Fit for Work to tackle long-term absence through advice and occupational health assessments

Photo by Alex Proimos via Flickr, under Creative Commons Licence

Photo by Alex Proimos via Flickr, under Creative Commons Licence

It’s been announced that Fit for Work will be launched by the Government later this year to provide health and work advice and an occupational health assessment to employees, employers and GPs in England and Wales to help people return to or stay in work after an illness. A number of names have been suggested for the service during its ongoing development, including:

The renaming to Fit for Work is based on the need for the name to more accurately reflect the nature and impact of the service.

Long-term sickness absence is a considerable drain on the economy and it’s generally accepted that work is essential to health, wellbeing and self-esteem – being off work for extended periods causes a plethora of problems, including mental health issues, social isolation and difficulty returning to work.

A significant number of people meet the criteria of being employed and on a four-week period of absence in England and Wales – according to the Office for National Statistics[1] (ONS), approximately 815,000 people in England are registered as being on long-term sickness absence (four weeks of more) in England [1.54% of the population], compared to 50,000 in Wales [1.71% of population].

According to Lord Freud, Minister for Welfare Reform:

“Being in work is good for people’s wellbeing and can help them to recover. Fit for Work will help employers and their staff to manage sickness absence and aid the return-to-work process and GPs will play a vital role in referring patients they think will benefit from it. This research will build on the learning from the pilot to help us understand how GPs will use this service and how we can support them in the future.

“Fit for Work is a result of the independent review of sickness absence and the government response which accepted the recommendation to introduce an independent assessment service.”

The phased introduction of the service is expected to begin in December, with full roll-out throughout England and Wales planned for March/April 2015.

[1] Office for National Statistics Annual Survey (February 2014).

Posted in Employee Sickness, Financial Impact, Tips & Ideas | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Stoptober – kick the smoking habit

Photo by weegeebored via Flickr, under Creative Commons Licence

Photo by weegeebored via Flickr, under Creative Commons Licence

During October 2014, thousands of people across England are taking part in Stoptober, a 28-day challenge to stop smoking, which leads smokers through a detailed step-by-step programme to help them achieve their aim of quitting smoking for good. Giving up for this period of time can have very real benefits – it has been calculated that smokers who quit for 28 days are five times more likely to stay smoke-free in the long-term.

A blog from 2013 on the Health for Work Adviceline website discussed the correlation between smoking and sickness absence. Research carried out by the UK Centre for Tobacco Control Studies (based at The University of Nottingham) found that current smokers are 33% more likely to miss work than non-smokers and were absent for an average of 2.7 extra days per year. This offers a very tangible incentive for organisations to back the Stoptober campaign to encourage their staff to quit smoking.

So what support will be offered to those participating in Stoptober? They will receive:

  •  an interactive app for iPhone and Android smart phones;
  • a free Stoptober pack containing resources to help people get through the 28 days;
  • a 28-day stop smoking text message support programme to keep people motivated;
  • daily emails with tips and advice;
  • support via the Smokefree Facebook page.

Because of the negative impact of smoking not only on workers’ health but, by extension, on the ability of an organisation to remain productive, employers would be well advised to encourage staff to break the habit. Resources are available for organisations that want to promote the Stoptober programme to workers (see the ‘Smokefree resource centre’).

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Chief Medical Officer: More must be done to help those with mental illness to stay in work

 

Photo by Stefano Corso via Flickr, under Creative Commons Licence

Photo by Stefano Corso via Flickr, under Creative Commons Licence

The Chief Medical Officer’s (CMO) annual report focusing on the mental health of the nation, which was published on 9 September 2014, has made 14 recommendations to improve public mental health services. Specifically, the report makes a number of recommendations relating to mental ill health and work.

70 million working days were lost to mental illness last year at a cost of £70-100 billion cost to the economy. In light of this, more needs to be done to help people with mental illness stay in work. The number of working days lost to stress, depression and anxiety has increased by 24% since 2009 and the number of working days lost to serious mental illness has doubled.

The CMO has called for NICE to analyse the cost benefit of fast-tracking access to treatment for working people who may fall out of work due to mental illness on the basis that rapid access to treatment could improve people’s chances of staying in work. It also recommends simple changes to help people with mental illness stay in work by offering flexible working hours. Where staff are off work, employers are urged to make early and regular contact with them in order to make it easier for them to return to work.

