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Future Working, Future Risks

The speed at which technology and the way we work are changing has led many to refer to our current period as the ‘Industrial Revolution 4.0’. Automation, artificial intelligence and a working style that can have more impact on our mental than our physical health have all combined to create major changes in the everyday life of the working person.

Since the Health and Safety at Work Act was introduced in 1974, fatal and non-fatal workplace injuries have dropped by 85% and 58% respectively – but historical ignorance of dangerous materials means that thousands of people still die every year from illnesses that could have been prevented. With new materials and technologies being introduced all the time, it is vital that we continue to educate ourselves on the physical and psychological risks that come with development.

Today’s Workplace

In the British Safety Council’s ‘Future Risk’ report, business psychology company Robertson Cooper’s Sir Cary Cooper CBE says: “The future of work, at least for the next ten or 20 years, was set by the recession. It has had a prolonged impact that has created a workplace where there are fewer people doing more work.”

The report also mentions Britain’s ‘gig economy’ – a culture of short-term and zero hours contracts leaving workers with a lack of security. The UK job market has become more fluid and more freelanced, raising questions about whether the skills currently required for modern working will still be relevant in decades to come.

While workplaces have become safer and more risk-aware in recent years, the psychological impact of job instability and longer hours worked is taking its toll. The UK lost an estimated 12.5M working days to poor mental health in 2017, accounting for almost 50% of all absences. This marks a clear need for improved wellbeing strategies, not just to tackle existing issues but to safeguard for the future.

Automation, AI and ICT

The Health and Safety Executive have indicated that 11 million jobs may become surplus to requirements in the next 20 years as a result of automation in industries like automotives and electronics. Current technology in many cases involves what some refer to as ‘co-bots’ –robotics and automated processes that still require human collaboration.

As well as minimising opportunities for human error, new technology can allow dangerous tasks to be taken off an employee’s to-do list. From a health and safety perspective the minimising of risk is key, but for many workers the fear of being replaced by machines will only continue to grow. In addition to this, questions are raised about the materials we work with. It seems unlikely that another asbestos crisis could happen now, but potential risks associated with new nanotechnologies need to be pre-empted and prevented.

Other technological changes in our working lives have come from ICT – portable technologies and high-speed browsing that mean many workers never truly ‘switch off’ when their working day is done. For many, the work-life balance is becoming poorly weighted, while concerns about job security can drive staff to overwork themselves and prevent them from expressing concerns.

Mitigating Risks

According to research by REBA (the Reward and Employee Benefits Association), the number of organisations with a wellbeing strategy grew by 20% last year to a total of 45% overall. Employee Assistance Programmes, health screenings and discounted gym memberships are commonly being offered to try to boost staff morale and wellbeing, but businesses must take a forward-thinking, people-centred approach to mitigate future risks.

While flexible working in the extreme can feel insecure, an element of flexibility helps to provide a better work-life balance and increase feelings of trust between employers and employees. The value of supporting employee mental health has been proved, with a wellbeing project from South Liverpool Homes decreasing employee absence by 54% in its first year and saving them £25,000. Somerset County Council’s £500,000 stress reduction programme is also a well-publicised success, saving them £1.9M over a three-year period thanks to increased staff engagement, attendance and productivity.

More than half of UK employers currently have no wellbeing strategy in place, let alone formal mental health training provisions, something that will have to change to ensure the ongoing protection and support of the working community. As well as keeping up with developments and training in physical risks, employers must start to view the mental health of their staff in the same way they do the physical.

“Whether it’s 24/7 working, the ‘gig’ economy or the drive towards automation, our mental and physical health, even our very sense of self, is at risk,” says British Safety Council Chief Executive Mike Robinson. “Safety has not gone away either in the future world of work, with the physical risks of working in close proximity with robots calling for new thinking in design, training and regulation.”

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