Last reviewed 3 April 2019

This year World Health Day falls on 7 April 2019, offering managers an opportunity to revive the discussion on work-related health within their organisations. Vicky Powell looks at some of the warning signs of an unhealthy workplace and advises how best to approach the big issues in occupational health.

Tackling work-related health

Historically, work-related health and wellbeing were all too often filed away in the “very difficult” or “impossible to measure” folder. However, those days are long gone.

Britain’s health and safety watchdog, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), has work-related health firmly in its sights with its Go Home Healthy campaign, currently targeting the following three significant occupational health issues.

  • Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs), ie back, neck and muscle pain including upper limb disorders such as repetitive strain injuries to the arm or wrist. Also lower limb disorders such as those affecting the hips, legs or toes.

  • Work-related stress including mental health issues such as anxiety and depression.

  • Lung disease, caused by breathing in gases, fumes, vapours and dusts, and resulting in serious, life threatening and often incurable occupational respiratory diseases such as mesothelioma, work-related asthma, lung cancers, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), silicosis and pneumoconiosis.

Besides the very real threat of prosecution by the HSE in relation to these illnesses, there are of course other compelling reasons to tackle work-related health.

  • Each year in Britain, around 12,000 workers die from lung disease related to their jobs, accounting for a massive 90% of the total number of deaths caused by work-related diseases and accidents.

  • Nine million working days are lost each year because of MSDs related to work.

  • More than 12 million working days were lost last year because of work-related stress.

Warning signs of an unhealthy workplace

For managers interested in a quick overview of where their organisation is in terms of achieving a healthy workplace, warning signs of failing on work-related health often include the following.

  • Lack of specific policies for managing the important issues which most directly affect, or act as indicators for, worker health — such as relating to sickness absence, hazardous substances, cancer, MSDs and work-related stress, as well as depression and anxiety.

  • An absence of a champion, at Board level, for the big work-related health issues, eg MSDs, cancer and hazardous substances, or mental health.

  • Low worker engagement and lack of training in relation to work-related health issues, or a far heavier focus on “traditional” safety issues such as fire exits and slips and trips, instead of giving equal consideration to safety and health challenges.

  • A working culture characterised by bullying, poor customer service, unreasonably high work demands, low levels of trust between employees and managers or other indicators of poor management.

  • High levels of sickness absence or low levels of productivity — and in terms of sickness absence, it’s worth noting research which indicates that staff will often call in with the flu, a stomach bug or mention their back pain, rather than explain they are struggling with mental health issues such as depression and anxiety.

Using checklists to evaluate workplace health

One useful starting point in gaining an answer to the question, “How healthy is my workplace?” can be found in a checklist approach.

Certainly, this is a key feature of Croner-i Health and Safety’s resources and in addition, a number of health and safety campaign groups and professional bodies such as the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) and the British Occupational Hygiene Society (BOHS) have put together checklists for specific work-related health issues.

In the case of lung disease, BOHS’s Breathe Freely campaign to prevent occupational lung disease features the Health in Industry (HI) Management Standard. This is a simple self-assessment tool designed to help companies better manage workplace health risks and specifically those relating to lung disease. The HI Standard was developed specifically for the construction industry but can be applied to other sectors also. It identifies strengths and weaknesses, helps to set priorities and also offers direction in developing action plans.

Other useful checklists for managing workplace health risks from BOHS include those for lead, asbestos, silica and substances falling under the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) regime. The Chartered Society for Worker Health Protection is also targeting its Breathe Freely campaign resources on lung disease risks in the manufacturing sector, having initially focused on the construction industry, and the Breathe Freely Welding Fume Control Selector Tool takes a useful checklist approach, which, while not being a substitute for a full risk assessment process, may be helpful.

Business in the Community (BITC), the business charity backed by Prince Charles, recently produced a self-assessment toolkit for employers to evaluate their performance on mental health and MSDs. The checklist asks key questions about whether a champion for wellbeing and musculoskeletal health has been appointed within the organisation and signposts simple ways to get the ball rolling, such as linking wellbeing days to national awareness days and encouraging office employees to move more during their working day. BITC points out that awareness days (such as World Health Day, which this year falls on 7 April 2019) can serve as a great way to raise awareness without coming across as overbearing or interfering to employees. Other useful occupational health checklists have also been produced by BITC.

Finally, the Government’s Acas Health, Work and Wellbeing booklet starts by making the valid point that work can have a highly positive impact on health and wellbeing. This booklet also contains a checklist which may serve as a useful guide for highlighting problems with the management of MSDs and work-related stress, in particular where these have their foundations in:

  • relationships between line managers and employees

  • employee engagement and involvement

  • job design, degree of flexible working available and access to occupational health.

How to improve the health of your workplace

Checklists can be useful in identifying an organisation’s strengths and weak spots where occupational health is concerned but they are, of course, no substitute for a full risk assessment and suitable control measures.

The scale and diversity of work-related health issues can seem overwhelming but identifying the big issues that present the greatest risk to staff and then taking meaningful action on these can provide a significant boost to the organisation and its bottom line. Certainly, the HSE’s Go Home Healthy campaign makes clear the type of action the regulator expects employers to take in relation to occupational health issues such as lung disease; MSDs and work-related stress. With regard to the latter issue, and perhaps the one occupational health issue which historically managers have most shied away from at work, the HSE’s Talking Toolkit on work-related stress and the HSE’s Management Standards will help organisations comply with the law and better tackle work-related stress, depression and anxiety. In the case of the former matter of MSDs, two points are highly topical. The first is that the HSE has made the point that general, off-the-shelf training can be an ineffective way of controlling the risks of manual handling. In addition, the health and safety watchdog has stated it wants to see a shift in emphasis towards risk elimination and risk reduction on MSDs through design. It may be that external help with MSDs will be required for these aspects.

None of these risks should be overlooked in any modern workplace. With a death toll running into thousands each year, lung disease is by far the biggest workplace killer in Britain. In the case of MSDs, more days of sickness absence are attributed to back, neck and muscle pain than any other cause, with one in eight of the working age population having an MSD of some sort. Similarly, three out of every five employees experience mental health difficulties because of work and 31% of the UK workforce have been formally diagnosed with a mental health issue.

Yet despite these worrying figures, recent research by the risk management company Aon has indicated that many companies in the UK are still failing to manage the most basic work-related health risks. The research showed that less than half (41%) of the survey sample of 200 employers, across a broad range of sectors representing companies with fewer than 100 employees to those with many thousands, had in place a formal approach to tackling mental health. Only 11% of the companies had a specific strategy in place to address cancer conditions and just 21% of the employers reported having a policy for dealing with back pain and related conditions.

Ill health in the workplace is increasingly being recognised as the biggest staff problem most organisations face and employers that are prepared to up their game on the really weighty issues —such as back pain, work-related stress and lung  disease — will not only avoid prosecution but also reap a wide range of additional benefits.