The importance of health and wellbeing in the workplace
Authors: 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.
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