Your Member Benefits Website features include:

  • Access to online articles with helpful information
  • Ability to submit an online form asking a counselor to contact you
  • Topics covering working life, wellness, parenting, management, etc.

Your Customer Hub features include:

  • Automated headcount updates in UCMS
  • Invoicing reflective of the active populations under your account
  • Access reporting with case trends, disruptive issues, utilisation

Local Service Partners

Local Service Partners are independent EAPs with which WPO has established strategic relationships for the delivery of global EAP services in alignment with the WPO models, processes and quality standards.

  • 13 September 2022
  • 1 year

Fulfilling Employers’ Duty of Care

Emily Fournier

Content Specialist

The global workforce is more stressed out than ever, a new report from Gallup contends, as a whopping 44 percent of employees—an all-time high—claim to experience “a lot” of daily stress, breaking the previous record set in 2020 during the height of the pandemic. Consequently, the report further revealed that only a third of employees worldwide are thriving in their overall wellbeing, a percentage that is even poorer among certain parts of the world, including Europe and South Asia, whereas the latter reports that only 11 percent of its employees are thriving—the lowest wellbeing in the world.

While a new report released by the American Institute of Stress revealed that close to 8 in 10 employees believe that workplace stress is more severe than it was a generation ago—certainly a major factor in employees’ overall wellbeing—these jarring statistics can also undoubtedly be attributed to the unprecedented level of disruptions that employees must contend with on a daily basis, including inflation, public health emergencies, rising geopolitical conflicts, fast-moving climate disasters, and a global energy crisis. As employees struggle to maintain their wellbeing in the midst of these constant life-changing events—including major changes to the workplace itself—organizations are taking a hit: only 21 percent of employees are currently engaged at work, Gallup’s research shows, while findings from the 2022 Global Benefits Attitudes Survey revealed that over half of employees (53 percent) are open to leaving their employer as the Great Resignation continues.

As employee wellbeing continues to decline as global disruptions continue to pick up, both employees and their employers are asking themselves: To what extent are organizations responsible for the safety, security, and overall welfare of their employees?—a question whose answer depends largely on organizations’ established duty of care to their employees; a fiduciary responsibility determined by both internal policies and local and national statutes. The follow-up question that many employees are now asking—as they contemplate leaving their organization for another, or leaving the workforce entirely—is: To what extent should organizations be responsible for their employees’ overall wellbeing?

To answer this and more, it is important to first examine the objectives of an organization’s duty of care.

What is a Duty of Care?

To better understand the purpose and parameters of an organization’s duty of care, it is helpful to be able to define it. The following are three examples of widely-accepted definitions of “duty of care” applied across all institutions:

  • “A duty to take reasonable care to protect someone from foreseeable harm or loss.” (Law Insider)
  • “The legal obligation to safeguard others from harm while they are in your care, using your services, or exposed to your activities.” (Collins English Dictionary)
  • “A moral and legal obligation to ensure that everyone associated with the establishment…is fully protected from any personal, physical, and/or emotional harm, either on the premises or when engaged in activities relating to the establishment.” (Educare)

In short, an organization’s duty of care is to ensure the safety and wellbeing of their employees, largely by proactively preventing harm and mitigating risk. Historically, this meant maintaining a safe workspace, fostering a benevolent workplace culture, and providing decent benefits, which included practical measures such as developing fire safety, prevention, and evacuation plans; identifying and managing hazards; drafting policies and procedures around medical emergencies; and addressing and preventing workplace violence, harassment, bullying or discrimination of any kind—all procedures that ensured employees’ safety and wellbeing within the physical workspace.

Limitations to Duty of Care; Rethinking its Parameters

But as the rise of remote work, hybrid work models, and the digital transformation of the workplace continue to blur the boundaries between work and life for many of today’s employees—in addition to pushing employees out of the office and placing significant distance between leaders and their team—these measures are no longer enough; organizations must now adopt a broad-based approach to safety management, safeguarding employees’ workplace wellbeing—wherever their workplace may be. As global crises and other external factors continue to place employees’ welfare at risk—impacting both their personal and work lives—this means going beyond caring for employees’ wellbeing at work, and instead taking steps to secure their holistic wellbeing.

