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Charity boards and duty of care

Updated: Nov 7, 2019

There has been a great deal of talk about pastoral duty of care following tragic and disturbing events this year, surrounding TV programmes such as Jeremy Kyle and Love Island. As July was The Samaritan’s Talk to us month, it was right that there was increased focus on the role that the workplace plays in our lives. It now feels right to reflect on the duty of care an organisation and its Board has towards the mental health and emotional wellbeing of its employees, not just around their physical safety.

Traditional duty of care

In the past, an organisation’s duty of care over its employees has focused on physical safety. Protective equipment and clothing would be provided and all possible steps taken to avoid physical harm of any sort.

Senior Management Teams and Boards would look at sickness, accident and injury statistics and pat themselves on the back for minimal incidents.

Many organisations would set targets about staying ‘accident free’ for as long as possible, they’d offer vaccines, flu immunisations and medical check ups to keep staff healthy and at work.

More recent duty of care

The focus in more recent years, however, has switched to mental health. With an increasing number of absences being linked to employee stress, anxiety and other mental health issues, Boards and senior leaders have had to sit up and take notice.

In fact the HSE has moved mental health and emotional wellbeing onto an equal footing with the traditional, physical wellbeing focus in its recent “Worklife Support Programme” – a positive step in the right direction.

Let’s have a look at some of the statistics:

Nationally, we’ve seen an increase in the proportion of workplace sickness absence due to depression, anxiety and stress. During 2017/18 this accounted for 44% of reported new and long-term work related ill health. The CIPD reported an increase in what’s become known as ‘presenteeism’ – a phenomenon where employees are ill and should be away from work, but continue to come to work and ‘soldier on’. Which means, the 44% figure should be higher.

According to Mind, the mental health charity, around one in four adults will experience mental health problems each year in the UK – a significant number of the population.

The good news is that in a relatively short period of time, many employers have increased activities aimed at supporting healthy minds in the workplace, such as yoga and mindfulness activities plus initiatives such as ‘fresh fruit Friday.

But do these initiatives go far enough?

I don’t think so.

The over-riding culture in the UK sees workforces that are under-resourced, overworked and stressed. On the whole, introducing some mindfulness exercises and a yoga class at work isn’t going to make employees feel more valued. And for individuals with chronic mental health problems, these ‘solutions’ barely scratch the surface.

The role of the board

As board members, it’s important to support and challenge our organisations to put compassion in the workplace. We must go beyond statutory expectations and do everything we can to understand our employees.

Considering initiatives like the Good Day at Work programme is a really good place to start. This initiative encourages employers to be proactive in their approach to wellbeing. It suggests weaving wellbeing considerations into the very fabric of the organisation rather being reactive in their measures. It also encourages ways in which employee resilience can be improved to help in the longer term.

Compassion should be at the very heart of an organisation’s culture and governance and as Board members, we must strive for changes in behaviour where wellbeing is concerned.Consideration need t be given as to how we equip and support employees to deal with stress, before it becomes a factor rather than managing the process after.

Charities and the third sector face a constant struggle between having the resources to be able to roll out such initiatives, versus their organisational values and principles. If we want to make a difference we need to makes sure this issue is on our Board agendas, and share our approaches across the sector so that we can learn from each other.

How do you deal with mental and health and wellbeing in your organisation?

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