After coronavirus, we must ‘build back better’ on workplace health

 After coronavirus, we must ‘build back better’ on workplace health

By Simon Hodgson

It’s now roughly a year since the general election, at which one political party pledged to nationalise the railways, expand the size of the state, and immediately enact reforms to make the welfare system more generous. That party didn’t win the election, but all those things happened anyway.

We’ve all been glued to our screens and watched a global pandemic disease ensnare both our economy and the political sphere. Watching leaders across the world attempt to grapple with this gigantic challenge on our behalf has been both terrifying as well as farcical at times – a bit like accidentally taping Contagion over a repeat of Yes, Minister.

Despite the difficulties we face now, it makes sense that most aspects of our working lives will return to relative normality in time: meeting clients over coffee, swapping stories at the watercooler, and, unfortunately, catching a crowded train home. But there are some things that shouldn’t go back to how they were.

Much of the political debate now centres on how the country will ever deal with the cost of the emergency support package put in place to soften the economic impact of the pandemic – the cost of which had already topped £100bn as quickly as 30 April 2020.

Eye-watering cost of ill health
You might be surprised to learn that ill health that prevents us from working was already such a big problem that in normal times it cost our economy that much every single year – around the same as the total bill for HS2 or over three times the lifetime cost of the UK’s new fleet of Dreadnought-class ballistic missile submarines.

Most of this eye-watering annual drain on the economy is lost output, along with around £7bn of unnecessary expenditure in the NHS. It should go without saying that if we hope to not just recover our previous economic position, but to improve growth and productivity, then major reforms will be needed. And they’re long overdue.

Take statutory sick pay, for example, which many have been shocked to discover offers workers payments of just £95.85 a week. It’s a system that was introduced while ships were returning from the Falklands War and Morrissey was forming The Smiths, so perhaps it’s not surprising that there’s plenty wrong with the scheme besides the fact it’s not enough to live on: it’s far more complicated than it needs to be, doesn’t account for part-time or flexible working, and leaves out two million workers the TUC calls “too low paid to fall ill”. There must be a way to give British workers better protection than this.

Leaving aside financial security, many workers in the UK lack access to the right support they need to stay in work after becoming disabled or adjusting to the impact of a long-term health condition on their job. The government estimates only around half of employees can get even basic occupational health support through their workplace.

Lack of access to vocational rehabilitation
The proportion with access to vocational rehabilitation and return-to-work support such as that available with a group income protection policy is sadly smaller still. It can be hard for smaller firms to find impartial information about the services that are out there, not to mention find the funding to give their staff the support they’d like.

Government is working hard to resolve these issues and, of course, the occupational health, insurance, and vocational rehabilitation community will do all it can to help.

Crucially, what the international evidence shows is the key to tackling sickness absence and keeping disabled people and those with health conditions in sustained employment is the active participation of engaged employers. The good news is that, despite the challenges of the pandemic and its impact on business finances, more employers than ever before are now becoming interested in good work that supports good health.

The bad news? Many businesses, having turned to government-backed credit or become reliant on state support for furloughed staff, may be in dire straits and simply not have the bandwidth to continue to prioritise this vitally important issue over the coming years.

Facing the government will be a difficult balancing act. On the one hand, demands to limit business distractions and get the economy moving. On the other, a growing consensus behind ensuring people aren’t forced to face hardship in the future if they are unfortunate enough to fall ill, whether from a resurgent coronavirus or otherwise.

As business tightens its collective belt, achieving the step change needed is not going to be easy – but, as occupational health practitioners know, there are plenty of things businesses can do to improve workplace health that don’t cost the earth.

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Originally Posted On PersonnelToday

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