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Stephen  Bevan

Investing in workforce health in tough times

Authors: Stephen Bevan Stephen Bevan

20 September 2011

How can we ensure that the NHS plays its part in helping people with long-term health conditions to stay in work? Are GPs – especially in their new commissioning role - properly equipped with the expertise they need to advise employers about workplace adjustments for employees with chronic illness? Is the government still thinking in ‘silos’ about workforce health as budgets tighten? Will the sickness absence review make decisive recommendations about keeping people in work rather than languishing on benefits?

These are the kinds of questions which were being asked among policy-makers and healthcare professionals at The Work Foundation’s ‘fringe’ event at the Liberal Democrat conference in Birmingham yesterday. Sponsored by Abbott the event – Invest to Save? Health, Work and Wellbeing in an Age of Austerity – the event featured a panel of experts with different perspectives on the issues who spoke with both passion and insight.

First we heard from Dean Royles, Director of NHS Employers. Dean highlighted the need for the NHS to be an exemplar employer by prioritising the health of its workforce. He told the audience that the Boorman Review (for which the research was led by The Work Foundation) highlighted that reducing sickness absence to the average of the private sector would save £555m each year and make 15,000 more staff available to deliver patient care each day.

Stephen Lloyd, Liberal Democrat MP for Eastbourne and member of the Work and Pensions Select Committee, highlighted the importance of the Work Programme in supporting labour market participation. He argued that the ‘payment by results’ contracts which were let to private and third sector providers incentivised sustainable employment for people out of work. Stephen also praised plans for a Universal Credit as, he told us, it will ‘flex’ to ensure people are not given a perverse incentive to stay on benefits when work is available.

Ann Green, Chair of the Council of the Chartered Society of Physiotherapists (CSP) highlighted the large and growing evidence base (including The Work Foundation’s own Fit for Work research) which shows that early intervention is both clinically effective but also makes economic sense. She argued that schemes which allow early self-referral to physiotherapy were better for people with musculoskeletal disorders who were at risk of leaving the labour market – and better for GPs whose time was more usefully spent elsewhere.

Finally, Baroness Jolly of Congdon’s Shop – co-chair of the Lib Dem Parliamentary Committee on Health and Social Care - addressed the meeting. She explained that her role was to steer the Health and Social Care Bill through the House of Lords for the Lib Dems. She emphasised that, for many people in modern workplaces, good jobs where they had a sense of meaning, opportunities to develop their skills and access to good quality management were an important dimension of public health. She also recognised that effective collaboration between both the NHS and Social Care was important to the delivery of ‘work’ as a clinical outcome for those with a long-term or chronic health condition.

In the debate that followed the panel were challenged on issues such as health inequalities for children, the priority given to older workers in the labour market, the targeting of work-focused interviews and on the need for more joined-up government in the allocation of resources to promote workplace health and labour market participation.

We closed the meeting with many people still wanting to contribute to the debate and with, perhaps, at least one elephant in the room – where are the jobs for those people with health conditions who will be seeking a return to work? Does the coalition government have a compelling story about ‘growth’ which will reassure people that the supply of ‘good work’ will increase sometime soon?

Next week we’ll be asking a similar set of questions to a panel at the Labour Party conference in Liverpool. Watch this space…