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If employers provide good work and good workplaces they could improve productivity and retention, saving millions, a government adviser on health and wellbeing has told a major festival this week.
Dame Carol Black, Expert Adviser on Health and Work for the Department of Health and Public Health and Principal of Newnham College, Cambridge, told the Hay Festival in Wales that there is a strong business case for employers investing in health and well being.
She said the annual economic cost of sickness absence and worklessness associated with ill health is £100 billion or more and that half of all days lost through sickness are in absences of over four weeks.
In 2013, 131 million days were lost due to sickness. For a workforce of 28 million this is almost five days per worker, she stated, with mental health problems accounting for 38% of days lost and 45% of health-related benefit claims.
Dame Carol also revealed that 27% of reasons given for early retirement for over 50s related to ill health and 7% to ill health of a relative or friend. The changing world of work presented several health challenges – more people were having to work after 65, for instance, and the work that does exist is increasingly insecure. In addition, more women, the traditional carers, were working and there was more demand for flexible working.
Dame Carol said work is generally good for mental and physical health, but, she added, “work needs to be ‘good work’ in good workplaces”.
It was not just good for those who were healthy. For those growing number of people with chronic disease and disability work was often therapeutic and could lead to better health outcomes as well as minimising the unwanted and harmful effects of long-term sickness absence. It reduced the risk of chronic disability and long-term incapacity as well as poverty and social exclusion.
Long-term unemployment was bad for health and has an impact on successive generations, she said, but research shows that work lacking in adequate psychosocial quality was linked to just as poor mental health and stress – or worse – as being unemployed.
That included high-stress work where workers had little control over their situation and poor security.
Dame Carol said: “Work of the poorest psychosocial quality is no better for mental health than unemployment.”
Employers needed to put more effort into helping maintain people in work. Early intervention or prevention was often poor or ineffective, she said.
Mental health was a particular problem. New UK disability claims are among the highest in the developed world, said Dame Carol, with mental ill health forming a large part of this figure.
However, employer/employee relationships could sustain health and wellbeing. Employers who were leading the way had put in place structures for communication and education on well being and created a culture of health at work which was reinforced by positive health behaviours and an infrastructure for measuring health and wellbeing.
She said good workplaces included those where attempts were made to manage workload, improve management behaviour and provide flexible working where possible.
Key features common to those organisations which have achieved success in creating healthy workforces by focusing on well-being included good and visible senior leadership and accountable appropriately-trained managers throughout the organisation. Traditional health and safety was integrated with the promotion of health and well being which was monitored and measured to ensure continuous improvement. Employees were empowered and assisted to care for their own health and staff engagement was high.
Good line management was key to employee well being, said Dame Carol.
Managers should focus on:
– effective communication with members of staff
– awareness of the issues and the ability to empathise
– developing an open culture with employees feeling able to discuss their problems.