Mental health is just as important as physical health, so mental health services need to be valued and the extent of mental illness and the effect it has on sufferers and the people close to them needs to be acknowledged. Mental ill health isn’t something that ‘happens to other people’. One in four of us will suffer from some form of mental ill health in any one year, so openness is key.

Visit the Gov.UK website to view the full report. Or for more guidance on mental health and work, see the Health for Work Adviceline knowledge base or blog.

Posted in Mental Health | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Post summer blues

Photo by Lisa Widerberg via Flickr, under Creative Commons Licence

Photo by Lisa Widerberg via Flickr, under Creative Commons Licence

So, the summer holidays are over. Everyone is relaxed and bronzed and ready to resume with the daily grind. Or, perhaps not…

Research by Bupa, which has combined the views of 2,000 UK workers, shows that 44% of respondents face a ‘dramatic’ workload increase during the summer, mainly due to the sheer number of people who go away at the same time in UK companies.

So, how about those who did manage to enjoy a summer break instead of picking up other people’s work? Well, it’s not all roses for them either. According to the research, two in five people (41%) who went on holiday had to put in extra hours in preparation before their departure, and two thirds (61%) were dreading the return to reality as the holidays came to an end. And, unfortunately, many of those who did take a break didn’t feel like they could fully switch off during their holidays. Even when they were away, nearly one in three (32%) worried about being called or emailed and being expected to respond. More than half (55%) returned to find a ‘huge’ backlog of work and hundreds of emails waiting (54%).

Clearly the solution isn’t to put an end to holiday entitlement altogether – we all need a break. But all employers have a legal responsibility to look after the physical and mental health and wellbeing of their staff and, as such, they have a duty to take staff issues seriously and do what they can to reduce the pressure their staff are under. If you need advice on doing this, why not take a look at the guide on stress in the workplace on the Health for Work Adviceline knowledge base? Or, for information on general work health issues, take a look at our blog or website.

Posted in Employee Sickness, Mental Health | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

The new Health and Work Service

As we’ve already reported, the Health and Work Service (HWS) in England and Wales* will be launched towards the end of this year with a phased roll-out until May.

The aim of the service is to cut sickness absence by offering health assessments and return-to-work plans to employees who have been off sick for longer than four weeks. The service will also offer general health and work advice to GPs, employers and employees by telephone and via a website.

Now the Government has just announced that the HWS will be delivered by Health Management, an occupational health provider owned by MAXIMUS (an organisation that partners with governments around the world to deliver health and human services programmes that improve the life of people globally).

According to Lord Freud, minister for welfare reform:

“The introduction of the Health and Work Service is an important step in supporting employees, GPs and employers to manage sickness absence better.

“Providing support where it’s needed most will help to reduce the length of time employees take off sick which, in turn, will cut sick pay costs, improve economic output and reduce the chances of people falling out of work and having to claim benefits, all contributing to the government’s long-term economic plan.”

*In Scotland, the service will be delivered by the Scottish Government on behalf of the UK Government.

Posted in Employee Sickness | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Workplace bullying

Photo by Chiara Vitelozzi Fotographie via Flickr, under Creative Commons Licence

Photo by Chiara Vitelozzi Fotographie via Flickr, under Creative Commons Licence

Workplace bullying is sometimes known as the ‘silent epidemic’ and many workplaces don’t have any structures in place to deal with it. This is partly because it’s not always easy to define bullying and prove that it is actually taking place.

Interestingly, whilst there are laws against harassment in the workplace (i.e. unwanted conduct related to a ‘protected characteristic’, such as weight, disability, age, etc.), there is no law against bullying because it is not related to protected characteristics. Workplace bullying might include insulting, intimidating or demeaning behaviour, or an abuse of power.

The late Tim Field (a world authority on bullying and psychiatric injury), who himself suffered a breakdown after workplace bullying, became passionate about the topic of understanding and dealing with bullying at work. In 1996 he set up the UK National Workplace Bullying Advice Line (no longer in operation) and then an information website, Success Unlimited (later Bully Online), a resource on workplace bullying and related issues.

