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Deskless workers - the wellbeing gap

Remember those early days of the pandemic, when we suddenly all realised that essential frontline workers in areas like healthcare, construction, retail, transportation, agriculture and manufacturing kept the economy going and society functioning? These sometimes ‘invisible’ workers were rightly celebrated for their invaluable contribution to supporting the nation through a difficult and traumatic time.

But despite their tireless efforts, as memories fade, this vital cohort of workers seems to be being left behind in the workplace wellbeing conversation. While desk workers are being offered flexible working packages and the opportunity to work from home, most deskless workers are simply expected to go on much as before. Nothing has changed for them. Business as usual.

Furthermore, in the post-pandemic world, while there has been a welcome emphasis on workplace wellbeing, these are almost always much more accessible for desk-based workers than their deskless counterparts. Due to the nature of their work, they may have less time to access wellness activities on their phone or computer.

Sam Blevins, Health and Wellbeing Development Manager at John Lewis, points out: “Often businesses will put all their health and wellbeing information on their intranet. If you are working in the retail space, you tend to come in, do your job, and then off you go with no time to look at that.”

This is particularly unfortunate, as there is a wealth of evidence suggesting that it is deskless workers who could benefit the most from wellbeing programmes. A 2021 survey by management solutions provider Quinyx, entitled State of the Deskless Workforce, revealed that issues of understaffing, high-pressure work environments, a lack of appreciation from management and stressful working conditions were found to be common features of deskless workers. The result was that those in non-desk jobs felt “undervalued”, “overworked” and “stressed”.

Shift workers and wellbeing

The problem is even more pronounced with shift-workers, who constitute a huge proportion of the deskless work force. Shift work is one of many contributors to increased job stress and stress-related illnesses in recent years. Due to the nature of their work, shift workers are prone to stress-related illnesses such as cardiovascular disease, weight gain and mental health illnesses such as depression and anxiety. They can experience severe fatigue due to lack of sleep, which leads to increased stress and poor motivation to exercise. Shift workers also tend to opt for food with a high level of stimulants to support energy such as caffeine, sugar, higher carbohydrate foods, smoking and alcohol.

According to Jessica Brown, an expert in Epidemiology & Public Health from the University of Maryland, “shift work is associated with considerable impacts on sleep, depressed mood and anxiety, substance use, impairments in cognition, lower quality of life, and even suicidal ideation. Pronounced sleep disturbances frequently underlie the mental health consequences of shift work.”

According to data, up to 30% of the working population are employed by shift, therefore the health of this demographic is an important consideration for businesses who have employees working outside the traditional 9am-5pm.

How to help

How can we start to better look after the wellbeing of those frontline workers who so ably looked after us? According to Blevins, management buy-in to a wellbeing scheme is key: “People managers really do need to get it. They need to understand that health and wellbeing is not something that we just add on. We need to be living it. We need to be breathing it. And we need our managers, our leadership teams to be on board with that.”

But, more than that, companies need to find the right workplace wellbeing scheme to suit their workers. In the case of deskless workers, that means a simple, straightforward programme of activities. Deskless workers often work long hours in stressful environments and are less likely to engage in a wellbeing programme that involves too much complexity or inconvenience.

Furthermore, particularly for shift-workers, an effective wellbeing tool is one that can be used anytime, anywhere, with a minimum of fuss, to fit in with changing work schedules. Shift workers have little availability to attend a workshop, class or watch a live webinar.

Another key component of any wellbeing programme is its ability to bring people together. According to a 2021 survey by business communication platform Workplace, 57% of frontline employees surveyed said that keeping in touch with their colleagues via communication and collaboration tools was good for their mental health.

So, an effective workplace wellbeing programme for deskless workers needs to be simple, flexible and collaborative. In short, it needs to be like BuddyBoost.

The wellbeing solution

BuddyBoost has a growing range of programmes where participants commit to doing something that’s good for them over a period of time lasting from 14 days to a month. For example, in BuddyBoost Active, people commit to doing 26 minutes of physical activity each day of the month. Participants rate their mood after doing their minutes, and the data from over 300,000 activities logged on the app shows that, on average, people get a 25% mood boost from the programme. In addition to physical activity, BuddyBoost has programmes covering everything from nutrition to sleep to mental health and more.

All of BuddyBoost’s various programmes are available through a simple-to-use app, which can be accessed anytime, so participants can choose when to fit it into their day. Users form into groups of buddies in the app to help and motivate one another to complete their challenge.

And, the best bit, is that colleagues feel connected to each other via their company’s private community feed hosted in the app, posting messages and photos, boosting engagement and creating a sense of camaraderie. This fosters a spirit of support and open engagement, helping to promote a healthy and positive workplace culture.

BuddyBoost has proved to be a highly effective tool for both desk-based and deskless workers. Carla Stockton-Jones; UK Managing Director of Stagecoach Group, reported during one BuddyBoost challenge: “Our social network is buzzing with posts about how well people are doing and importantly it’s also bringing together people who wouldn’t normally work together or have any reason to connect. I’m hearing that our teams have boosted their mental well-being as well as their physical wellbeing which in times like these is such an important thing, living a better life at work away from the steering wheel and the PC screens.”

Russell Turner, Head of Health & Wellbeing at Biffa waste management company, reported: “We saw a really good impact on people’s mood scores as a result of their being active every day – and this was even more noticeable among those who weren’t doing much exercise before the challenge. The community feed is a great feature for bringing people together and the service from the BuddyBoost team was first-class from start to finish.”

It's vitally important that we look after the physical and mental wellbeing of the entire workforce, not just those browsing the intranet in air-conditioned offices. The gap between deskless workers and office-based employees must be closed, and quickly. Just as the public has recognised the massive contribution the deskless workers make to our lives, employers must respond by ensuring that they harness tools that help deliver safer, more connected and rewarding workplaces, for all.


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