Schemes such as free fruit in offices, bicycle loans, support for ill employees and counselling should be the new norm in the UK workplace according to health secretary Matt Hancock.
Launching a strategy aimed at prevention of health conditions by removing some of the burden on the NHS, Hancock told the Sunday Telegraph that employers ought to do more to “help improve the health of their staff and the nation”.
Elements of the strategy were informed by research on the Continent. “Other countries in Europe are much better than we are at this − at helping people to get back into the workforce.”
He pointed out that in the Netherlands “employers have more of a role in working with employees who are off sick” and that organisations were penalised if they failed to demonstrate “due diligence” in the rehabilitation process of unwell staff.
Hancock, speaking after a visit to the Defence and National Rehabilitation Centre in Loughborough, said that UK companies could learn from the military’s rehabilitation of wounded soldiers, who had an 85% “return to work rate” after serious injuries. In contrast, just 35% of civilians went back to work following serious illnesses, he said.
“The lesson is that employers need to be more engaged when people aren’t well, getting them back to work.”
He praised chancellor Philip Hammond’s Budget announcement last week that £70m would be spent to “put the NHS alongside the [Loughborough] military facility so that we can take on board the lessons the military have learned in rehabilitation and bring them into the NHS”.
He added: “The links between the employers and the NHS and people who are unwell need to be strengthened here.”
He told the Telegraph that the population’s health could be improved by changes to the environment, housing and the use of technology to “predict” illness, as well as new initiatives by employers. With the consent of patients, technology could now be used by doctors to check they are taking their prescribed medication.
The strategy described the workplace as a “great setting for reaching people with messages encouraging healthy lifestyles, including advice on smoking, eating healthily and staying active”.
It acknowledges that many businesses were already taking action in this area but stated ”More employers should follow suit to help improve the health of their staff and of the nation.”
On BBC1’s Andrew Marr show, however, broadcaster and columnist Julia Hartley-Brewer described Hancock’s announcement as “very nanny state”. She said: “I’m not entirely sure it’s my boss’s job to make sure I’m fit and healthy enough, either mentally or physically, to go to work. It’s about personal responsibility. If you want to be healthy, be healthy. If you’re not healthy and you can’t work then tough.”
The Faculty and Society of Occupational Medicine welcomed Hancock’s statement and said that occupational health services were well placed to provide the necessary intervention. A spokesperson said that such services could “prevent work-related ill health, promote good health, and manage health conditions and rehabilitation. This promotes employee health, retention, productivity and business performance. We hope the government will encourage the provision of occupational health services for all the working age population.”