Occupational health research round-up: May 2017

Almost 35% of workers aged between 26 and 30 are physically inactive, in contrast with only 22.5% of 56-60 year old workers, research finds

This month’s round-up of occupational health research includes reports showing that young workers are less active than older ones, and what employers value in health benefits programmes.

Younger workers are the least active

Young employees are less physically active than their older colleagues, according to data from Britain’s Healthiest Workplace (BHW). Almost 35% of workers aged between 26 and 30 are physically inactive, completing fewer than 150 minutes of exercise a week, and 14% of this group smoke. In contrast, only 22.5% of 56- to 60-year-old workers are classified as inactive and only 6.1% smoke, the BHW data shows. Younger workers also have higher rates of absence and presenteeism, prompting Chris Bailey, partner at Mercer, to comment: “Employees 35 years old and under have become part of a ‘lost generation’, suffering healthwise and financially as a result of the recession.”

Britain’s Healthiest Workplace data

Wellbeing is key objective of benefits programmes

Improving employee health and wellbeing is rated as one of the top three positive impacts that employers want from their benefits programmes, according to this report from Thomsons Online Benefits. The report, which surveys 500 UK employees and 200 UK HR professionals, finds that many employers are struggling to transform their wellness approach to offer the flexibility and personalisation that the modern workforce needs. Workplace wellness activities still focus on cure rather than prevention, and tend to offer traditional, “out of the box” solutions rather than flexible benefits that empower employees to make positive lifestyle choices.

“Employee benefits watch”, Thomsons Online Benefits.

Impact of age on work ability

The impact of psychological factors on an employee’s ability to sustain work varies with age, according to this study. The cross-sectional study of Italian preschool teachers finds that support from colleagues is the factor most positively associated with work ability for teachers in the youngest age group (35-44). In the 45-54 age cohort, work ability was found to be associated with reward and skill autonomy, while in the oldest group (55-63), work meaning was very important in sustaining work ability. The authors conclude that, in order to sustain work ability effectively, “interventions in working populations should be tailored to employees’ ages”.

Sottimano I et al. “Protective factors for work ability in preschool teachers”. Occupational Medicine, published online 8 March 2017.

Sickness absence and chronic conditions

Employers need to understand the importance of factors such as an employee’s understanding of, and efficacy in, managing their own chronic health condition in order to cut absence rates, according to this study of 250 US employees with chronic conditions. Employees who reported poorer general health, more visits to the doctor, not having enough money to pay for healthcare (in the US system) and a higher reliance on their co-workers were significantly more likely to report sickness absence due to a chronic health condition.

Meng L et al. “Factors associated with sickness absence among employees with chronic conditions”, Occupational Medicine, published online 8 March 2017.

Workplace violence and poor sleep

Teachers who report violence at work show an increase in sleep disturbance that persists after the exposure, according to this Finnish study. The impact of violence on sleep was higher among teachers perceiving that the managerial practices in their workplace were relatively unfair and/or unjust. In contrast, those working in schools with high levels of procedural justice seemed to be relatively protected from the negative effect of workplace violence on sleep. The authors conclude: “Although preventive measures for violence should be prioritised, resources aimed at promoting justice at schools can mitigate sleep problems associated with workplace violence.”

“Organisational justice protects against the negative effect of workplace violence on teachers’ sleep: a longitudinal cohort study”, Occupational & Environmental Medicine, published online 15 March 2017.

Self-efficacy and return-to-work

Self-efficacy – the belief in one’s ability to undertake behaviour to achieve a desired goal (in this case, returning to work) – is an important factor in rehabilitation. This systematic literature review finds a consistent and positive association between higher levels of self-efficacy and return to work in a variety of circumstances – for example, different work absence outcomes, injury types and follow-up periods. In some studies, those with high self-efficacy were more than five times more likely to achieve a full return to work. The authors conclude that further research into the determinants of self-efficacy is needed, as is an exploration of the processes by which higher self-efficacy improves rehabilitation outcomes.

Black O et al. “The effect of self-efficacy on return-to-work outcomes for workers with psychological or upper-body musculoskeletal injuries: a review of the literature”. Journal of Occupational Rehabilitation, published online 7 March 2017.

Breast cancer survivors’ perceptions of return-to-work

Line managers are crucial in ensuring a successful return to work after cancer. This study identifies three main practices put in place by managers that survivors perceived as particularly supportive: maintaining communication during the absence period; working with the returning employee to structure a return before the event; and allowing returning employees flexibility in their schedule for a certain period, particularly during the early weeks of a return to work. One main omission in line manager practice was also identified by breast cancer survivors – lack of follow-up further in to the rehabilitation.

Caron M et al. “Perceptions of breast cancer survivors on the supporting practices of their supervisors in the return-to-work process: a qualitative descriptive study”, Journal of Occupational Rehabilitation, published online 7 March 2017.

2016 NHS staff survey

Two-thirds of NHS employees in England report that their manager took a positive interest in their individual health and wellbeing in 2016, and 90% said that their organisation “definitely” or “to some extent” took positive action on health and wellbeing, according to the latest NHS staff survey. The proportion of staff who reported feeling unwell due to work-related stress was at its lowest level since 2012, at 37%. However, 60% of staff reported coming to work in the previous three months despite feeling unable to perform their duties. Bullying and harassment remains an issue – 15% of NHS staff reported that they had experienced physical violence from a patient, relative or member of the public in the previous 12 months.

“Briefing note: issue highlighted by the 2016 NHS staff survey in England”

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