Occupational health research round-up – September 2012

Risk of side effects is barrier to flu vaccination

The most common reasons given for declining an influenza vaccine are fears about its side effects, a belief that the flu is not severe and concerns about the effectiveness of the vaccination, according to a study of UK health workers. Only 59% of the 221 respondents in the study were immunised with H1N1 influenza vaccine during the 2009 pandemic, and only 43% took up the offer of a regular seasonal flu vaccine. The researchers found no evidence that poor access was a barrier, leading them to conclude that if good access is maintained the main barrier to improving uptake lies in informing individuals when they are making personal risk assessments as to whether or not to have the vaccine.

“Vaccinating health care workers during an influenza pandemic”, Head et al, Occupational Medicine, published online 5 July 2012.

Jury still out on employee assistance programmes

Very little robust evidence exists to support the cost or clinical effectiveness of employee assistance programmes (EAPs), according to a systematic review. The researchers, who looked in detail at 18 studies distilled from 1,300 original citations, could find no evidence to demonstrate that EAPs are more effective than providing no intervention for a range of job and health outcomes. Most of the research so far carried out into EAPs has been focused on one-to-one counselling delivered as part of an EAP, and does show positive changes in absence patterns and psychological wellbeing for employees using an EAP. However, these studies indicate that, despite some improvements, EAP users continue to have higher absence and poorer psychological wellbeing than non-users. There is also little research to suggest that EAPs are effective in dealing with substance misuse issues. There is even less evidence for a return on investment from EAPs – the authors of the review could find only one cost-benefit paper that was sufficiently robust to be included in their research. This did show that the EAP concerned was cost effective, but there were a number of issues with the methodology in the paper that led the authors to say that “no conclusions could be drawn for the review”.

“Systematic review of effectiveness of EAPs”, British Occupational Health Research Foundation.

Workplace arguments damage bystanders

Employees feel significantly more emotionally drained after witnessing unpleasant interactions at work compared with pleasant ones, according to this diary-based study of NHS workers. The effect was mediated by how the employees felt on witnessing the unpleasant conversation and the extent to which they controlled their feelings. Employees felt more drained when they witnessed the event first-hand than if they heard about it indirectly. The authors conclude that this third-party effect on employees “has the potential not only to have a negative effect on the individual but to pervade the organisation”.

“Can employees be emotionally drained by witnessing unpleasant interactions between co-workers? A diary study of induced emotion regulation”, Totterdell et al, Work and Stress, issue 2, May 2012.

Increase in number of staff testing positive for drugs

Just over 3% of UK workers, or around 940,000 people, tested positive for drugs in the workplace in 2011, according to research from global testing company Concateno. This rate represents a 43% increase on figures collected in 2007, when the rate of positive tests stood at 2.3%. However, the company stresses that this increase is heavily influenced by the inclusion in the past couple of years of employers newly adopting workplace drug-testing programmes. Such organisations are yet to obtain the benefits of drug-testing programmes in the form of falling prevalence rates, the company suggests. Cannabis and opiates are the most commonly detected drugs, closely followed by cocaine, the prevalence rate for which has risen in the past two years.

“High society: drug prevalence in the UK workplace”, Concateno, July 2012.

Trauma resilience training

Preparing people in advance to cope with potentially traumatic events at work can help build resilience, particularly among professionals exposed to the trauma of others during the course of their work. Trauma resilience training is a concept developed over the past six years by a group of psychologists in response to the relative absence of care and support for those helping others caught up in disasters and critical incidents. It seeks to prepare people in “high-risk” jobs for the possibility of trauma so that they are able to perform at a high level under the stress of an incident and make a quick return to their pre-incident states. The authors describe their approach, giving case studies of how trauma resilience training helped individuals in the 7 July 2005 London bombings assistance centre.

“Trauma resilience”, Weaver and Biggart, Counselling at Work, 2012.

Shift work and sick leave

There is strong evidence for a positive association between working fixed evening shifts and longer sickness absence, according to this study of female healthcare workers. However, there was no such evidence for an association between sick leave and other shift patterns such as rotating, eight-hour, 12-hour and night shifts, the researchers conclude.

“The association between shift work and sick leave: a systematic review”, Merkus et al, Occupational and Environmental Medicine, published online 5 July 2012.

Legal news round-up

Stabbed worker to sue health authorities

A Court of Appeal decision has given a social worker, who was stab­bed by a psychiatric patient whose child she was responsible for, the right to sue two health authorities responsible for her attacker’s care. Claire Selwood was stabbed six times by Graham Burton at his child’s school following a series of threats to kill her made by Mr Burton to health staff. According to Thompsons solicitors, if the case is successful it could result in hundreds of public-sector bodies having to check that threats against the personal safety of social workers and other lone workers are made known to all parties and acted upon. The Court of Appeal accepted it was arguable that the two NHS trusts concerned owed her a duty of care based on their responsibilities under an agreed protocol.

In practice: Mick Laffey of Thompsons comments: “The decision highlights the importance of social services and NHS trusts communicating with each other to protect the lives of vulnerable workers. It is not good enough to pay lip service to health and safety.”

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