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Richard Evans

The importance of health and wellbeing in the workplace

Authors: Richard Evans Richard Evans

15 October 2013

Health, it is commonly said, is something you tend not fully to value until the day comes when you realise you have lost it. Sadly you could say the same of employers and their attitude to managing health in the workplace. As employers we tend to wait until someone is sick before we realise how inconvenient and costly it is. Why do we not value workforce health and wellbeing?

The evidence is astonishing. Billions of pounds lost to the UK economy every year through staff sickness. There is a general acceptance that ‘something should be done’. Government-sponsored reports into the size of the problem, expert research (e.g. The Work Foundation) and endless amounts of non-expert rhetoric seem to be getting us no nearer to solving the problem.

On the reaction side of the issue, the ‘Fit Note’ initiative will be of little use unless the resources exist to help the individual to recover. Even where the clinical capability is available, the healthcare system seems to mitigate against any efficient and rapid return to work. Innovations such as the AHP fit note (where the individual is signed ‘fit for work’ by the professional, such as a physiotherapist that is actually treating them) progress with glacial speed and are prevented from providing the efficiencies that could be realised.

Too frequently, there is simply insufficient capacity within clinical services to deal with staff sickness in a timely fashion. This is particularly the case with mental illness. If a staff member has to wait three months even to see a psychologist or therapist, is it any wonder that they do not get any better during those three months? This delay represents an enormous cost to the individual and, of course, to their employer. The programme of ‘efficiency savings’ in the NHS is certainly not efficient if it costs the economy billions of pounds.

But additionally employers need to pay more attention to being pro-active on workplace health and wellbeing. Some sensible good practice and accessing of professional advice can prevent the occurrence of many of the increasingly common musculoskeletal disorders. Providing genuine support for better health and fitness amongst staff is a relatively small investment that can repay massively in reduced sickness absence. It also begins to create an environment where health issues can be dealt with positively.

Too many staff sickness management programs focus on a punitive approach. There seems to be a presumption that dealing aggressively with questionable absence justifies damaging other employees that are suffering genuine illness. The problem is that when someone presents with a serious diagnosis, neither the individual nor the employer in this kind of negative attitude situation are able to address the important questions about support, return to work, adaption and possibly working together towards appropriate retirement. Too many employers appear scared of employee health and it’s killing their business.

At a Work Foundation seminar earlier this year, the discussion on dealing with cancer and other long-term conditions in the workplace produced a call for a large employer to become a model of good practice. It struck me that the UK’s largest employer should be the one in the very best position to demonstrate best practice in workplace health promotion and management. The sad fact is that the NHS is very far from an exemplar. This year’s TUC conference agreed that the irony that the world’s leading organisation in healthcare cannot look after its own employees is nothing short of a national scandal.

There are of course many examples of good practice in workplace health and wellbeing. They are to be celebrated and commended. Perhaps they should be rewarded for their contribution to the economy. Most of all they should be copied. Investing in better health at work and in better support back to work for those who need it has to be a national priority.

Comments in Chronological Order (Total 4 Comments)

Tyna Taskila

16 Oct 2013 1:19PM

Richard Evans (CEO of Society of Radiographers) raises important issues in his guest blog. Successful management of sickness absence is something that many companies struggle with; the situation is even more difficult for medium and small size companies whose employees do not have access to occupational health services. I’m hopeful, however, that the new Health and Work Service (HWS), which will be introduced at the end of next year, will fill a large and important gap in current provision, giving access to specialist work advice and support for people whose sickness absence has lasted longer than a month. There are issues that has to be considered however when designing the service that are particularly relevant for people with long-term conditions, which we discussed in our paper published earlier this year (http://www.theworkfoundation.com/Reports/332/Returning-To-Work). The question that also needs to be considered is how to involve employers in the process. GPs will be responsible for referring their patients into the new service, but they have not traditionally been strongly linked with employers. It is important to find ways to increase communication between GPs and employers, who play a major role in the return to work process.

Karen

16 Oct 2013 1:56PM

Commissioning of services is a huge issue - we need to get department of health and department of work and pensions working together on health and work policies and interventions. Getting CCGs interested in work as a health outcome, given the relationship between employment and improved health outcomes, will also be critical in improving current provision of relevant health services, such as IAPT.

Ian Hesketh

20 Oct 2013 9:54AM

Great post, and subsequent comments. I believe investment up front is as important; prior to clinical interventions. Lots of research (incl from The Work Foundation) points towards the damaging nature of poor leadership, personal resilience and environmental conditions. Employers are wise to start here, 'prevention is better than cure' as they say!

Steve carve

06 Jan 2014 5:31AM

I totally agreed with you on the line that we do not value anything until we lost it. We spend lot of money on health related problems every year. So we need to take some corrective measures to improve this situation. I personally like the idea of workplace and health being.