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       Hazards special online report, December 2015
Firms and government have an unhealthy preoccupation with your lifestyle
Both the government and employers seem terribly interested in your ‘well-being’. But the TUC’s Hugh Robertson says while they obsess about your diet and fitness, why is there fat chance they’ll show this level of concern about the damage wrought by your job?

However much an employer does to promote well-being in the workplace, the real gains are to be made by preventing people becoming ill or injured. Every year 1.2 million people who are in work suffer from an illness they believe is caused by their work. A further 700,000 people who are no longer in work are suffering ill-health because of a work-related illness.

NICE ROLE Guidance prepared by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) is considered to be authoritative but employers do not have to adhere to it, although in the case of the NHS, employers are meant to play by these rules. More.

According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), the biggest cause of work-related sickness is musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) such as back pain and RSI, followed closely by stress, anxiety and depression. Between them they make up over 70 per cent of work-related sickness absence. These illnesses are all avoidable, as are injuries at work.

If an employer wants to improve the health of the workforce then they should address the issue of illness and injury caused by work first, as that is where they have most control.

Unfortunately many employers seem to be focusing, not on keeping workers safe, but instead trying to encourage them to look after their own health by encouraging them to eat well and exercise.




PAINT POTTY ‘Well-being’ is becoming inescapable, says TUC Hugh Robertson. “Not only in the workplace but in our supermarkets and magazines… I was painting the kitchen earlier this year and found that ‘well-being’ is even a colour of a Dulux paint.” 

A lot of the change in emphasis has been led by government, such as the ill-fated ‘responsibility deal’ for workplace health which emphasised the role of the individual and the voluntary approach (Hazards 121). But workplace well-being is also being promoted as part of the general public health agenda, and by consultants selling well-being and wellness programmes to employers.

The result is that well-being - along with that other buzzword – mindfulness - can be found almost everywhere.

I doubt whether most people who use the phrase even know what they mean by it. For some people the phrase refers to levels of happiness, while others think of it as a healthy body and mind. There is even a national well-being index, which intends to cover the quality of life of people in the UK, environmental and sustainability issues, as well as the economic performance of the country.

Well confused

In the workplace, well-being, or sometimes ‘wellness’, has become a convenient label for almost any health related initiative. That makes it difficult for trade unions to respond, especially when management sometimes uses “well-being” as a way of by-passing union involvement. However, a positive approach to developing ‘good work’, which takes account of health and well-being can lead to improvements in both the health and quality of life of the workforce.

After all it is not only the hazards like chemicals that make us ill, nor are MSDs and anxiety or depression the only things we have to worry about from how our work is organised. Work can contribute to a huge number of other health problems.

There is a strong link between stress and the use of tobacco, recreational drugs and alcohol (Hazards 104). Having a job that involves sitting down all the time or only having access to junk food during a 20 minute lunch break can lead to obesity and increase the chance of heart disease and diabetes. Dealing with the work-related causes of these ‘bad habits’ is the most effective response.

Initiatives aimed at encouraging workers to get or stay healthy can have a mixed reception. At times workers will welcome them as a sign that their employer is taking an interest in their health. Other workers may feel that their employer has no business getting involved in what they consider to be their private life.

ACAS APPROACH  A ‘Health Work and Wellbeing’ guide from the conciliation service Acas notes: “Good relationships have the potential to make workplaces healthy and productive. More.

It is important that any activities are introduced in a way that makes it clear there is no compulsion and that employees are not necessarily expected to take part. These initiatives must be made available to all workers, not only those in the better paid and more secure jobs.

There are positive things that an employer can do to assist in the promotion of good health through introducing measures such as making fruit available and promoting exercise. But if the employer is going to be involved in lifestyle issues then it should do it in partnership with the workforce and its unions rather than on behalf of the workforce. Often that is not happening. Instead we are seeing the growth of “well-being champions” appointed by management.

The TUC has a new guide on how union representatives can be involved in promoting these initiatives, but at the same time ensuring they are not used as an alternative to dealing with the real issues that are causing workers to be ill. Unions are after all more likely to challenge the employers working practices where they are leading to problems, such as long hours, having to sit down all day, or stress.

• Workplace well-being programmes: A guide for safety reps, TUC, December 2015.

 

 

Making progress the NICE way

TUC’s Hugh Robertson says the guidance prepared by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) is considered to be authoritative but employers do not have to adhere to it, although in the case of the NHS, employers are meant to play by these rules.

NICE, which is a public body operating independently of government, has produced guidance on interventions at work to promote physical activity, mental well-being and smoking cessation. In June 2015 NICE another guide, Workplace policy and management practices to improve the health and wellbeing of employees, that says that all those with a remit for workplace health should recognise the importance of dealing with issues such as stress and bullying, and ensuring a work-life balance. It is though short on detail and often just refers to other advice such as the HSE Stress Management Standards.

Although NICE encourages engagement with unions it also recommends the use of “staff engagement forums”. Employers should never be able to use these forums as a way of undermining the involvement of unions in well-being issues. Where a union is recognised the existing joint health and safety committee, or a sub-committee of it, should be used to progress well-being issues or a joint union/management committee should be set up.

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The Acas approach to healthy work

A ‘Health Work and Wellbeing’ guide from the conciliation service Acas notes: “Good relationships have the potential to make workplaces healthy and productive. But, promoting a healthy and productive workplace is not just about being nice to each other (although this obviously helps). Good employment relations are built upon:

•  effective policies for managing people issues such as communication, absence, grievances and occupational health
•  high levels of trust between employees and managers. Trust is often nurtured by involving employees in decision-making and developing an open style of communication.”

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It’s the social inequalities, stupid

Hundreds of people in the UK are dying prematurely each day because of social inequalities, a top academic has warned. Sir Michael Marmot, who has undertaken extensive research on the marked impact of socioeconomic factors in UK workplaces, warned that research revealed a stark “social gradient” emerging in Britain. The poor not only die on average seven years sooner than the rich, but they can expect to face becoming disabled 17 years earlier.

Professor Marmot has questioned the government’s plans to raise the pension age past 66 and link it to life expectancy. It is a concern shared by unions, who say many working class people will not live to enjoy so much of their pension. “It is the inequalities in the conditions [in which] we are born, grow, live, work and age, and it’s damaging the health of us all,” said Marmot. “It is costing us 550 lives a day in the UK alone.”

In his new book, The Health Gap, he argues that those who blame lifestyles miss the point – it is inequality that is the dominant and fast growing factor in determining our health status. Since 1980, the share of total income received by the top one per cent in Britain has almost doubled, to about 13 per cent in 2011, reversing a three-decades-long trend towards greater equality.

Marmot has found a similar effect in workplace studies. He set up the Whitehall II study, which examined the impact of socioeconomic factors and stress on the health of UK civil servants (Hazards 104). This found that the risks of stress-related sickness went up as your employment grade went down, linked to workload, working hours, a lack of control, job insecurity and other factors.

International research published in the journal Social Science and Medicine in September 2013 concluded a union presence has a strong positive effect on the health of the workforce and the economy, including delivering improvements in life expectancy (Hazards 123).

• Michael Marmot. The Health Gap: The challenge of an unequal world, Bloomsbury, September 2015. ISBN: 9781408857991.

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Hard to swallow

Both the government and employers seem terribly interested in your ‘well-being’. But the TUC’s Hugh Robertson says while they obsess about your diet and fitness, why is there fat chance they’ll show this level of concern about the damage wrought by your job?

Related stories
•   Making progress the NICE way
•   The Acas approach
•    It’s the social inequalities, stupid

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