When we consider our health and wellbeing we often think about our diets, our exercise routines — or lack of them — or the last conversation we had with a healthcare professional. We often overlook the place where many of us spend most of our time — and that is work.
This needs to change. Our work environment can have a substantial impact on our health and wellbeing. In 2015, some 440,000 cases of work-related stress, depression or anxiety and about 553,000 cases of work-related muscular skeletal disorders — including back problems, repetitive strain injury to wrists and other similar ailments — were recorded in Britain. In the same period, 23.3m days were lost to work-related ill health, with mental illness and muscular-skeletal conditions accounting for the majority of days lost.
Good health and wellbeing improves what we do at work. Conversely, poor health and wellbeing is often associated with poor work performance. Ill health has a direct impact on individuals, on businesses and the wider economy — costing billions of pounds.
In the preparation of my report, Public Mental Health Priorities: Investing in the Evidence, I found that mental illness costs the UK economy £70bn-£100bn every year.
Society’s acceptance of mental illness as a problem that we need to address is growing and rightly so. It can have a debilitating impact on people’s lives and needs to be treated seriously by all. Yet only about a third of the UK workforce has access to specialised occupational healthcare.
In today’s world, with an ageing workforce and the economic challenges we face, it is more important than ever to talk about health at work. Investing time and resource into the health of our working population has clear business benefits. Informed analysis has shown that employees in good health can be up to three times as productive as those in poor health. They can experience fewer motivational problems, are more resilient to change and more likely to be engaged with business priorities.
As well as the economic cost to ill health, we must, crucially, not forget the human cost. Managing and supporting the health needs of those in employment presents an invaluable opportunity to make a real difference to the lives of our colleagues and their families. We know life does not end when we leave the office and neither do the issues that affect us when we are at work.
Even small changes can have an effect on the health and wellbeing of those at work: changes in line management, facilities, company policies and provision of services. Just something as small as providing lockers and showers for those who want to cycle or run into work can make an important difference.
We should also think beyond preventing ill health and make sure we take the opportunity to promote good health. It is not just about ensuring that the processes of HR departments are robust enough to catch people when they fall, but also about supporting staff with chances to improve their health.
Models of good practice in both the private and public sector are worthy of celebration. London’s City Mental Health Alliance has done valuable work raising awareness and creating networks of support for those employed in finance and law who are suffering from mental illness. Business in the Community’s Work-Well Model and Public Health England’s Workplace Charter, both provide tools for employers to examine their own processes and support mechanisms for employees.
We need models like these to spread across businesses and the public sector. Employers need to push themselves to do more for the sake of their employees and ultimately the performance of their businesses.
Collecting accurate data is a vital first step. You need to be aware of what the problems are so you can design relevant policies that benefit your team. These are best developed in co-operation with the workforce. Different levels of seniority and different divisions in an organisation should feed ideas into the policies in order to support people effectively.
We need to share the methods that comprise good practice, both nationally and internationally, and where there are lessons to be learned we should pay attention. We must champion the successful approaches and efforts that are made.
I warmly welcome this FT special report, which helps us celebrate best practice. I call on all organisations to do all they can to promote and support good health at work.
Getting that right represents a great opportunity both to improve the performance of businesses and to make a fundamental difference to the lives of those working in them.
Professor Dame Sally Davies is chief medical officer for England