While these steps will vary depending on the unique needs and circumstances pertaining to an organizations’ employees, they can ultimately be reduced to four key components: risk assessment, planning, prevention, and communication. These require leaders to stay informed, present, and engaged. They urge leaders to connect with their employees to determine what conditions, circumstances, or other risk factors are barring them from maintaining good health and wellbeing; to stay on top of weather updates, assess geopolitical and social climates, quality of access to food, housing, and healthcare; and monitor public health risks. Moreover, they require leaders to adjust or develop safety and prevention plans to adequately address evolving risks, keep their employees informed through timely communication, and provide them with or refer them to the right resources.

The bottom line: Duty of care in today’s world means preparing for all worst-case scenarios and unpredictable life events, even if they happen outside of the office. This is a truth that virtually all employers had to contend with during the onset of the pandemic, where they were faced with the challenge to rapidly design and execute effective COVID-19 response plans. Whether it’s guiding employees through a shift to remote work during a pandemic, limiting their risk of infection to the full extent possible; providing resources, funds, and support to relocated employees during wars, political conflicts, or natural disasters; or providing the right accommodations to meet employees’ needs, no matter what the circumstance is that threatens employees’ wellbeing, employers have a responsibility to address it and alleviate its impact on their employees.

Benefits of Fulfilling Duty of Care

In addition to being a morally sound decision, going above and beyond to fulfill one’s duty of care is also, frankly, a good organizational strategy. A new report released by Gallup revealed that roughly 61 percent of today’s workforce cite better personal wellbeing as “very important” to them when deciding to accept a new job. Recognizing this desire—and the urgent need to compete with other organizations to provide the best support and benefits to attract and attain employees—90 percent of employers plan to invest more in their mental health benefits, the 2022 Employee Wellness Industry Trends report shows, while 80 percent plan on investing more in telemedicine services, 76 percent plan on investing more in stress management and resilience benefits, and 71 percent in mindfulness and meditation benefits.

In addition to attracting new employees, other organizational benefits to fulfilling one’s duty of care include:

  • It improves employee retention: In its report, Gallup revealed that employees who strongly agree that their employer cares about their wellbeing are 69 percent less likely to search for a new job, noting that caring about employee wellbeing also produced lower turnover. The impact that caring about employees’ welfare has on retention and turnover rates can perhaps be best explained by a shocking statistic reported in a recent Forbes article: that 97 percent of employees say that safety and wellbeing are important factors when considering where they work, more so than in determining where to live or where to send their children to school.
  • It yields greater profits. What has been oft-reported over the last few years is that how organizations treat their employees is becoming an increasingly significant factor in consumers’ buying decisions. According to new research from Qualtrics, one in four consumers stopped buying from an organization during the pandemic due to what they perceived were insufficient health and safety measures, while a third of consumers started purchasing from new organizations that they felt had responsible COVID-19 safety protocols. Another consideration that is growing in importance is whether consumers believe that organizations are doing enough to address environmental and societal challenges, which only a quarter argued that they are.

Additionally, research has found that organizations that boast sufficient environmental, social, and governance (ESG) and employee health and safety (EHS) strategies outperform the S&P 500 by 3 to 5 percent, while 78 percent of HR professionals note that investing in employee wellness can increase organizations’ ROI. In addition to generating more profits, by investing in employee safety and wellbeing, organizations can also avoid paying medical bills due to work-related accidents or injuries, as well as getting caught in costly negligence lawsuits.

