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The three hardest workplace conversations

Issues around mental and physical health are some of the hardest conversations to have with employees. But we need to start talking about them.

“Fat employees to get gym vouchers” – so read the headline in a national newspaper, followed by indignation and incredulity. It was a cheap shot at employees, the NHS, and employers, following publication of the NHS Five Year Forward View last week. It was a provocative headline and I winced at the conversations that would inevitably follow.

But obesity isn’t the hardest conversation to start about the health and wellbeing of our workforce. In my experience, staff that are overweight are well aware of it. They can obsess about it, joke about it and worry about it, but don’t often have any anxiety about discussing it. They can struggle to find the time, space, opportunity or willpower to do something about it. But having a conversation isn’t that hard. 

There are, however, three incredibly difficult conversations to be had with our staff when it comes to health and wellbeing. But if we are serious about supporting health and wellbeing in the workplace we need to have open conversations about them. What are they? You won’t like them either... 

The first is about alcohol. Frankly, too many of us drink above safe levels. It’s easier to imagine binge drinking as drunk young people in nightclubs who end up being admitted to A&E. That is a problem; but so is regular drinking above safe limits (1-2 units a day for women and 2-3 units a day for men). It is this level of drinking that is also affecting our health, our weight and effective functioning. It is generally thought that around a million people every year are treated by the NHS following alcohol-related admissions. I and many others in the NHS will be taking part in 'Dry January'. Why not sign up your organisation? The evidence says that a period of abstinence can result in reducing consumption in the remainder of the year, which has to be good. 

The second is domestic violence. In the NHS, 77% of the workforce are women. One-in-four women (and one-in-six men) are affected by domestic violence. It’s abhorrent. It leads to stress, lower productivity and increased sickness, and far worse. It is a societal issue but we kid ourselves if we don’t think this is anything to do with the workplace. There are some easy, cost-free interventions for employers; visit The Corporate Alliance Against Domestic Violence website at www.caadv.org.uk. More importantly, start the conversation today, it will surprise you. Each year one woman a week dies because of domestic violence. We can help reduce that, which has to be worth starting the conversation, doesn’t it? A real case of HR saving lives. 

And finally, mental health. We know that one-in-four of the population will be affected by mental health conditions, i.e. one-in-four of our employees. Even if they are not directly affected, many could be supporting family and friends. It’s not easy and there is still way too much stigma. There’s a lack of understanding about the impact and how to support employees. Some employers are really getting to grips with this using mindful employer initiatives, mental health first aiders, and just by giving permission and space to talk about mental health issues. Check out the Time to Change website at www.time-to-change.org.uk to see how you could start those conversations. 

It can be complex to open up discussions about obesity but it will be the brave and courageous employers that understand health and wellbeing is more than access to gyms and health clubs. They will be determined enough to open up conversations about our relationship with alcohol, the impact of domestic violence and the mental health of our staff. Employees don’t leave these at the door when they clock on and we should not pretend that they do.   

We have an enormous collective leadership opportunity to change the way we think about these issues. Let’s change the paradigm. 

Dean Royles is director of HR and OD at the Leeds Teaching Hospitals Trust, one of the largest NHS Trusts in the country, employing some 15,000 staff