Equality, mental health and Brexit top concerns for employers

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Employers are taking strong action to improve the workplace in light of gender pay gap reporting regulations, revelations of sexual harassment, and ongoing Brexit uncertainty

Workplace equality, mental health and Brexit have emerged as the top concerns on the radar of European employers, according to a new survey by law firm Littler.

Its second annual European Employer Survey Report, completed by 572 in-house counsel and HR professionals, found that European employers are taking action to improve fair pay, prevent harassment, support employee mental health, and prepare for Brexit’s employment-related impacts.

In terms of workplace equality, 33% of employers reported providing female, ethnic minority, LGBTQ and disabled employees with more training and opportunities for advancement in 2019, increasing from 21% in 2018.

Close behind, 30% of respondents reported improving transparency around wages and pay policies, up from 21% in 2018.

This is a timely shift given separate research from the CIPD recently found that only half of employees feel they are fairly paid. In addition, 32% said they were modifying compensation policies, up from 25%.

The report follows a number of European laws in recent years requiring organisations to publish their gender pay gaps.

In April 2019, Ireland followed on the heels of the UK by publishing its Gender Pay Gap Information Bill, which will require employers to publish salary information and a narrative explaining any gap when it comes into force in 2020.

Littler’s research also found that employers are more committed to tackling workplace sexual harassment – by updating HR policies (32%, up from 26% in 2018), more proactively addressing complaints and misconduct (31%, up from 23%), and strengthening investigative procedures (30%, up from 23%).

Respondents also showed support for government action on workplace harassment.

Two-fifths (42%) supported companies being required to designate a point of contact for workers to bring allegations, and 35% supported mandatory reporting on the state of gender equality.

Merete Furesund, a partner at Littler in Norway, said that many organisations are taking it upon themselves to tackle sexual harassment in the workplace rather than waiting for legislative change.

“Given that strict regulatory action has not been widespread in the countries surveyed, employers appear to be taking action to address sexual harassment in order to ensure a positive workplace for employees and help protect themselves from liability,” she said.

The research also found that employers are prioritising workplace mental health. Almost nine in 10 respondents (87%) said their organisations were acting to address employee mental health, with 41% providing adequate time off and sick leave, 38% limiting work hours and off-the-clock work, and 35% encouraging a culture of open communication between employees and management.

More than a quarter (28%) added that their organisations have successfully reintegrated employees returning from mental health leave.

Stephan Swinkels, co-ordinating partner international at Littler, welcomed this increased focus on employee mental health.

“Workplace mental health is having its #MeToo movement,” he said. “It’s always been there, but now it’s being acknowledged as a serious concern. Given the array of forces driving the issue we can expect continued momentum as workers feel more comfortable speaking out and companies become more involved in order to retain talent, reduce workplace stress and promote productivity.”

Employers also cited Brexit as a key focus, with almost half (48%) saying they were somewhat or very prepared for the employment-related impacts of the UK’s departure from the EU. Among UK respondents the figure rose to 67%.

Just 12% of European employers said they felt unprepared or somewhat prepared.

This confidence perhaps comes as many employers have taken steps to prepare for Brexit, such as moving their headquarters out of the UK and supporting employees with visas.

It may also be driven by hope that the UK will enact a skills-based immigration system following Brexit. Nearly two-thirds (59%) of UK respondents felt that such a system would enable the nation to remain a global hub for skilled workers.

This research comes as the UK heads to the polls this week to decide which political party will steer the country through the next stage of the Brexit process.

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