In sickness and in health

The government’s new health and wellbeing strategy has the potential to revolutionise the way sick employees are rehabilitated and kept healthy in the workplace, a leading health expert has claimed.

Dr Sayeed Khan, chief medical adviser at manufacturers body EEF and a commissioner at the Health & Safety Executive (HSE), said the new strategy could lead to a fundamental shift in the way sickness is managed by employers and the health service.

The strategy, Health, Work and Wellbeing – Caring for our Future is designed to improve the health of all working age people through a co-ordinated process involving employers, employees and several government departments.

Khan said a greater top-level emphasis on health and wellbeing has been inevitable because of Britain’s relatively poor record in this area and the growing need to address demographic and skills issues across the workforce.

“Health has been the poor cousin of safety for a long time. Britain is generally very good at safety but the record on workplace health is not great. At the same time, there’s a real need for employers to keep existing staff fit and well, because of an ageing workforce and some big skills shortages,” he said.

These factors have led to the creation of a new collaborative approach which could signal the end of the current, much-maligned sicknote system.

“The current relationship with GPs is seen as one of the major barriers to work. This initiative should help doctors work with employers and improve education on both sides.

“A review of the sicknote system is a big undertaking but it should help GPs understand employers’ needs. Hopefully the review will lead to something positive where sicknotes provide enhanced advice on an employee’s ability to carry out work,” he said.

The strategy lays out a blueprint for improving workforce wellbeing, creating healthy workplaces and improving care for sick employees. It also implements measures to ensure workers can access better treatment and rehabilitation.

“This is a big step towards creating some really positive outcomes and the NHS will be more focused on the health of the working population. There could be some radical changes around sickness and productivity,” Khan added.

Richard Jones, director of technical affairs at the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) said poor absence management is a major problem, with more than 25,000 employees leaving the workforce every year and never returning.

“Absence and illness needs to be far better managed and I think this strategy should bring an immediate improvement as well as long-term benefits.”

Jones agrees that GPs need more training in occupational health to be able to provide better sicknotes and support employees in getting back to work.

“Work is good for people. Being back at work is far better than being at home sick. It’s better for the individual, their colleagues and employers if we can help get people back to their job as soon as possible,” he added.

Jones also said that more investment in occupational health would save employers money in the long run and that all stakeholders would reap the benefits.

“For every £1 spent on promoting good health and driving occupational health forward, the economy and society at large can save £2.50.”

The problems are also being addressed at a wider level as the European Commission plans to launch an occupational safety and health strategy in 2007, while the HSE recently hosted a conference looking into the challenges facing employers as part of the UK presidency of the EU.

Hugh Robertson, senior health and safety policy officer at the TUC, said the number of agencies involved and the adoption of a joint-working approach marked a major step forward.

However, he said the scale of the problem in the UK would require significant investment if the strategy is to deliver its aims – although if successful the costs would be balanced by savings to the benefits system.

“A lot of this will be about economics because we now have more people on incapacity benefit than ever before. For too long people have been left to rot without any real support. I hope this strategy will have some teeth but the issue of resourcing is a major concern,” he said.

Health, Work and Wellbeing – Caring for our Future

  • A national director responsible for the strategy will be appointed in the new year

  • A stakeholder summit will take place early next year

  • The government will hold a number of conferences, seminars and workshops around the country to get feedback and drive the strategy forward

  • An official Charter for Health, Work and Wellbeing will be published next spring

  • The HSC has launched a new scheme to help small- and medium-sized enterprises gain access to occupation health services and advice.

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