According to Tim Field, there is a clear connection between workplace bullying and workplace stress:

There’s only one way of dealing with stress – that’s to identify the cause and then work to reduce or eliminate that cause. I believe bullying is the main, but least recognised, cause of stress in the workplace today.

Workplace bullying has a negative impact on the work environment, including (to name a few):

  • significantly higher rates of sickness absence;
  • high employee turnover;
  • high costs of training and retraining (to replace absent staff);
  • low workforce morale;
  • poor industrial relations.

Employers are responsible for preventing bullying and harassment and they are liable for any harassment suffered by their employees. Organisations need to have their own policies in place to prevent bullying in the workplace. For more information, see the ACAS website.

Posted in Mental Health | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Alcohol and work

Photo by Kimery Davis via Flickr, under Creative Commons Licence

Photo by Kimery Davis via Flickr, under Creative Commons Licence

Excessive alcohol consumption on the part of employees can manifest itself in various ways, including:

  • employees coming to work with a hangover;
  • staff drinking socially at lunchtime thus becoming less productive and, potentially, putting the safety of other employees at risk;
  • sickness absence through prolonged alcohol misuse outside of work.

A specific aspect of potential over-use of alcohol is drinking covertly at work. It is actually illegal to drink alcohol in safety-sensitive jobs or jobs involving driving but, in general, the regulation of alcohol at work is down to organisations’ specific policies. Employers do have a duty under the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 to look after the health, safety and wellbeing of their employees. This means that employers must take action if they fear that an employee is putting themselves or their colleagues at risk by consuming alcohol.

Any discussion with employees about their suspected alcohol consumption at work must be dealt with sensitively according to organisational alcohol policies. It could be a case of simple misconduct, in which case employers can turn to their disciplinary procedures. However, it may be that the drinking is the manifestation of a drinking problem, in which case employers will need to decide how best to manage the situation and support the employee:

  • What has caused the alcoholism: depression, stress, personal issues?
  • To whom can employers turn to get more information on individuals’ personal circumstances?
  • What adjustments may need to be made at work to support staff?
  • Can employees continue working whilst their cases are being dealt with?

In some situations there may be a case for considering screening workers in safety critical jobs, but screening is only likely to be acceptable if it is part of an organisation’s occupational health and safety, or drug and alcohol, policy. However, screening cannot be seen as a solution in itself. Organisations should consider the inclusion of awareness programmes, which will help with preventing problems from developing in the first place, as well as the provision of support for those who are identified as having a problem.

For more guidance on alcohol in the workplace, see the guide to drugs and alcohol in the workplace on the Health for Work Adviceline knowledge base, or for information on general work health issues, see our blog or website.

Posted in Depression, Employee Sickness, Mental Health | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Working safely in the heat

Photo by Daniel Petzold Photography via Flickr, under Creative Commons Licence

Photo by Daniel Petzold Photography via Flickr, under Creative Commons Licence

As the UK experiences one of the most continually warm and sunny summers on record, many people are turning their attention to the challenges and potential perils of working in heat.

There are a number of potential dangers associated with working in the heat, including:

  • Accidents in the heat.
  • Heat stroke (when the body’s regulatory system fails and body temperature rises too high – this can cause brain damage or death).
  • Heat exhaustion (extreme fatigue caused by a drop in blood pressure due to the loss of fluids and salts in the body).
  • Heat cramps (muscle spasms that result from the loss of large amount of salt and water in the heat).

Interestingly, regulating body temperature in hot conditions not only depends on controllable factors (e.g. wearing appropriate clothing, remaining hydrated, etc.). Success (or otherwise) is also determined to a large degree by the body being acclimatised to the heat. Clearly, living in the UK means that we aren’t generally well versed in the art of working in extreme heat. When a person isn’t used to hot temperatures, the body’s first reaction is often to raise the body’s internal temperature (i.e. to create a fever), which can be dangerous because it increases the pulse rate and puts strain on the heart. The body will then work to bring down the temperature by sweating to cool the body.

Whether or not a person sweats efficiently is dictated by a number of factors such as the level of humidity in the air and whether or not a person’s clothing allows for evaporation. It is also determined by the extent to which the body is used to hot conditions – bodies that aren’t acclimatised to the heat often produce sweat that can be high in salt, which depletes the body of electrolytes.

