“Work and health will be high on the agenda in 2017”

There has been a plethora of activity and related reports recently in the work and health world. Nick Pahl, CEO of the Society of Occupational Medicine, rounds up the key developments.

The recent activity related to health and work no doubt is linked to the Health, Work and Disability Green Paper consultation, which closed in February. The press got on the bandwagon, with a new year focus on health at work from both the Guardian and the Financial Times.

First off, there is a new strategy from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) on health and work, rightly focusing on work-related stress, musculoskeletal disorders and occupational lung disease. The HSE is demonstrating a new direction by moving into health and away from health and safety – a welcome move considering the statistics.

Business needs to take responsibility for good health at work and it’s good to see the work of the What Works Centre for Wellbeing developing.

The centre is an independent collaborative organisation set up by former Cabinet secretary Lord Gus O’Donnell. The mission is to develop and share robust, accessible and useful evidence that governments, businesses, communities and people can use to improve wellbeing.

The centre has just set up a Strategic Council for Wellbeing in Work to provide a voice for business in the operation of the centre and the wider wellbeing research and policy arena. It brings together business leaders with academics, research funders and policymakers to consider the wellbeing agenda from a business perspective. The council is chaired by Dr Paul Litchfield, the chief medical officer and director of wellbeing, inclusion and safety and health for BT Group.

Charity Business in the Community has a significant programme in the work and health agenda – focusing partly on older workers. Its approach is backed by some compelling facts – for example, that if the employment rate of people aged 50-64 matched that of those aged 35-49, it would add more than 5% to UK GDP, and that by 2020, people over 50 will comprise almost one-third of the working-age population and almost half of the adult population.

I was amazed to hear from Andy Briggs, chief executive of insurer Aviva (who is the Government’s champion for older workers), that sickness absence is lower for older workers. Have a look also at some great older worker “infographics” from the Centre for Ageing Better.

Next up, the TUC has produced a useful advice for union reps on tackling work-related health.

I found its report on apprenticeships particularly interesting. Young people need to see work as good for them and it would be terrible if the apprenticeship programme is seen as a way to save money.

Rather, it should offer a young person a supportive, high-quality training experience. Note that under the Health and Safety At Work Act 1974, young workers should receive at least the same protection as other workers.

A new voice is the Carnegie Trust. It is looking at the future of work (as are many, including Prime Minister Theresa May, who has asked the chief executive of the Royal Society of Arts to look at this). The trust’s recent report explored inequalities in access to quality work. It splits out aspects of “bad work”, the proportion of the workforce for whom this is relevant and which groups this is more likely to apply to.

An example is Ipsos MORI Scotland’s analysis of the Labour Force Survey, which found that 9.1% of employees experienced unpredictable hours.

Unsurprisingly, those with a limiting health problem or disability are more likely to be dissatisfied compared with those without long-standing health issues. Thankfully, most people (74%) are very satisfied or satisfied with the sense of achievement they get from their work.

Notably there was little relationship between earnings and sense of achievement.

Next (slightly leftfield), the respected Work Foundation has produced a new report on social prescribing. If you’re wondering what that is (I didn’t know either), it is “a means of enabling healthcare professionals to refer patients to a non-clinical service who will then work with them to co-design non-healthcare interventions to improve health and wellbeing”.

The report argues for the promotion of social prescribing services in supporting clients with long-term health conditions back into meaningful work, and says public services must play a much bigger part in achieving this goal.

There is clearly an appetite to support the work and health agenda, with 70% of Social Prescribing Network members surveyed reporting that employability and work-related outcomes should be a key part of social prescribing services.

It is good to hear of this person-centred approach avoiding use of mandation in the current welfare-to-work system.

More broadly, there are specific areas that deserve attention. The political focus on mental health doesn’t let up. Indeed, early in 2017, the Prime Minister called for a new initiative in mental health and the workplace (led by Paul Farmer of the mental health charity, MIND, and Lord Stevenson).

MIND is also highlighting a new NHS service for GPs who are experiencing poor mental health. Musculoskeletal issues deserve attention too – it is one of the “big two “(with mental health) in terms of sickness absence in the UK. Check out a new Arthritis Research UK report on work and arthritis as a start.

In terms of what’s coming up, look out for the Royal Society of Medicine/Society of Occupational Medicine event on occupational health after Brexit on 10 May in London. We must also eagerly await the White Paper on health, work and disability – publication date to be confirmed.

Finally, let’s not forget the esteemed instigator of much of this work and health activity – Dame Carol Black. Along with the Government, she has just produced a review showing how employment plays an important role in improving the wellbeing and self-worth of people with drug and alcohol addiction.

The report recommends further exploration into ways people addicted to drugs and alcohol can be helped to find jobs, and improved joined-up working between work and health services. It also looks at the role of employers in helping secure good employment opportunities for people who have struggled with addiction.

Dame Carol explored the effect of obesity on unemployment, but found no clear link – so those of you who haven’t succeeded in your weight-loss goals can rest easy.

Nick Pahl is CEO of the Society of Occupational Medicine.

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