  • It strengthens employee engagement. Employees who strongly agree that their employer cares about their overall wellbeing are over 70 percent less likely to experience burnout, and 3 times more likely to be engaged at work; this is especially true when it comes to getting involved in workplace wellbeing initiatives. For example, a monthly event series hosted by Wellable that provides expert-led wellness experiences and resources to its employees as seen as high as 90 percent engagement. In its final 2021 Employee Well-Being Report Glint also reported that employees who feel valued and cared for by their employers are also three times more likely to be happy at work, which serves as a buffer against stress, burnout, fatigue, and leads to healthier, more engaged employees.
  • It boosts productivity. With higher engagement, comes greater productivity. In fact, research has found that highly engaged employees are 17 percent more productive than their coworkers, while organizations with highly engaged employees report 41 percent lower absenteeism. According to Gallup, thriving employees who report more happiness, energy, interest, and job satisfaction, also report fewer health problems and thus 53 percent fewer missed days due to health issues, in addition to less depression, anxiety, and hostility, and lower rates of stress and burnout. By mitigating threats to employee wellbeing, workers will have an easier time concentrating during work, will have more energy and motivation to work, and will face fewer disruptions that stall workplace operations.
  • It inspires trust, cooperation, and loyalty. Prioritizing employees’ overall wellbeing has also been found to enhance their respect for their employers and their loyalty to the organization overall. In its report, Glint concluded that employees who feel cared for by their employers were nearly four times more likely to recommend working for their organization, while Gallup reports that supported employees are five times more likely to serve as an advocate for their organization. Moreover, a recent survey from OptumHealth revealed that roughly eight in 10 employees admit that access to health and wellness programs would encourage them to stay longer with their organization.

Consequences of Neglecting Duty of Care

  • Higher rates of burnout, absenteeism, and turnover. A recent article published by the Harvard Business Review examining the state of the global workforce revealed that neglecting to care for employees’ wellbeing has considerable consequences; these include lower engagement, higher rates of burnout, and higher turnover. Even if employees are engaged at work, they still have a 61 percent higher likelihood of being burned-out often or always; face an even higher likelihood of daily worry (66 percent); daily stress, sadness, and anger. This can have a damaging impact on organizational success, as separate research from Gallup has found that burned-out employees are 63 percent more likely to take a sick day, and nearly 3 times more likely to actively seek a new job. Moreover, employee burnout has been associated with diminished confidence and trust in one’s employer, job dissatisfaction, and poor employee retention.
  • Sicker employees & increased mortality. The same research from Gallup also revealed that burned-out employees are 23 percent more likely to visit the emergency room, while suffering employees who go unsupported by their employer have double the disease burden compared to thriving employees. This is often due to lack of access to necessities such as food and shelter, lack of access to healthcare, and overwhelming stress. According to a new study conducted by scholars at Stanford University, failure to mitigate workplace stressors and other health and safety risks leads to nearly 120,000 deaths each year, in addition to nearly $190 billion in excess healthcare spending.
  • Lost productivity and profitability. Neglecting to care for employees’ holistic wellbeing comes at a cost: Research from the American Psychological Association (APA) revealed that unaddressed workplace stress and other risk factors result in roughly 550 million workdays lost. Further, as workplace stress and poor wellbeing lead to poor job satisfaction and lower engagement, research from Gallup has found that the resulting reductions in productivity cost the global economy over $7.8 trillion each year. In addition to these losses in productivity and profitability, neglecting to proactively mitigate threats to employees’ wellbeing is costing organizations more, as over 5 times as much is spent on disaster response compared to risk reduction globally.
  • Possible reputational damage. Failing to fulfill one’s duty of care can result in serious legal consequences, as well as potential damage to an organization’s reputation. If an employee suffers an injury at work—which includes emotional distress, mental illness, and sickness, in addition to physical injuries—they can sue their employer for negligence. Even if an organization wins a lawsuit, there may still be steep monetary losses involved, including losses in profits due to negative publicity in the media or via employees’ word-of-mouth, which may influence consumers to boycott or avoid the organization. According to a recent report from TrustPilot, a positive reputation is the #1 most important factor to consumers when considering whether or not to frequent an organization—more important than having the best quality or product or service, which ranked fourth. If an organization has a bad reputation, over 90 percent of consumers surveyed reported that they would not conduct business with the organization.

How Employers Can Fulfill Their Duty of Care

Again, while solutions to fulfilling one’s duty of care may vary, ultimately, doing so will come down to four key components:

  • Assessing risk. The most fundamental step to ensuring employees’ safety and wellbeing is identifying workplace hazards and any work-related threats to employees’ welfare. For today’s largely dispersed workplaces, this primarily means assessing work practices and workplace culture. Are employees struggling with overwhelming workloads? Too many hours? A schedule that conflicts with other essential duties such as caregiving or parenting or attending medical or counseling appointments? Are the tasks being assigned to employees causing stress, emotional distress, physical harm, or other personal injuries?

