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November 23, 2018

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Perceptions of health and safety

Understanding the next generation of workers: Insights on expectations of work and perceptions about health and safety

In previous articles for SHP, Helen Beers from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE)’s Foresight Centre has shared insights about working into older age and looked at the health and safety impact of working beyong 65.

Dr Helen Beers, HSE

Dr Helen Beers, HSE

These insights contribute to our knowledge about potential risks to occupational health and safety and how to manage them. However, in order to understand the wider picture in terms of potential risks to health and safety in a constantly changing world of work, there is a need to consider the whole of the working life, beginning from when we enter the workforce (or even before this).

Evidence indicates that there will be fewer young people entering the workplace, and that in order to recruit and retain the brightest and the best, employers will need to be mindful of the expectations and concerns of this next generation of workers.

In order to gain greater insight about the expectations and perceptions of the next generation of workers, Helen invited a group of students (born in 2000 and 2001) who are currently studying science subjects, to discuss their perceptions about work (including the wider context and conditions in which they anticipate working), and risks to health and safety. In this article, Helen shares these perceptions and considers potential implications for occupational health and safety.

Insights from the next generation of workers

The students who participated in the group discussion had varying views about what makes work ‘good’. Having a degree of reliability in terms of knowing what work they will get, yet at the same time having flexibility and freedom in how they work, were perceived to be important elements of good work for them. In addition, social interaction with ‘easy to get along with’ colleagues was perceived to be particularly desirable.

Having sufficient income was perceived to be an essential element of work for those who participated in the discussion group, although other aspects of work were of greater importance. These were: a desire for enjoyable work; a good work/life balance; job security with an employer (or employers) who will enable them to gain experience; minimising travelling to permit time with family; and options to work from home.

Essential skills for work in the future were perceived to be around communication and friendliness, along with IT skills (for example programming skills, as a lot of science involves modelling).  The student participants anticipated that they would work as part of a team, and felt that this would enable more work to get done. Team working was also believed to remove the pressure to get everything right themselves, enable ideas to be shared, and for specialities to be combined. There was a belief that team working would be less boring and isolating than working alone.

The students who participated in the discussion group felt that the location of their work and their team would depend on the task, with only some tasks lending themselves to working remotely at home. There were differing views about how their team might be structured. Whilst flat structures were believed to be desirable, there was a perception that a lack of hierarchy would mean limited prospects for promotion.  The students particularly valued managers with good interpersonal skills.  They wanted managers to be interesting people with a good sense of humour, approachable and able to speak with them about anything, to be involved and not at ‘a distance’, to value their ideas and not think they are above you, to be someone who understands the job and is more knowledgeable than you.

The students differed in their levels of awareness of potential occupational risks, which is understandable as few of the participants had any work experience. However, a number of dangers to physical health were identified, such as spillages (resulting in slips) and “people who could cause you harm”. When participants were asked about potential for work to impact on their mental health, having too much work, little control, unrealistic targets and lack of support were mentioned as factors that would contribute to excessive “stress and pressure” for them.

Repetitive strain injury resulting from poorly designed equipment and air pollution were perceived to be important potential health issues for the future. Whilst participants had not considered the possible impact of technology on their health, they perceived there may be potential risks from mobile phones in terms of radiation, and also blue light having a negative impact on sleep.

Helen spoke to the students about the average age of the workforce increasing and more people extending their working lives into older age. This prompted discussion amongst the participants about pensions being insufficient to enable them to retire, with a belief that retirement may never be an option for them (an expectation that work will continue until death).

Implications for health and safety and final thoughts

meetingAnyone new to the workplace and those lacking in job experience, such as many young workers, will be unfamiliar with the risks from their surroundings and the job they will be doing.  In fact, workers have been found to be as likely to have an accident in the first six months at a workplace as during the whole of the rest of their working life. HSE guidance regarding young workers covers why additional risks may occur for those new to a job, and sets out six steps that can be taken to protect new starters. Despite their lack of work experience, the students who participated in the discussion group did have some awareness of risk, albeit this awareness appeared to be greater for their mental than physical health. In addition, they were mindful of the benefits of working in a team and of good social interactions with work colleagues. Whilst they valued the opportunity to work from home, they did not want to be isolated.

In recent times there has been a drive to improve both work-related and general wellbeing aspects of mental health in workplace settings. However, evidence indicates that more action is needed to address the particular challenges faced by young people. The mental health of young adults (aged 18-24) has been found to be negatively influenced by loneliness, with those who report being lonelier likely to use more negative strategies to cope with stress. In addition, lonelier young adults were also found to be more likely to engage in physical health risk behaviours.  These findings should be borne in mind when developing workplace mental health strategies, whether that is to deliver improvements in employee wellbeing or address relevant health and safety duties.

Good work is included as one of the key social determinants of health in a report from the Health Foundation’s two year inquiry on young people’s future health. This inquiry is due to conclude in 2019, and is exploring factors that help or hinder young people aged 22-26 in their transition to adulthood, along with challenges they are facing that could impact on their future health. In their discussion, the authors of the report suggest that, “the gains made as a society in improving the health of previous generations may well be eroded by the precariousness and instability of the lives some young people are facing”.

It is clear that others are already raising questions about potentially negative health impacts of the wider context and conditions into which the current and next generations of workers have been born (and to which they are likely to be exposed as they age and work). These conditions are shaped by social, cultural, political, economic and environmental factors, which are most probably influencing our behaviour, and the choices that are available to us. For example, the next generation workers, whose perceptions are outlined in this article, anticipated a long working life with no set end point, indicating perhaps that expectations and choice about retirement are changing.

In terms of their perceptions of good work, I suggest that the next generation of workers have much in common with those who have gone before them. It is wider society and the changing worlds of work – for example in terms of technological change and new ways of working – into which each generation is born that are likely to create the difference between generations. As part of HSE’s priority science in the area of demographics, we are currently adopting a holistic approach in considering the health and safety risks from demographic change within the context of how the wider world of work is changing. We are developing a programme of scientific work in this area and aim to deliver this in collaboration with academia, industry and others.  We will continue to share our insights with SHP readers as our work progresses. However, if you would like to discuss our work, or to engage with us as an interested stakeholder, I would be very pleased to hear from you ([email protected]).

Author: Helen Beers
The research presented in this article was funded by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), Any opinions and/or conclusions expressed, are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily reflect HSE policy.  The author would like to thank the students for participating and providing their views and Daniel Greaves (HSE) for supporting the group discussion.
©Crown Copyright 2018, Health and Safety Executive
Helen Beers, PhD, is Technical Team Lead for HSE’s Foresight Centre and leads HSE’s priority science on demographics.  She has a social science and health psychology research background.  Helen’s main area of research interest is demographic change, with a particular focus on the potential health and safety implications of the changing world of work and the ageing workforce.

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