The Government is so roundly criticised for so many things that an acknowledgement that it has got something right will come as a bit of a surprise. But the recent Choosing Health White Paper, published last month, represents a very big step in the right direction.
At last, the Government is recognising the importance of health at work in relation to the health of the nation.
Work, the White Paper acknowledges, is still one of the major predictors of future health prospects. And it is right. There is overwhelming evidence that poor work and poor working conditions lead to poor health – as true today for white-collar Britain as it was for yesterday’s blue-collar world of coal mines and manufacturing.
The recommendations in the White Paper have real potential – myself and two colleagues from The Work Foundation chaired the Opportunities in Employment task group that fed into it.
Giving Strategic Health Authorities the responsibility for improving occupational health will ensure that OH is no longer a ‘Cinderella’ service. It is also encouraging that the Government is proposing to include a health element in the Investors in People (IIP) standard. Whatever the true impact of IIP standards on raising productivity and performance, it creates real opportunities for further dialogue with unions and employers on improving work organisation, job design, management standards and culture.
The epidemiological evidence shows that wherever we work, badly designed jobs in poorly organised workplaces lead to a shorter average life expectancy. Workers who have little control of when, where and how they do their work, and over how much work they are required to undertake, have significantly lower life expectancies than those who do have such control. The more routine the work and the more badly designed the job, the worse the effects are likely to be. Improving job design, the organisation and management of work and ensuring there are better managers are part of the solution to creating a healthier working nation.
Another important commitment involves getting the NHS to set an example for the rest of the public sector and the wider economy. The Government’s measures on vocational rehabilitation, smoking and mental illness are important in demonstrating its seriousness of purpose.
The smoking ban in workplaces and public places by 2008 may fall short of the total ban seen in New York and Ireland, but it sends out a vital message while establishing an important precedent. It’s a clever compromise between the risk of being accused of being a nanny state, and the risk of doing too little.
There are more than 28 million workers in the UK – three-quarters of whom are full-time staff. Employers can make a major contribution to the goals set out in Choosing Health. Making work healthy will make it better for employees and employers, as they will see absence rates go down and efficiency and productivity go up. ‘A healthy mind requires a healthy body’ is still a reliable motto for today’s high performance workplaces.
By Will Hutton, chief executive, The Work Foundation