After completing an internal assessment, employers might compose a list of sources including embassies, security firms, peer organizations, health agencies, trusted news sources, and community representatives to identify potential risk factors to employee wellbeing that persist outside of the workplace, such as natural disasters, food and housing insecurity, inflation, terrorist attacks, high crime and poverty rates, and political conflicts.

When it comes to assessing the current state of employee wellbeing, Gallup has found that there is a logistical way to measure wellbeing; using a two-part question, called the Best Possible Life Scale, employers can determine whether their employees are “thriving,” and from there consider what workplace wellbeing practices are working, which perhaps should be improved or retired, and what additional practices should be adopted.

  • Analyzing risk and evaluating which employees are at risk. The next step, once potential risk factors have been identified, is analyzing their prevalence amongst employees and the extent of the threat that they pose to employees’ welfare. Doing so allows employers to promptly design and implement workplace strategies that offer the most immediate support to their employees that effectively promote and protect their wellbeing. For better organization and the best results, it is important for employers to monitor which employees are the most at risk of harm, injury, or distress, in order to directly target support and resources to them. Additionally, employers should pay particular attention to sensitive risk groups, including working parents and caregivers—especially women; new or expectant mothers; younger and elderly workers; employees with disabilities; and minority groups as these employees may be more susceptible to workplace discrimination, and external stressors including food and housing insecurity, financial strain, and lack of access to healthcare.
  • Designing risk management and prevention plans. Once risk factors and afflicted employees have been identified, employers can then develop and execute workplace strategies—including updating or expanding programs and benefits offered—designed to mitigate or help alleviate the threat that these factors pose to employees. Common strategies in today’s digital workspace may include cybersecurity initiatives, including cyberthreat control and management; ESG management; and governance, risk, and compliance (GRC) policies and compliance management.
  • Practicing timely communication. The second most crucial step in fulfilling one’s duty of care is effectively communicating with employees about all aspects of risk management and prevention strategies. Not only does there need to be consistent communication with employees during the risk assessment process, but employees need to be promptly made aware of risks to their wellbeing, what the organization is doing about them, how that impacts their day-to-day functioning at work, and how they can learn more, find help, or reach out with further questions or feedback. Effectively communicating with employees not only reassures them that their employers care about their wellbeing, but it also improves productivity and organizational functioning. According to Gallup, the percentage of employees who agreed with, “my organization cares about my overall wellbeing,” reached its peak in 2020 following organizational changes made in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Gallup’s research found that, of the employees who agreed that their employers’ communications and messaging surrounding their COVID-19 response plans had been exemplary, 73 percent strongly agreed that their employer cares about their overall wellbeing, while 78 percent of those who agreed that their supervisors or managers kept them up-to-date on the changes being made to their workplace said the same.

Ultimately, it is the responsibility of the employer to ensure that employees are made aware of all risks to their wellbeing, connect them with necessary resources during times of crisis, and do so in a timely manner. Here, for example, Workplace Options (WPO) was able to successfully move all offices to remote working by March 15, keeping employees up-to-date on risks to their health, on updates regarding the state of the outbreak—and eventually declared pandemic—as the WHO announced them, and on changes being made to WPO’s operations. WPO shifted Shanghai’s office to remote working a month earlier—on February 3—after monitoring the outbreak in China, assessing risk, connecting with employees and keeping them informed, and guiding them through the transition to remote work.

Similarly, following the start of the crisis in Ukraine, Alan King, president and CEO of WPO, immediately put out a statement standing in solidarity with its members in Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus, informing employees of the risk assessment and planning that the organization had conducted before the situation escalated into a crisis; providing specific, actionable updates on the actions that WPO was going to take in response to the crisis and how they were going to provide support and assistance to their clients in effected territories; and referring clients to additional news and information sites that would allow them to stay up-to-date on events as they unfolded, allowing them to take well-informed actions to safeguard their health, safety, and wellbeing.

