The future of workplace risks, and what you can do about them

Sleep management, transient workers and technology will test employers' duty of care. Now's the time to start making adjustments. By Chris Rofe, Senior Vice-President, Lockton Benefits.

Employee behaviours and workplaces are changing, and so are the risks. These changing risks will require employers to adjust policies and make practical alterations to the workplace. They might also stretch and alter employers’ duty of care towards workers.

For decades now many companies have had to consider the risk of slips and trips, employee mesothelioma, respiratory problems, hand-arm vibration syndrome and so on.

More recently mental health, drugs and alcohol abuse and musculoskeletal problems have risen up the agenda for HR and health and safety departments.

Changing workplace risks might stretch and alter employers’ duty of care towards workers.

In the years ahead, we predict the importance of rest, and the challenges of transient workers and technology will all become bigger preoccupations for employers. Let’s look at each of these in turn:

1. Always tired

Sleep disorders are increasingly common, owing to factors such as over-use of smartphones and the stress caused by being constantly connected to the office.

The ill-effects are profound. Chronic sleep restriction – to just six hours per night – might reduce one’s cognitive performance as much as if you went without sleep for two whole nights.

And just one or two weeks of sleep curtailment can result in increased appetite and food intake; decreased insulin sensitivity and glucose tolerance; impaired immune response to vaccination; reduced ability to resist infection, and mood disturbances. (For more information, see What really happens when workers don’t get enough sleep (opens a new window).)

In future, sleep pods, sleep-disorder screening and sleep experts could all become more commonplace in offices. Some companies will seek to remove the stigma around “sleeping on the job” and emphasise the broader benefits of rest and work-life balance.

Companies will seek to remove the stigma around 'sleeping on the job' and emphasise the broader benefits of rest and work-life balance.

Sleep pods have been popping up in Silicon Valley for nearly a decade. Law firms and consultancies in Europe and elsewhere have also increasingly introduced them into offices.

Many more sectors beyond technology, aviation and medicine – which have long had rules and initiatives around rest – will focus on sleep as a part of their wellbeing programmes and efforts to improve productivity.

Programmes that screen for sleep disorders have been shown to reduce healthcare costs and workplace accidents, and increase productivity. For example, a 2012 study by the Union Pacific Railroad Employees Health System, a pension and health fund manager, found such a programme would save the organisation nearly $5m (opens a new window) over two years.

Many sleep management challenges faced by companies might also be exacerbated by growth in the ‘gig economy’.

With the increase in flexible working and more employees taking work home and working in front of blue light-emitting screens until late, more companies nowadays effectively have ‘shift workers’.

Some employees may also have second jobs, in hospitality perhaps, which requires them to stay up until the early hours. Such second jobs (and the lifestyles they lead to) may appear to have nothing to do with the primary employer – except that it may be the primary employer that feel the effects. 

2. Working elsewhere

More and more of the working-age population are self-employed or on zero-hour contracts. Technological advances have seen more people employed by companies online or through apps. 

The future of the workplace won't fully consist of full-time employees: it will also comprise gig-economy workers, including consultants, contractors, freelancers and part-time employees.

Employers will be required to treat and care for all employees equally, irrespective of how they are hired.

Yet gig economy workers, temps and workers on zero-hours contracts reported receiving fewer protections for their health and wellbeing at work than their permanent, full-time colleagues, found a survey of 500 non-permanent workers (opens a new window) and 100 business leaders in the UK.

From health advice and counselling to fire safety inductions and the issue of personal protective equipment, non-permanent workers came out second best.

We expect this inequality to be less feasible in future. Employers will increasingly be required to treat and care for all employees equally, irrespective of how they are hired.

This may raise questions, however, about employers’ duty of care and the extent to which they can manage the adverse consequences of an employee also working somewhere else. For instance, if a freelance worker turns up to an office with an illness or injury incurred while working elsewhere, how many changes can an employer reasonably be expected to make?

How might the ill-effects of different jobs’ impact on a contractor’s mental health be quantified? If there was a worsening of that contractor’s mental health, which had monetary consequences, which employer might be liable?

3. Stressed, and always on

Work-related texts and emails can colonise employees’ private lives, reducing wellbeing, productivity and leading, in some cases, to complete breakdown.

Workplace email is a significant source of stress, indicate some academic studies. One study found that just the anticipatory stress (opens a new window) of expecting after-hours emails might negatively affect our well-being.

Half of all 14-year olds already have back pain as a result of over-use of smart devices and sedentary lifestyles.

In 2012, Volkswagen blocked all emails to employees’ Blackberries (opens a new window) after-hours. Daimler took the step of deleting all emails (opens a new window) received by employees while on vacation. In 2014, the German labor ministry prohibited managers from calling or emailing staff (opens a new window) after work hours, except in an emergency.

In 2017 a law was introduced in France (opens a new window) requiring companies with more than 50 employees to establish hours when staff should not send or answer emails.

This could be just the tip of the iceberg, as more companies seek to detach employees from the digital leash.

Technology does not just affect people’s emotional wellbeing. Half of all 14-year olds already have back pain (opens a new window) as a result of over-use of smart devices and sedentary lifestyles, according to research by Cardinus, the health, safety and risk management specialist.

These young people will be in the workforce before too long, and companies will have a responsibility to accommodate and help manage these postural problems as best they can.

Some employers could be looking at a postural time-bomb. Are desks, chairs, work stations generally designed for this? Do wellbeing programmes make allowance of such postural challenges?

There are no easy, obvious solutions to these growing issues. Different companies may well employ different measures, and find success. The critical thing is that they consider necessary policies and adjustments now – before the problems, and their ill effects, are upon them. 

For more information, please contact Chris Rofe on:

Tel: +44 (0)20 7933 2876 | Email: (opens a new window)