· Features

Government action on workplace health long overdue

Despite recent good news about the UK jobs market, we still face a struggle to raise levels of productivity to anything like their pre-crisis levels.

From a human capital perspective it is clear that we need to do more to maximise the skills, engagement and wellbeing of the workforce. It is perhaps in the field of wellbeing where the need is most acute and the potential gains from action are highest, especially as we can forecast what will happen through inaction.

As the workforce ages, retires later and risks the development of chronic and work-limiting health conditions, the pressure to invest more energy and resources in managing the health, work ability and productivity of the UK’s working age population will become more intense. Over 40% of the UK workforce is likely to have a long-term health condition by 2030. 

As we face this challenge, we should remind ourselves that we have a decade of progress to build upon. Dame Carol Black’s 2008 report – Towards a Healthier Workforce – galvanised policy makers and practitioners into action and initiatives such as the Fit Note, increased support for small businesses, training for GPs, the Access to Work programme, the Responsibility Deal, a range of supported employment initiatives and – most recently – the new Fit for Work Service.

As ever, a major challenge is to join up these initiatives, lend them more coherence, and invest in and scale up those that deliver the best results.

Last week, Lancaster University’s Work Foundation launched its new Health at Work Policy Unit in an attempt to inform the development of workforce health policy over the next decade.Promoting workplace health has widespread public health benefits and employers and government should share the investment in order to ‘co-produce’ a wider societal benefit. 

An important priority here will be to maximise the adoption of evidence-based initiatives to improve workplace wellbeing. It remains an area where employer engagement and investment is patchy at best and where ambiguities still remain regarding the direction of policy in this area and the roles of the government and other stakeholders. Our policy paper – the first of a series planned by Health at Work Policy Unit – aims to stimulate discussion and debate about the current policy measures. 

We and the sponsors of the Policy Unit, Bupa and Napp Pharmaceuticals, recognise that there are no simple answers and that the pressures on business, GPs and government are intense and unpredictable.

Part of the problem has been that, while awareness of the need to act on workforce health has increased immeasurably, our collective capacity to innovate, implement and evaluate has narrowed in the wake of the financial crisis.

Also, if government is to do more, we recognise that it has to be a catalyst and facilitator; enabling employers and others to play a bigger part in helping the UK workforce to remain as fit and productive as possible. 

To achieve the results we all want – a healthier and more productive workforce – we will eventually have to accept that the workplace will have to become one of the arenas within which public health interventions such as screening and lifestyle changes relating to obesity, exercise and diet will have to take place. This will represent a radical departure from the intervention light status quo, but failure to confront this challenge risks both serious economic and social consequences we cannot afford.