Making sense of sustainable action

This article first appeared in ALARM's Spotlight on Sustainability guide, November 2022.

Public services sustainability has gained more traction, more swiftly this year than any other. It has moved from being a buzzword to being a priority. Sustainability pertains to any area of public service operation, from environmental protection and zero carbon aims, to place shaping and work force management.

In this article, we provide general commentary and offer practical top tips from a legal perspective on working with a new sustainable product and, separately, in relation to mental health.

Working with new products

It is well known that significant resources are allocated to repairing potholes each year. Therefore, finding a sustainable solution that minimises the risk created by potholes, as well as the overall cost over the lifecycle of the road, and reduces the environmental impact must be carefully prioritised.

Inevitably, there are potential practical and legal implications of developing new sustainable ways of working which need to be factored into any decision-making.

Practical considerations

Adopting new approaches can involve complex calculations and a significant degree of horizon scanning, resulting in potential new risks and consequential remedial action. As such, careful consideration and planning is key.

When introducing a new, environmentally friendly product, the initial cost of the product will, without doubt, be carefully reviewed. In addition, it is important to factor into decision-making the costs of any new equipment needed for the application or monitoring of the product and consideration of the future availability of the product including for training purposes.

As with any new product, even with extensive testing, until it is applied across different areas over a period of time, it is difficult to know with certainty how it will ultimately perform.

With new, sustainable types of road surface, there will be different risks to take into account depending on the road location and usage; for example, on rural roads, traffic may move at higher speeds or it may be a well-used cycle route, whereas in urban environments, there may be higher usage throughout the day and night.

The decision to use a new sustainable product could significantly and positively influence the maintenance of our roads nationally. Therefore it will be invaluable for highway authorities to continue to collaborate to ensure that knowledge and experience of new, sustainable ways of working and sustainable products are shared for the benefit of all.

Training on understanding any new product and how it can be best maintained is vital.

It may be that utility companies are also involved in these discussions as they may also affect repairs, for example, after works to their equipment. It is well recognised that if a highway is dangerous because of the defective equipment or reinstatement of a highway by a utility company, both the council and utility company are potentially liable.

Accordingly, there are wide ranging benefits to all adopting a more sustainable approach and sharing knowledge and experience as we learn about how the new, sustainable products work.

Mental health and stress-related claims

The social element of ESG is becoming an increasingly important consideration for businesses, with the COVID-19 pandemic arguably accelerating concerns around employee mental health and the importance of mental health programmes and workplace benefits.

The E and the S of all initiatives must be considered together and it is important that environmental targets do not have a negative impact on social considerations such as an employee’s mental health.

Health, safety and the COVID-19 pandemic

In December 2021 the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) published its report Work-related stress, anxiety or depression statistics in Great Britain 2021. The report highlights that in 2020/21, the rate of work-related stress, depression or anxiety rate was higher than the 2018/19 pre-coronavirus levels.

The report also explains that industries with higher than average rates of stress, depression or anxiety include those working in public administration and defence, compulsory social security, human health and social work activities.

Interestingly, of the 822,000 workers who suffered work-related stress, depression or anxiety, 449,000 reported it was caused or made worse as a result of the pandemic. However, it cannot be assumed those individuals would not otherwise have suffered from work-related stress, depression or anxiety in the absence of COVID-19.

Practical considerations

Should an employee take a period of absence as a result of stress or anxiety-related illness, an employer should ensure their employee’s return to work is managed in a supportive way.

Initiatives that organisations may wish to consider as a means of enhancing staff health and happiness in the workplace include:

  • Regularly review policies.
  • Risk assess for work-related stress in the event concerns arise regarding the wellbeing of an employee.
  • Provide training to teams and managers to enable them to identify stress-related risks.
  • Promote a culture where staff can openly talk about mental health and seek support where needed.
  • Consider widening the scope of wellbeing benefits for employees which might include offering health checks, counselling, advice on healthy eating and lifestyle, subsidised gym memberships and on-site virtual exercise classes which provide opportunities to meet with colleagues.
  • Consider financial wellbeing benefits including programmes looking at credit and debt counselling, retirement planning and pension seminars.
  • Appoint mental health first aiders.
  • Engage with the workforce and understand there will be a range of differing needs.
  • Seek regular feedback from staff.
  • Engage and collaborate with other organisations in the sector, taking and applying good examples to ensure continuing best practice.

Related item: 'Operation potholes'