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EnvironMENTALLY friendly: Working environment and employee wellbeing

In the decade to April 2021, the average full-time employee worked 36.9 hours per week — 30.8% of all hours in a 5-day working week.1

Meanwhile, the average UK adult sleeps 7.6 hours per night2 — 31.7% of all hours in a 5-day working week. Full-time workers therefore spend almost as much time working as sleeping.

Many of us make our bedrooms comfy with mattresses, pillows, curtains, carpets and maybe even gadgets and gizmos to relax and aid sleep. Yet most workers have little control over the place they spend almost as much time as they do asleep: Work.

Why working environment matters

Employers understandably want to ensure their physical work environment is a positive place for employees to be rather than a Dickensian workhouse. However, employees themselves generally have little control over it.

This has its downsides. For example:

  • Open-plan layouts with little soundproofing/access to quiet spaces can raise stress and reduce productively3
  • Poor ergonomic setups can increase the risk musculoskeletal complaints4
  • Inadequate lighting can cause screen glare and eyestrain.5

COVID-19: A new working world order

Since the explosion in remote working due to the pandemic, many employees now have far more control over their work environment. However, this hasn’t necessarily improved things. Home working has seen a rise in musculoskeletal complaints due to poor ergonomic arrangements,exacerbated by reduced physical activity due to lockdowns.7

Physical inactivity is also linked with low mood8 and can cause weight gain.9 Being overweight can increase the risk of illnesses such as cancer, heart disease and stroke.10,11

Physical adaptions for a better working environment

Many of Unum’s resources to improve employees’ physical wellbeing start with the work environment.

Our line manager On Course workshops for employers are CPD-accredited. These aim to empower, upskill and support managers to spot problems and support employees with absence management and wellbeing.

As part of this, managers can complete online learning e-modules on topics such as:

For more information, email

For those wanting motivation to get moving, our bWell podcast on sedentary behaviour is worth a listen. It covers how sitting may be the new smoking, already being responsible for around 70,000 UK deaths annually due to its associations with obesity, heart problems, stroke, type 2 diabetes and colorectal cancer.12

Employees can get further fitness support via our employee assistance programme (EAP), provided by LifeWorks.* This includes LIFT, a tailored, app-based fitness regime offering real-time chat with fitness experts to help employees get moving, meet their fitness goals and feel the benefits of physical activity.

Another resource in this area is one of our U-First employee workshops, Movement Matters. This explains the risks of sitting too long and covers why movement is so important, plus information on common musculoskeletal complaints and their causes.

And for employees already suffering with neck, back or joint problems, Help@hand,† the health and wellbeing app from Unum, offers virtual appointments with physiotherapists who offer a personalised approach to dealing with their complaint.

Mental wellbeing matters too

Whilst ‘the work environment’ may suggest physical objects, every workplace also has a mental working environment.

A poor mental working environment and its effects can be harder to identify. Yet mental health remains a major cause of sickness absence (accounting for 11.6% of hours lost to sickness in the UK in 2020), making mental wellness just as important as physical wellness.13

A mental health and wellbeing policy is vital (see our guidance on creating one here) to ensure physical and mental wellness in the workplace have parity.

If you’re stuck, Unum offers a mental health and wellbeing review. Using guidance in the government’s Thriving at Work report and the Mental Health at Work Commitment, we’ll examine your current mental health and wellbeing initiatives and produce a comprehensive report with an action plan to improve your current measures. We’ll also partner with you for a year afterwards, providing follow-up consultations, reviewing progress and help implementing solutions.

Employees with Group Income Protection get access to the Unum Mental Health Pathway for fast and comprehensive mental health support. During the pandemic, we also introduced our employee Wellbeing Checks. This offers early intervention for those struggling with their wellbeing, offering a personalised 1-2-1 session from our rehabilitation team.

U-First also has a host of other employee wellbeing training available to help employees through difficult times. Topics include:

  • Thriving through change: Embracing the unknown
  • Resilience
  • Lifestyle management.

Sickness absence and reasonable adjustments to the working environment

Of course, if an employee does fall ill, their working environment may have to change.

Here our vocational rehabilitation consultants can step in to talk to employees experiencing sickness absence about their goals and needs, including a phased return to work if possible, and liaise with employers to adjust the working environment accordingly.

They can also offer ergonomic assessments, help employers identify reasons for ongoing absences and suggest reasonable adjustments that may bring employees back to work.

Wellbeing matters — wherever employees are

Whether it’s guidance on offering a healthy mental and physical work environment or support for managers and employees on dealing with illness or injury, Unum can help.

Post-pandemic, the working world will be very different. Many employees will work remotely far more,14 spending much longer in potentially unhealthy environments (involving sedentary behaviour, poor ergonomic setups, inadequate lighting and periods of isolation, which could impact their mental health).

As a result, it’s more important than ever to support employees’ physical and mental wellbeing, starting with their work environment — wherever that may be.

* For Unum GIP Customers. LifeWorks log-in required.
† Help@hand is a virtual, value-added benefit service which connects the employees of Unum customers to third party specialists who can help manage their health and wellbeing, and that of their family. Access to the service is facilitated by Unum at no cost to the Unum customer. Unum is not the provider of the service but can withdraw or change the service at any time. The service is entirely separate from any insurance policy provided by Unum and is subject to the terms and conditions of the relevant third-party specialists. There is no additional cost or increase in premium as a result of Unum making this benefit available.

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