Fit for business

Professor Laura Serrant Green, is well placed to observe the trends affecting both the health and business sectors. As Director of Research and Enterprise at the School of Health and Wellbeing, she’s witnessed the growing synergy which exists between traditional patient care and employer care.

Employers are now encouraged to consider the welfare of their workforce not only in terms of their health and safety, which is a legal obligation, but also in promoting better lifestyle and wellbeing practices within the workplace. It’s a shift in emphasis that Laura partly attributes to changes that have occurred across the NHS:

"In the UK, we are extremely fortunate to have the NHS as the main provider of healthcare. Increasingly though, not everything we now require in relation to health and wellbeing can be provided by the NHS, and the private sector will grow to fill the gap."

This is likely to result in more private and voluntary providers of health-related services springing up, so we can anticipate some healthy growth in the sector. For employers in general, it means taking on increasing responsibility for the health of their staff.

When you consider recent statistics for work-related ill health, this seems a logical step. With so much of the working population’s time spent at work, the potential for it to impact upon physical and mental wellbeing cannot be dismissed.

Taking care of business

Through her role in the Centre for Health and Social Care Improvement, Laura is conscious that the input of healthcare professionals is now being sought by companies on every aspect of business operations in order to achieve a healthier workforce and workplace.

"Clients call upon our expertise around a whole range of issues within health and wellbeing which crosses education, training, consultancy, expert input into health and safety, service improvement and project management. We also have people within the School who have experience in particular sectors, so it might be around workforce development, psychological and mental health, building capacity and capability – so there are a lot of transferable skills that businesses can tap into.

"We know about sick building syndrome for instance, and we can advise about how the structure and condition of a building can impact upon the health of employees. Or we’re asked to help organisations introduce new workforce structures – which can be an anxious time for employees. Businesses have to think more carefully about the way they implement these. We can help them with process maps and different improvement tools."

A healthy outlook

Laura believes that thanks largely to the effectiveness of the NHS, more employees are able to continue in work whilst suffering from a serious condition or into their old age.

"The NHS is almost a victim of its own success. It’s been so good at doing its job that people live longer, and live with their conditions rather than die of them. People living with chronic illness or conditions still wish to go to work, contribute to society and continue to manage their family life"

This raises a set of new challenges for employers, as they learn to support more people with health conditions to stay in work, or enter employment. The economic argument for doing so is compelling. According to a report by the cross-government initiative Health, Work and Well-being: "Employers, communities and the taxpayer all bear the costs of working-age ill-health which is estimated to run to around £100 billion every year... There is a strong moral, social and economic case for supporting disabled people and those with health conditions to work, thus enabling people to lead fulfilling working lives.*

The situation is sufficiently urgent for the current government to commission an independent review into workplace sickness absence. The review will consider whether people suffering from ill health could stay in some form of work if they receive appropriate help. It’s clearly a process that employers of all sizes will need to engage with.

Whilst arrangements for employees with chronic illness need to be addressed on a case-by-case basis, many companies are seizing the initiative to create a healthier working environment for all their staff. Schemes to prevent illness within the workplace are being embraced by employers, bringing benefits to employees through better health, as well as to employers through improved productivity and reduced sickness absence – and there are plenty of resources available to help.

Lifestyle checks, free fruit, talks on alcohol, back care advice, stress awareness talks and cooking demonstrations are all activities encouraged by the British Heart Foundation, whose Health at Work programme offers online advice and resources to improve levels of organisational health and wellbeing for Britain’s working population. Visit: www.bhf.org.uk/healthatwork

The Department for Work and Pensions’ Health for Work Adviceline is another channel through which small and medium sized businesses can access occupational health advice. The advisors offer guidance on keeping employees healthy and at work, and getting employees back to work as soon as possible. Tel: 0800 077 8844.

Part of the cross-government Health, Work and Well-being Programme, the Workplace Well-being Tool allows businesses to assess the specific health and wellbeing issues within the organisation. Visit: www.dwp.gov.uk/health-work-and-well-being/our-work/workplace-well-being-tool

Recovery position

In response to growing interest in health and wellbeing issues, Laura believes that untapped potential in the health and wellbeing sector will be released in a more enterprising way. As the independent, voluntary and business sectors increasingly work alongside the NHS to deliver services, Laura anticipates more health professionals exploring the entrepreneurial potential of their roles.

"In the UK, people haven’t really equated entrepreneurship with health and wellbeing yet. If you go to America, Canada, New Zealand and Australia – areas where healthcare roles are established degree-level professions – nurses, midwives and social workers sell their knowledge and skills and set up businesses."

This will hopefully mean that plentiful professional expertise is available to businesses who wish to fully engage with issues of health and wellbeing at work, giving the economy a welcome boost in the process. It’s an exciting area for development which the School of Health and Wellbeing can support:

"Businesses are looking for ways in times of economic downturn to cut costs and work smarter rather that harder. So they are looking for new people to link with in order to can gain different expertise and insight, and that’s where we can give benefit. From our professional point of view here, we will be working hard to ensure that emerging health and wellbeing services can deliver to the quality and expectation that people have grown to expect from the NHS."

* Improving health and work: changing lives, 2008