Dame Carol Black on future issues for OH

Occupational health (OH) professionals should focus on health and wellbeing in the workplace. Particularly in the area of mental health – there is a real need for preventive action here. The workplace is a really good place for OH to prevent ill health and promote wellbeing, irrespective of whether the health problems that people are affected by are work-related.

If someone is affected by problems outside work, it would be good to see OH people taking a holistic approach. That is likely to improve both the quality and quantity of the work employees do. Currently, OH staff often come in too late when an employee has been off sick for some time.

If OH was really proactive, it would be involved as soon as an employee went off sick, in much the same way that if you go into hospital, the staff start talking to you about the plans for your discharge as soon as you arrive. Good health and wellbeing is good business.

OH professionals could have such a natural role here – I would like to see them working much more closely with HR, line managers and senior management.

Promoting health at work

We are all living longer, and staying in work for longer, and there will be more chronic illness affecting people at work as a result of this. OH also has a role to play here. Attitudes among employers are changing in relation to hiring older workers. Around a third of employers are changing, a third are resistant, and a third are prepared to be influenced and to change. But there is also a real need for leaders to emerge from within the ranks of OH professionals.

There is a lot of evidence now to prove that promoting health at work does make financial sense, and that there is a cost benefit for employers. For example, Dr Steve Boorman [the chief medical adviser of Royal Mail Group and author of last year’s report on the health of the NHS workforce] has calculated that reducing workplace absence by a third would result in a saving to the economy of £555m. Cutting workplace absence would more than pay for itself. And people who are engaged and healthy will be more productive.

Returning to mental health – it is terribly important to support general mental health, and to try to help if there is a problem. Line managers should be alerted to this, and supported with training. The Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health trust has done some research on this.

Leadership in occupational health

OH is in a similar position to nurses and doctors when it comes to producing leaders. They are trained in their specialist field, rather than in leadership skills. Training is needed for anyone going into a leadership role. We all need help with this, even if we have some natural flair for leadership.

I have certainly been grateful for all the training that I have been given. And I do understand that there can be some reluctance to being the one out front – people wonder how they will cope, and worry about what their friends might think. So help and encouragement is needed.

In terms of helping older people to stay in work for longer, the role of OH is to look at the total workforce, not just those who are older, and to promote healthy living and what I would call “active ageing”. People need good habits at a young age if they are to be fit and active at 55: they need a good diet, they need to take exercise and they need to have good mental health. There is a fantastic role here for OH, which is very different to what it has done in the past.

And I would also like to see OH more actively engaged in the community: there are a lot of people currently not at work who could be, and OH could have a role here. The workplace is a microcosm of society, and it’s a great place to initiate change. I am doing the Global Challenge myself and enjoying it very much – I have definitely increased the number of steps I take each day.

You must definitely not make people feel that they are being nannied. People want to do things that are fun, and all of us work better when we feel good. These kinds of habits have to be established early in life. And we also have to look at ways of making jobs like street cleaning more meaningful. How do we help manual workers to feel more engaged?

It’s not true that people in blue collar jobs aren’t interested in their health. Health promotion work with construction staff on the Olympic sites had a really good uptake.

Cancer in the workplace

One issue I really would like to highlight is the way that cancer is treated in the workplace. Cancer is becoming a chronic condition, thank goodness, because more people are either being cured or having their condition contained by treatment.

These people are often keen to get back to work, having had a pretty horrendous experience. They may be more fatigued than they were before, and they may only be able to work shorter hours, and may lack confidence. But helping employers understand that they can still employ these people is critical – OH can play a key role here.

There are so many positive things in the pipeline that we really need to grasp the opportunity and make the most of it. It’s a unique opportunity, and OH can really help the country to move forward.

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