After coronavirus, we must ‘build back better’ on workplace health

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As we rebuild our economy post pandemic, employers must not leave behind their renewed focus on employee health and wellbeing, writes Simon Hodgson.

It’s now roughly a year since the general election, at which one political party pledged to nationalise the railways, expand the size of the state, and immediately enact reforms to make the welfare system more generous. That party didn’t win the election, but all those things happened anyway.

About the author

Simon Hodgson is chair of GRiD’s Public Policy Committee. GRiD (Group Risk Development) is the industry body for the group risk protection sector

We’ve all been glued to our screens and watched a global pandemic disease ensnare both our economy and the political sphere. Watching leaders across the world attempt to grapple with this gigantic challenge on our behalf has been both terrifying as well as farcical at times – a bit like accidentally taping Contagion over a repeat of Yes, Minister.

Despite the difficulties we face now, it makes sense that most aspects of our working lives will return to relative normality in time: meeting clients over coffee, swapping stories at the watercooler, and, unfortunately, catching a crowded train home. But there are some things that shouldn’t go back to how they were.

Much of the political debate now centres on how the country will ever deal with the cost of the emergency support package put in place to soften the economic impact of the pandemic – the cost of which had already topped £100bn as quickly as 30 April 2020.

Eye-watering cost of ill health

You might be surprised to learn that ill health that prevents us from working was already such a big problem that in normal times it cost our economy that much every single year – around the same as the total bill for HS2 or over three times the lifetime cost of the UK’s new fleet of Dreadnought-class ballistic missile submarines.

Most of this eye-watering annual drain on the economy is lost output, along with around £7bn of unnecessary expenditure in the NHS. It should go without saying that if we hope to not just recover our previous economic position, but to improve growth and productivity, then major reforms will be needed. And they’re long overdue.

Take statutory sick pay, for example, which many have been shocked to discover offers workers payments of just £95.85 a week. It’s a system that was introduced while ships were returning from the Falklands War and Morrissey was forming The Smiths, so perhaps it’s not surprising that there’s plenty wrong with the scheme besides the fact it’s not enough to live on: it’s far more complicated than it needs to be, doesn’t account for part-time or flexible working, and leaves out two million workers the TUC calls “too low paid to fall ill”. There must be a way to give British workers better protection than this.

Leaving aside financial security, many workers in the UK lack access to the right support they need to stay in work after becoming disabled or adjusting to the impact of a long-term health condition on their job. The government estimates only around half of employees can get even basic occupational health support through their workplace.

Lack of access to vocational rehabilitation

The proportion with access to vocational rehabilitation and return-to-work support such as that available with a group income protection policy is sadly smaller still. It can be hard for smaller firms to find impartial information about the services that are out there, not to mention find the funding to give their staff the support they’d like.

Government is working hard to resolve these issues and, of course, the occupational health, insurance, and vocational rehabilitation community will do all it can to help.

Crucially, what the international evidence shows is the key to tackling sickness absence and keeping disabled people and those with health conditions in sustained employment is the active participation of engaged employers. The good news is that, despite the challenges of the pandemic and its impact on business finances, more employers than ever before are now becoming interested in good work that supports good health.

The bad news? Many businesses, having turned to government-backed credit or become reliant on state support for furloughed staff, may be in dire straits and simply not have the bandwidth to continue to prioritise this vitally important issue over the coming years.

Facing the government will be a difficult balancing act. On the one hand, demands to limit business distractions and get the economy moving. On the other, a growing consensus behind ensuring people aren’t forced to face hardship in the future if they are unfortunate enough to fall ill, whether from a resurgent coronavirus or otherwise.

As business tightens its collective belt, achieving the step change needed is not going to be easy – but, as occupational health practitioners know, there are plenty of things businesses can do to improve workplace health that don’t cost the earth.

Value of ‘good’ work in supporting good health

We can now come together – as occupational health and vocational rehabilitation experts, policymakers, clinicians, employers, and business organisations – to develop a consensus statement on the importance of creating healthy and inclusive workplaces which allow everyone to reach their full potential and remain in work, recognising the vital role played by employers in supporting the nation’s mental and physical health

What is crucial in the short-term is to sound a clarion call to businesses not to lose focus on the value of ‘good’ work in supporting good health, and early intervention in helping those with a mental or physical health condition to stay in work where they can.

Previous work on a consensus statement for healthcare professionals set the backdrop for a range of successful interventions to deliver “work as a health outcome” – from more training for GPs and undergraduate medical students to the rollout of ‘health and work champions’ across NHS trusts. A PHE evaluation commended it as “symbolic evidence of the importance of the programme across clinical disciplines and government”.

We can now come together – as occupational health and vocational rehabilitation experts, policymakers, clinicians, employers, and business organisations – to develop a consensus statement on the importance of creating healthy and inclusive workplaces which allow everyone to reach their full potential and remain in work, recognising the vital role played by employers in supporting the nation’s mental and physical health.

Only by working across sectors and in partnership with business and employer organisations can we turn today’s good intentions into tomorrow’s effective action. The pandemic has shown us just how important it is to look after our employees well. We can’t lose sight of that as we build our workplaces back better after the virus.

References

“UK Covid-19 business bailouts have already cost more than £100bn”, The Guardian, April 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/30/uk-coronavirus-business-bailouts-have-already-cost-more-than-100bn

“Work, health and disability green paper data pack”, Department for Work and Pensions, October 2016, pp.15, available online at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/644090/work-health-and-disability-green-paper-data-pack.pdf

“High Speed 2 (HS2) costs”, Institute for Government, https://www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/explainers/high-speed-2-costs

“Dreadnought submarine programme: factsheet”, Ministry of Defence, February 2018, available online at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/successor-submarine-programme-factsheet/successor-submarine-programme-factsheet#future-costs

“Statutory sick pay”, Department for Work and Pensions, https://www.gov.uk/statutory-sick-pay

“Millions of low-paid workers don’t qualify for sick pay – and women are worst affected”, TUC, October 2019, https://www.tuc.org.uk/blogs/millions-low-paid-workers-dont-qualify-sick-pay-and-women-are-worst-affected

“Health is everyone’s business Proposals to reduce ill health-related job loss”, Department for Work and Pensions and Department of Health and Social Care, July 2019, pp.14. Available online at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/815944/health-is-everyones-business-proposals-to-reduce-ill-health-related-job-loss.pdf

“Work as a Health Outcome: a qualitative assessment of the influence of the Health and Work Champions pilot programme and the clinical consensus statement”, Public Health England, October 2020, pp.6. Available online at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/923531/PHE__HWMC_Evaluation__2_.pdf

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