Recognizing that more needs to be done to fulfill organizations’ duty of care to employees, the following are some key strategies that employers around the world are beginning to execute in order to better safeguard employees’ health, safety, and wellbeing:

  • Expanding mental health resources. While most organizations offer traditional healthcare benefits and physical wellness programs, not all incorporate mental or emotional health benefits, resources, and programs into their benefits or workplace strategies. This can significantly dilute their overall efficiency at safeguarding employees’ health and wellbeing, as mental and emotional distress are shown to be important influencers on employees’ physical and overall health. For example, studies on the effects of burnout have found that the syndrome is associated with a host of negative health outcomes, including type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, and premature mortality. As accrued stress from constant changes due to the pandemic as well as rising costs of living has led to a spike in rates of burnout—as a recent study conducted by Indeed revealed that over half of employees report feeling burned out—the 2022 Employee Wellness Industry Trends Report has revealed that a majority of employers plan to specifically target burnout as part of their risk assessment and management strategies, with 86 percent of employers expected to expand their mental health services and resources; namely, by offering services including employee assistance programs (EAPs), digital health and wellness tools, and mindfulness classes.

In addition to providing more holistic wellness programs and benefits, employers should also aim to develop better mental health services around specific workplace disruptions or threats, including the COVID-19 pandemic, the crisis in Ukraine, or the current energy crisis in Europe—for example. This may include providing counseling services, programs, or webinars designed to help afflicted employees process and cope with anxiety, depression, stress, fear, and other adverse mental health conditions that they may be struggling with as a result of these circumstances. For example, services that WPO provides to support clients’ emotional health during the COVID-19 pandemic and crisis in Ukraine include resources on managing stress during isolation, or relocation; coping with grief after sudden or unexpected deaths or losses; managing anxiety and traumatic stress responses, and coping with survivor’s guilt.

To ensure that afflicted employees have sufficient access to these resources, employers should also be mindful to provide mental health support through a range of modalities and in different languages. For example, for their mental health services, WPO offers a variety of modalities for their clients to choose from, including structured telephone counseling, hotlines and in-the-moment crisis support, structured video counseling, and live webinars, and has also translated its Ukraine resources into multiple languages, including Ukrainian, Russian, Czech, Hungarian, Polish, and Romanian.

  • Adopting flexible work schedules. Another prominent way that employers can provide mental health support and fulfill their duty of care to their employees’ wellbeing is by providing flexible work schedules. In a survey conducted by FlexJobs, over half of employees (56 percent) said that having flexibility in their workday was a top way that their employer could better support them, while 43 percent argued that encouraging time off and implementing mental health days would be beneficial to them. Additionally, the 2022 Employee Wellness Industry Trends report found that 73 percent of organizations are using flexible work schedules to help prevent and mitigate burnout, while over a third plan to adopt flexible work weeks as part of their employee mental health initiatives, with some also offering additional paid time off.

Adopting flexible work-life schedules has become increasingly recognized as an essential solution to employee wellbeing, as it allows them to establish and maintain a good work-life balance—especially as many employees today work from home or remotely and no longer have the rigid, physical boundaries between work and life—and provides them with the time to address their personal needs and fulfill their personal or family obligations, parental or caregiving responsibilities, attending medical or counseling appointments, taking the time to rest and decompress, and taking the time to connect with friends and family—which is a critical determinant of health. In times of crisis, it also allows them to process and cope with stress, recognize and come to terms with the threats to their health and wellbeing, and respond to them in a way that safeguards their health, safety, and overall wellbeing.

  • Providing financial and practical support; disaster or crisis relief. Another important determinant of employees’ wellbeing is financial wellness. In its 2022 State of the Global Workplace Report, Gallup noted that, although the US and Canada have some of the most worried and stressed-out employees in the world, their employees ranked as No. 1 in living comfortably on income, and thus No. 2 in overall wellbeing (their employees also ranked No. 1 in employee engagement—signifying the impact that caring for employee wellbeing has on workers’ job satisfaction and productivity, even in the face of high stress). While adjusting wages may not be an easy solution to promoting employees’ financial wellness, there are other ways that employers can assist their employees manage their finances. These include offering financial literacy and education services, helping employees with their retirement planning, providing coaching on financial planning, and providing student debt assistance.

