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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Men’s health at work

Photo by Antonie Robiez via Flickr, under Creative Commons Licence

Photo by Antonie Robiez via Flickr, under Creative Commons Licence

This week’s National Men’s Health Week, led by the Men’s Health Forum, focuses on men’s health at work. People who work spend a significant proportion of their lives in the workplace, and men are twice as likely to work full-time as women, so generally spend even longer in the workplace than their female counterparts. Therefore it is vital that men’s health is protected at work as it is often here that the first signs of mental or physical distress become apparent.

Not only do men generally spend longer in the workplace than women, but, on the whole, they wait longer before going to see a doctor with a health condition, so it’s easy to see how mental and physical health conditions are at risk of going unchecked.

Understandably, many managers feel uncomfortable broaching the subject of a person’s health with them for fear of causing offence, and mental health issues can be particularly difficult to talk about. However, employers do have a duty of care towards employees, which means that they need to do all that is reasonably practicable to ensure the health, safety and wellbeing of their staff. Fostering an open environment in the workplace, in which people feel confident about voicing their health concerns, and promoting the health of staff through wellness programmes, is a good place to start.

If you’re looking for information about health and work, why not take a look at the resources on the Health for Work Adviceline website, blog or knowledge base to find out more about keeping your organisation healthy and productive?

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Electronic cigarettes – should they be covered by the smoking ban?

Photo by Monica Grigsby via Flickr, under Creative Commons Licence

Photo by Monica Grigsby via Flickr, under Creative Commons Licence

Electronic cigarettes (or e-cigarettes) are gaining in popularity. According to ASH (Action on Smoking and Health) an estimated 2.1 million adults in Great Britain currently use them. There has been a substantial rise in the number of current smokers who have tried electronic cigarettes since 2010. In 2010, only 8.2% of current smokers had ever tried them, but this figure had risen to 51.7% by 2014.

E-cigarettes are essentially battery-powered devices that replicate smoking behaviour (without the use of tobacco) with a combination of nicotine, flavour and other chemicals. Many claim that they are very useful when giving up smoking because they allow users to feel as though they are smoking, and to gradually reduce the amount of nicotine they inhale over time.

However, there has been some controversy surrounding them, mainly because they haven’t been rigorously tested for safety and effectiveness. In 2008 the Assistant Director-General of the World Health Organization’s Diseases and Mental Health Cluster, Dr Ala Alwan, made clear the World Health Organization’s stance on e-cigarettes:

“The electronic cigarette is not a proven nicotine replacement therapy…..WHO has no scientific evidence to confirm the product’s safety and efficacy.”

Whilst smokers are obliged to smoke outdoors since the smoking ban in enclosed workplaces came into force in July 2007, many smokers of e-cigarettes do not consider themselves to be obliged to adhere to these rules because e-cigarettes do not contain tobacco. However, critics of the e-cigarette argue that smoking e-cigarettes in public places risks normalising smoking behaviour, and may in fact cause negative health effects (e.g. putting pregnant women at risk) because they haven’t been sufficiently tested.

So, the question of whether employers should allow staff to smoke e-cigarettes within the workplace is a tricky one to answer. Certainly discouraging smoking in the general sense is in the interests of staff, employers and organisations, if staff are to remain healthy and productive. And looking after the health of workers is precisely what the resources on the Health for Work Adviceline’s website, blog or knowledge base to do – take a look to find out more.

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Ensuring equality in the workplace for those who are deaf or have some form of hearing loss

Photo by Clare Griffiths via Flickr, under Creative Commons Licence

Photo by Clare Griffiths via Flickr, under Creative Commons Licence

According to figures from Action on Hearing Loss (formerly the Royal National Institute for the Deaf), one in six people in the UK suffer from some form of hearing loss of which approximately one third are below retirement age – and these figures are growing year on year.

Many people who are deaf or have hearing loss will be considered disabled under the Equality Act 2010, and would be protected from discrimination under this legislation. Employers need to ensure that they do not treat a person with hearing loss any less favourably than any other employee, which may involve making reasonable adjustments. It is also advisable for employers to ensure that team members have been given some form of deaf awareness training to overcome potential communication barriers.

An interesting article on the Action on Hearing Loss’s website, which reports the results of research carried out to mark this year’s Deaf Awareness Week (19-25 May), states that three out of four people with hearing loss feel their employment opportunities are more limited than their hearing peers, with almost 80% naming employers as the major barrier. Clearly, this is a troubling statistic, and suggests that much more needs to be done to protect the rights of people with hearing loss in the workplace.

There are many useful resources available on the broad subject of hearing loss and, more specifically, protecting the rights of individuals with hearing loss in the workplace. Some of these include Action on Hearing Loss, the British Deaf Association and the Royal Association for Deaf People. Or for information on a whole range of work health-related topics, see the Health for Work Adviceline website, blog or knowledge base.

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Protecting sufferers of ME and other long-term conditions against discrimination

Photo by Graham Binns via Flickr, under Creative Commons Licence

Photo by Graham Binns via Flickr, under Creative Commons Licence

It was ME Awareness Day on 12 May. ME (myalgic encephalomyelitis) is a condition that is shrouded in lack of understanding to a great degree. To begin with, there is some dispute as to the correct name to give the condition. Some people use the term ‘chronic fatigue syndrome’ (CFS) because the main symptom for many is often fatigue and the condition is chronic. However, many sufferers prefer the name ME because the term ‘fatigue’ is generic and does reflect the different and severe nature of their fatigue. In addition, fatigue is not always the main symptom (others include muscle pain, problems with short-term memory and concentration, sleep disturbances, emotional imbalances). To further complicate matters, the causes of the condition are unknown (possibly a viral infection that triggers it), and there are no tests to definitively diagnose the illness.

One thing that is clear, however, is that the condition can be extremely debilitating. The symptoms can range from relatively mild, to extremely severe. Somebody with mild symptoms may need the odd day off to rest when the fatigue is bad. Those with severe symptoms, however, have reduced mobility and can sometimes only carry out the very simplest of everyday tasks. Unfortunately for sufferers, despite having been recognised as a neurological condition by the World Health Organization since 1969, it’s believed by many to be a ‘made up’ condition, partly because the condition fluctuates, and partly because the symptoms can vary so greatly and can’t be categorised as clear-cut ME symptoms.

Because ME is a long-term and fluctuating condition, sufferers are likely to be protected from discrimination under the Equality Act 2010 if the ME has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on their ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities. If they meet the requirements of the Act, employers need to ensure that they do not treat them any less favourably than any other employee. Information about organisations’ responsibilities under the Equality Act 2010, as well as on a vast array of other work health-related topics, can be found on the Health for Work Adviceline website, blog or knowledge base.

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