Sicknote system overhaul means crunch time for health

Health secretary Alan Johnson’s plans for improving the health of the nation confirm that employers will have a major role to play.

The media frenzy over health secretary Alan Johnson’ssupport for an overhaul of the sicknote system obscured an insight into his vision of an employer-led drive to improve the health of the nation.

Planned or otherwise, coverage of his detailed speech at a British Heart Foundation conference last month was overshadowed by his talk of ‘well notes’. Yet aside from this business-friendly soundbite about doctors detailing what sick workers can do – rather than what they can’t – the speech made rather uncomfortable listening for many employers.

Work-health balance

Johnson clearly believes they have a major role to play in improving our health. He even coined the phrase ‘work-health balance’.

“More employers now recognise that supporting a healthy work-life balance is essential to recruiting and retaining staff,” he said. “The next stage is to incorporate work-life balance with work-health balance.”

Johnson also said employers should help the government identify and address health risks.

“We need emp­loyee health and wellbeing to be a higher priority for employers and to be championed at the highest level,” he said, adding that by actively promoting health in the workplace, employers could help tackle obesity and reduce stress. “Yet few employers report on the health and wellbeing of their workforce at board level.”

HR directors’ role

So what exactly does Johnson want HR directors to do to help their staff stay healthy?

The Well@Work report, launched alongside his speech, said: “Senior management should both support and be actively involved in workplace health programmes to instil a healthy and active workplace culture. These initiatives must take into account the specific needs of part-time workers, shift workers, older workers, homeworkers, travelling sales workers, and workers with chronic conditions.”

Specific recommendations in the report included:

  • Developing business plans that recognise the value of workplace health schemes and incorporate specific targets with appropriate staff and financial resources.
  • Regular reporting on progress against objectives at main board and senior management meetings and within annual reports.
  • Establishing a function to co-ordinate and deliver workplace health programmes.
  • Ensuring catering contracts stipulate the availability of healthy food.
  • Developing supportive policies, such as flexible working and active travel.

The Institution of Occupational Safety and Health backed the recommendations, saying they would focus companies on workplace welfare. “It is essential that there is regular reporting on progress at board level,” said a spokeswoman. “Organisations can only really deliver health and safety when there is clear and exemplary leadership from the top, and engagement from the whole workforce as well.”

But Katja Hall, head of employment and employee relations at the CBI, said employers should not be obligated. “Particularly in smaller organisations with more limited resources, is it realistic to expect management to regularly review workplace health objectives?” she asked.

Workers’ responsibility

“Employers increasingly recognise the benefit of wellbeing policies, and there is growing evidence that work is good for health. But the message that employees have a personal responsibility to look after their own health must not be diluted,” Hall added.

One employer that ran a Well@Work pilot project was Halifax-based Provident Insurance. “Health and lifestyle are becoming more of a focus when people apply for jobs,” said HR manager Amanda Hardcastle.

It ran lunchtime walks, brought in a nutritionist to improve the canteen menu, sold fresh fruit at cost, and introduced discount schemes for local gyms.

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