In tandem with offering financial support to employees, employers should also aim to provide practical assistance as well. For example, expanding caregiving benefits is becoming an increasingly common—and vital—way that employers are providing both financial and practical support to their workers. This includes providing generous PTO—including paternity leave—or helping employees in the US apply for time off through the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA); providing on-site childcare, childcare service vouchers or subsidies, or referrals to care-giver provider services. Another crucial way to support employees is by providing disaster or crisis relief, which may include emergency funding or aid, or financial and legal assistance. For example, as part of its crisis in Ukraine response plan, WPO offered employees help with budgeting in uncertain times, dealing with stress associated with legal matters, and referred clients to useful resources including Ukraine Take Shelter: Housing for Ukrainian Refugees, UNICEF, the Red Cross, and the International Rescue Committee (IRC).

  • Monitoring employees and offering wellness coaching. To maximize the benefits that an organization’s duty of care strategies have on employees’ welfare, and to ensure that employees are accessing support and feel cared for by their organization, employers need to make sure that employees are aware of the resources and services that are available to them, make sure that they know how to utilize them, and ensure that employees are taking the necessary steps that are expected from them to safeguard their wellbeing. For example, if an organization is offering longer rest breaks, more PTO, or mental health days for its employees, it is the employer’s responsibility to ensure that they are taking advantage of these offerings, not only to avoid any negative health outcomes for employees, but also to avoid potential lawsuits as a result.

With the digital transformation of the workspace, one workplace policy that is becoming increasingly important to educate employees on and ensure that they are taking advantage of it is the right to disconnect policy. This policy—which was first enacted into law in France in 2016, with many other European countries soon following suit including Italy, Spain, Portugal, Germany, and Ireland, along with the government of Ontario whose law just went into effect back in June—defines and protects employees’ right to disconnect from work and not be expected to engage in any work-related activity after hours. As shorter work weeks and flexible schedules become standard, it is imperative that employers provide clear guidance around disconnecting from work under these work conditions, and make sure that no employees are overexerting themselves or working overtime in order to avoid stress, burnout, and illness or injury. With digital platforms making it easy for employees to connect with their team or supervisors at any given time of the day, many organizations are beginning to include response time expectations for all work-related emails, such as including email footers or pop-up messages to encourage employees not to respond when they are not working, encouraging the use of “out of office” updates and notifications, or including normal hours of work as part of employees’ email signatures, and indicating the urgency of all written communications.

Additionally, employers should aim to provide wellness coaching or training to foster resiliency and help employees develop stronger coping skills to take care of their health and wellbeing on their own. For example, as part of its resources for employees impacted by the crisis in Ukraine, WPO provided webinars and other digital resources on wellness practices including mindfulness exercises for treating traumatic stress, tips on how to stay safe, alert, and prepared in dangerous situations, and grounding techniques to help control anxiety.

Ultimately, these strategies will depend on the specific needs of an organization’s employees. The key thing to take away is that effective duty of care strategies require constant attention from employers. Consistent communications with employees needs to be designed and implemented in a timely manner. While they require a lot of dedication and commitment from employers, the effort that leaders put in to taking care of their employees will produce a stronger workplace, establish a good-natured workplace culture, and as a result greatly improve organizations’ overall success.

 

Workplace Options helps individuals balance their work, family, and personal needs to become healthier, happier, and more productive, both personally and professionally. The company’s world-class member support, effectiveness, and wellbeing services provide information, resources, referrals, and consultation on a variety of issues ranging from stress management to clinical services and wellness programs. To learn more email us at service@workplaceoptions.com

Disclaimer: This document is intended for general information only. It does not provide the reader with specific direction, advice, or recommendations. You may wish to contact an appropriate professional for questions concerning your particular situation.

Related Posts

Wellbeing at Work Resources

Explore, educate and engage with our library of reports and insights on wellbeing industry trends.