There is often little collaboration between employers, occupational health professionals and academic researchers, despite a clear need for evidence-based health interventions at work. But one new initiative aims to change that. Ashleigh Webber finds out more about the London Centre for Work and Health.
The need for further research into health and work outcomes has never been so important. A record 2.5 million people are economically inactive because of long-term illness, according to recent figures from the Office for National Statistics. Conditions including musculoskeletal disorders, mental ill-health, occupational lung disease – and, more recently, long Covid – have caused many employees to fall out of work prematurely.
Occupational health practitioners are crying out for evidence-based interventions to support those most likely to be forced into early ill-health retirement. One recently launched multidisciplinary work and health research centre is aiming to do just that – equipping practitioners with the solutions and knowledge they need to keep their clients’ workforces happy and healthy.
Launched in the summer, the London Centre for Work and Health has a goal to increase capacity in work and health research and, importantly, engage employers, workers, trade unions and occupational health professionals in the process.
The project brings together researchers with different areas of expertise and from a variety of disciplines. They have one common, overarching aim: helping working-age people to have and maintain healthy, fulfilling work, through research that informs government policy and employer practice.
Future of occupational health
The centre’s origins
The centre was established by Professor Paul Cullinan, a professor in occupational and environmental respiratory disease, and Professor Ira Madan, a professor of occupational medicine and academic dean at the Faculty of Occupational Medicine, after they found they, along with other academics, were working in areas that often overlapped.
Cullinan and Madan sit as directors of the centre, and are supported by occupational health research expert Dr Vaughan Parsons as centre manager.
Thirty work and health research specialists from institutions including King’s College London; University College London; the National Heart and Lung Institute at Imperial College; and Guy’s and St Thomas NHS Foundation Trust are collaborating at the centre to drive forward research in this area.
“The way forward in work and health research is definitely multidisciplinary and collaborative,” Prof Madan tells OHW+.
“We need to think particularly about capacity-building in work and health research, and we needed a centre where people who are working in this area can join forces and share expertise.”
The centre has three primary areas of interest: occupational health, occupational lung disease and occupational mental health.
One of its main missions is to work with closely with government, employers – including occupational health professionals, employees and trade unions – to shape policy and answer the questions organisations need help with.
Engaging with employers and OH professionals
“Reaching out to employers certainly needs to be embedded throughout our activity. Their views and experience should really help to shape and guide our work,” says Dr Parsons.
He says one of the challenges to overcome is how the centre might reach employers, and how this outreach can be embedded into its operations.
“One of the issues we’ve had to date is trying to get our frontline OH colleagues engaged in occupational health research, and that’s for all sorts of reasons including workload pressures,” he says.
One of the aims of the London Centre is to really raise the profile of work and health research, particularly within the OH specialty, and really get our colleagues to think about and recognise the importance of embedding research into their clinical practice” – Dr Vaughan Parsons
“One of the aims of the London Centre is to really raise the profile of work and health research, particularly within the OH specialty, and really get our colleagues to think about and recognise the importance of embedding research into their clinical practice. And that could simply be a case of collecting data that allows research to take place.”
Prof Madan says: “We hope [the outreach] will go both ways. If we can show that we are useful to employers, then hopefully they will approach us with what they need. But historically in work and health research it’s been challenging.”
She encourages organisations and OH professionals to think about the work and health questions they have, and to consider contacting the centre to discuss how they might go about answering them and what data they might need.
“Most employers have the question but they don’t have the academic expertise to be able to answer it, but we’re very happy to assist with that,” Prof Madan adds.
The centre is currently working on a variety of projects. These include the ENABLE study, which aims to explore the interplay between multiple long-term conditions and employment; a study on risk factors for healthcare workers developing long Covid; and a study exploring opportunities for multidisciplinary working in NHS OH as part of the Growing Occupational Health and Wellbeing Together project.
The way forward in work and health research is definitely multidisciplinary and collaborative” – Prof Ira Madan
Several papers have already been published by the centre, including the Employee Staff Record study, which explored the associations between sickness absence and Covid-19 in NHS staff.
Prof Madan says the centre would like to support education and training in the field of OH and work and health research.
“Part of that is through the existing Lungs at Work courses, and we have just developed a diploma in occupational health practice which will begin in January next year and is in association with the At Work Partnership,” she says
Furthermore, the centre wants to offer opportunities to support people wishing to apply for Colt and NIHR fellowships, with Prof Madan hoping that they will see at least one person achieve a fellowship in the field of work and health within the next two years.
“We also want people to realise that there is a career in work and health research,” she says. “We really want to develop clinical and non-clinical researchers in our field, to expand capacity in this important area.”
With the UK’s working population facing varied, and often interconnected and overlapping, health challenges, getting a better understanding of the how employers and government can facilitate healthier working lives will undoubtedly help to keep employees in work for longer.
The hope is that, through greater collaboration with academics and via cross-institutional partnerships such as the London Centre for Work and Health, OH can in time begin to build the robust the evidence base it needs to help workers thrive.