The other way the body sheds excess heat is by altering the blood circulation. The heart begins to pump more blood into the small blood vessels near the skin’s surface, where the heat of the blood is transferred to the cooler outside environment. If the outside environment is not cooler than body temperature, however, this method is ineffective, and this change in circulation can put extra stress on the heart.

So, whilst this year’s glorious British summer is being lauded by many, it’s clear that it’s not altogether easy for the body to cope with the heat. This is why employers/managers need to ensure that the appropriate precautions are taken to protect those who are working in the heat. For more information on working in high temperatures, or on other work health topics, see the guides on the Health for Work Adviceline knowledge base (e.g. our guide to working in high temperatures) or search our blog.

Posted in Employee Sickness, Risk assessment | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Uncontrolled stress in the workplace – taming the beast

file0002062790027Stress. We all experience it at some point. Some more than others, and some more acutely than others. For some people, a certain amount of stress is important in order for them to remain focused and determined to achieve. For others, even small amounts of stress can have a negative impact on their productivity – stress can lead to panic and unstructured working. Mistakes are made so simple tasks take longer to complete. And then, for some, prolonged stress can ultimately cause illness, which often puts an end to anything being achieved at all.

Whilst individuals have a major role to play in ensuring that they don’t overdo it and let stress get the better of them, it’s not always possible for people to step back sufficiently from stressful situations in order to take stock, become aware of their escalating stress levels, and make the necessary changes. By definition, people who are stressed at work are those who feel they are struggling to manage, for whatever reason. Perhaps they have important work deadlines to meet, or they want to impress a new boss, or fear for their job security so don’t want to admit defeat. These people are the least likely to step back from their work voluntarily, appraise the situation, and take the necessary action (i.e. slowing down and admitting that they can’t manage everything).

Lady with head in her handsSo, it’s down to managers and employers to step in, where necessary. How, you may ask, are managers and employers supposed to support employees to help them keep on top of their own health and wellbeing, whilst they’re busy grappling with important managerial issues such as productivity, profitability and remaining competitive? But the fact is that if staff are feeling stressed and pressured, they probably aren’t working to the best of their ability, so it’s of no benefit to organisations for staff to be pushed to their limits, and beyond. Customer service and productivity may well drop, and mistakes and discontent may increase – and this certainly isn’t what organisations should be aspiring to.

For more information on managing the ever-increasing problem of stress in the workplace in order to keep your workplace running smoothly and efficiently, see the guides on the Health for Work Adviceline knowledge base or search our blog.

Posted in Employee Sickness | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Preventing cancer caused by work environments

Photo by Erik Söderström via Flickr, under Creative Commons Licence

Photo by Erik Söderström via Flickr, under Creative Commons Licence

The European Trade Union Institute (ETUI) has published a new guide on preventing work cancers, a topic that the ETUI feels has not received sufficient attention from EU policies over the past decade. The guide, Preventing work cancers – a workplace health priority, looks at the history and causes of work-induced cancers and provides tools for collective prevention.

According to the ETUI report:

“Cancer kills around 1.2 million people each year in the European Union. Between 65 000 and 100 000 of these deaths are believed to be directly caused by working conditions. Others are the result of environmental exposures which, in many cases, are themselves related to firms’ business activities.”

Startlingly, work-related cancer is by far the main cause of death by working conditions in Europe, and these deaths are predominantly down to controllable factors such as organisations’ technical choices about substances and processes. Working with asbestos, certain chemicals and carcinogens can put people at high risk of contracting work-related cancers, unless the working environment is well-controlled. And, in many cases, it’s not easy to prove categorically that cancer has been caused by work.

So what can employers do to ensure that risks to health are minimised as much as possible? Could dangerous materials be substituted for others, could personal protective equipment (PPE) be provided for workers, or could health surveillance be carried out to monitor the health of those who are potentially at risk in the workplace (if the need is identified from a risk assessment)? Ideally, employers would keep a register of projects involving the handling of carcinogens and the levels to which staff are exposed.

For more information on protecting the health of people in the workplace, see the guides on the Health for Work Adviceline knowledge base or search our blog.

Posted in Employee Sickness, Risk assessment | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment