The world’s foremost economists believe that we are entering the fourth industrial revolution.  Rising technologies could fundamentally change the way we work and live. Could employee wellbeing be the key to ensuring that the UK not only keeps up but continues to maintain its position as a world leader?

At this year’s Health and Safety Executive Lecture in April, Dr Richard Heron, Chief Medical Officer at BP and former president of the Society and Faculty of Occupational Medicine, spoke about “Safe, healthy and productive work in the fourth industrial revolution.”


The first industrial revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries saw the advent of steam power. This was followed at the turn of the century by the second industrial revolution.  The introduction of Henry Ford’s assembly lines brought about by electricity changed the face of factories forever and gave us mass production.  The third industrial revolution occurred in the 1980’s along with the personal computer and the internet which changed our lives enormously.

At the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2016 founder and executive chairman Klaus Schwab, claimed that we are in the throws of the fourth industrial revolution.

“The changes are so profound that, from the perspective of human history, there has never been a time of greater promise or potential peril.” – Klaus Schwab, Davos, 2016

He is, of course, referring to the fundamental changes brought about by our ever-expanding technological world.  “It is characterized by a range of new technologies that are fusing the physical, digital and biological worlds, impacting all disciplines, economies and industries, and even challenging ideas about what it means to be human.” World Economic Forum Book Review.

Valued Workforce

In his speech in April this year, Dr Richard Heron puts the case for a greater emphasis on employee wellbeing across the workforce. He argues that to remain competitive during the forth industrial revolution, organisations will need to fully utilise all their resources, and employees are key to productivity.

There is an increasingly clear link between employee wellbeing and productivity. With an aging population and uncertain times ahead we have many challenges facing us. We also already have a considerable range of skills and tools at our disposal to get the best out of our workforce.

Changing Workplace

These concepts are interesting of course, but it’s important to look at how it translates for businesses in the real world on a day-to-day basis. Organisations are genuinely in a powerful position to influence our societal health and wellbeing in tangible ways.  These are some of the ways employers can begin to make these much-needed changes to the workplace.

  • Start before employees enter the building – New starter health questionnaires enable organisations to prepare for any special needs and spot any causes for potential concern early. This is not about vetting employees, this is about demonstrating genuine care for their wellbeing from day one. By having a genuine understanding of the starting situation of an employee, management can effectively monitor or forestall any health or safety issues throughout the employees time with the company.
  • Offer healthier options – There are a wide variety of ways in which an organisation can help present employees with healthier options and life choices. Considering how to encourage healthy eating, promoting work-life balance, facilitating exercise, carrying out health checks and risk assessments, to name but a few.
  • Know who to turn to – Nobody expects every organisation to have all the answers. Small businesses can find occupational health a daunting topic. Large businesses can find it overly complicated. As we move through the fourth industrial revolution, it is likely that issues of health and wellbeing will only get more challenging. Even more so, as it is predicted that we will see an increase in small and micro businesses alongside self-employed sole traders. The key is knowing who to turn to. Whether that’s a dedicated in-house occupational health specialist and external agency or an advice hotline.

“Good” Work

In April, Dr Richard Heron stressed the importance of offering “good” work. He says that people need to see work as the way to achieve good health. At the moment too many see it as a barrier to a happy, healthy existence. That must change, he argues.

Dr Heron suggests that we ask ourselves, ‘what do workers want in order to thrive at work?” he believes the answers are clear.

  • Control over work
  • Autonomy
  • Clarity of what’s expected
  • Clear accountabilities
  • Variety in what we do
  • Positive relationships with managers
  • A safe and pleasant working environment
  • Belief in fair pay
  • Supportive supervision
  • A sense of purpose
  • Good work-life balance

During his talk he challenged, “Can we align the goals of employers and workers?” and answers with a resounding “Yes.” Employers can indeed ensure the commitment and loyalty of their staff. They simply need to work on ways of providing a caring, respectful, flexible working environment that is both fulfilling and financially rewarding. A fair exchange.

Global Shifts

This is not simply about individual employers, this is about bringing a societal, in fact global, shift in the way we view work and the workforce.

For all the theories, just as with the previous three, we don’t know what this industrial revolution may bring. However, if we approach it in the right way it provides us with a perfect opportunity to reassess where we are and how we want to proceed.

“Technology is not an exogenous force over which we have no control. We are not constrained by a binary choice between “accept and live with it” and “reject and live without it”. Instead, take dramatic technological change as an invitation to reflect about who we are and how we see the world. The more we think about how to harness the technology revolution, the more we will examine ourselves and the underlying social models that these technologies embody and enable, and the more we will have an opportunity to shape the revolution in a manner that improves the state of the world.”  ― Klaus Schwab, The Fourth Industrial Revolution