doing it too. As an ongoing thing, the culture is pretty balanced and at the end of the day, or your project, you go home.

"The thing is, your people are your biggest asset. It's a cliche because it's true," she surmises. "If creatives don't feel stimulated and happy they won't create good work. "

3. Salesforce

Over in Sandyford, meanwhile, IT/software company Salesforce won the Best Large Place to Work at the Great Place To Work awards last year. And no wonder: staffers get seven days paid leave to do volunteer work, free meals, lunchtime yoga or Pilates, mindfulness classes, a paid state-of-the-art gym, a wellness room, and regular on-site dental and massage. The company also offers staff €5,000 to spend on education.

"We ask a lot of our employees and we need them to bring their best selves to work everyday," says Mark Stanley, VP of web marketing and marketing operations. "We understand that our employees are at their most productive and most innovative when they are rested and refreshed.

"A major asset to our employees is our flexible work schedule," he adds. "There are only so many hours in the day sometimes you need to take time for personal needs, even during working hours."

Salesforce recently ran a one-month wellness training programme: "It was about encouraging our employees to be mindful of their daily activities around health, relationships, time away from work, and fun. Our goal is to turn these wellness practices into sustainable habits. We want to encourage employees to take the time off they need, to avoid having lunch at their desk, to laugh, to exercise, to prioritise their personal time."

Measures are in place, too, for those experiencing stress, anxiety or depression.

As to what advice Stanley offers for Irish bosses: "I think it's important to remember that teamwork isn't just about winning - it's about sharing that core belief that you are creating a real community that extends past the brand into real benefits for all."

4. Thinkhouse

Thinkhouse youth marketing agency is all about connecting brands to young audiences, so fun features quite highly in MD Jane McDaid's modus operandi.

"Why have a team of people working together that don't laugh, giggle, love what they do and who they do it with?" she says. "What drives me, more than anything, is to build a company and a team that's capable of achieving our maximum potential.

"At the heart of our agency's values is respect - that, for me, is critical," she explains. "To help with respect we drive a number of initiatives that help people develop themselves, personally as much as professionally."

Each Tuesday, the company holds yoga classes, and has 'feng shui Friday' once a month; three hours dedicated to de-cluttering the office and then a fun, shared cultural or sporting or fun experience.

"We introduced duvet days about seven years ago," says McDaid. "The idea is that, if for some reason someone decides that they fancy the next day off work and, by cancelling at short notice they are not letting down any of their teammates or clients, they can simply text and book in a duvet day (a day off, taken from annual leave allocation) at the last minute."

"The reward (for working) can't just be pay - that's shallow," adds McDaid. "The reward must be more than that. The reward must be a feeling of support, care and genuine belief in people's ability to be their best selves."

Irish Independent

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