Building a health and wellbeing at work strategy for the future 

Organisations need to develop a health and wellbeing at work strategy that recognises the needs of rising numbers of employees with long-term conditions. Liz Egan at Macmillan offers practical advice.

By 2030, four in 10 people of working age will be living with a chronic condition, and employers need to consider if they are prepared. Ignoring the changing needs of the workforce will be costly to employers and society.

Evidence shows health support in the workplace that is that well-targeted can help prevent people falling out of work due to ill health. Remaining in work can have a positive impact on wellbeing and can help preserve livelihoods.

Supporting staff the right way also has business benefits. Not only are you fulfilling your legal obligations, you also are able to retain talented, knowledgeable staff, save on the costs of recruiting and training new people, foster loyalty, and drive a positive image of the company to customers and potential employees.

By making reasonable adjustments in the workplace for employees with ill health or long-term conditions such as cancer, employers can fulfil their obligations under equalities legislation, and avoid potential discrimination compensation and associated costs, such as legal fees for tribunal cases.

It also has a positive economic impact. According to the report “Rethinking cancer”, released by the International Longevity Centre in September 2015, people living with, and beyond, cancer contribute about £6.9 billion to the economy each year through paid employment.

Confederation of British Industry (CBI) deputy director-general Josh Hardie agrees. He recently stated at a CBI Great Business Debate on Health and Work: “What makes a successful business? Ask any good business leader and most will give you the same answer – their employees. Looking after your staff isn’t just a ‘nice to have’, it’s a hard-nosed business decision.”

Role of business

There are simple steps employers can take to help ensure their health and wellbeing programmes are fit for the future. The majority of programmes focus on prevention, but should also include a strategy for support.

Organisations will benefit from proactively developing policy, training and support programmes that recognise needs of employees with long-term conditions. These policies should not only be about self-management, but should ensure that key roles, such as those of line managers, have the right skills in place to be able to support employees who may be dealing with long-term conditions.

Communication and flexibility are key foundations; from helping line managers understand how to handle the crucial initial conversations, develop communication plans and know the flexible working policies, to ensuring the HR team knows the legal obligations.

My practical advice would be to:

  • Invest in up-skilling key staff to manage people with long-term conditions at work. We understand the pressure on line managers around supporting employees, and it is important they are offering the right level of help. They are often delivering this with little or no training in this area, and it is important to ensure line managers feel equipped and confident in supporting employees with long-term conditions.
  • Be flexible and prepared to make reasonable adjustments. Feedback from our work with business confirms more than 70% of companies who have made workplace adjustments, such as flexible working hours, specialist computer software, or moving desks to the ground floor, consider them to be easy. Bear in mind, every individual is different, and what may be an appropriate adjustment for one employee may not be for another.
  • Recognise the importance of good communication. The initial conversation may just be about listening and offering support, however it is important, when the timing is appropriate, to develop a communication plan together as there are practical elements you will need to know.

Evidence has shown that if appropriate support is in place from the beginning (ie, good communication, flexibility, reasonable adjustments), it can foster and sustain a successful return to work.

Support for business

You do not need to be experts; there is help out there for business. The Government provides some existing assistance for employers, including the Access to Work scheme, Workplace Wellbeing Charter, National Institute for Health and Care Excellence workplace guidance, and the Fit for Work service, although this is not entirely comprehensive.

The third sector also has the expertise and knowledge to help you develop an impactful health and wellbeing programme to ensure the best support and care is provided to your staff when required. For example, Macmillan has developed Macmillan at Work, which provides expert information, guidance and training for employers to enable them to support employees affected by cancer. More than 3,500 employers from across the UK have signed up to the programme and, in 2015, we delivered training to more than 800 line managers and HR managers in both the private and public sectors.

For Macmillan, the high level of interest in the Macmillan at Work programme gives us reason to be optimistic, but there is still a long way to go. Most businesses contact us when they already have someone diagnosed with cancer in their workplace. Very few have developed appropriate policies or thought about getting their line managers prepared to help them manage cancer or other long-term conditions in the workplace.

I am confident, however, that by continuing to discuss the issues and solutions, we can work together to help prepare for current and future health support needs of the UK workforce.


About Liz Egan

Liz Egan is programme lead on the "Working through Cancer" programme at Macmillan.
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