Health matters: health and work

Health and safety | March 2019

post it notes with health and work themesPublic Health England guidance finds clear evidence that good work improves health and wellbeing

Public Health England (PHE) has published guidance on the links between health and work. Health matters: health and work covers the impacts of worklessness and unemployment on individuals, employers and wider society. And importantly, the report highlights the action employers can take to support people at work, get people back into work, and keep them there.

Health of people at work

PHE reports that 31% of working age people in the UK have a long term heath condition, with one in four having a physical health condition and one in five of those people having both a physical and mental health condition.

health and work concept showing individual wooden figure There are stark differences between employment rates of people with one health condition (61%), and those with five or more (23%). The employment rate is even lower for disabled people; only 51% of disabled people are employed and almost nine in 10 disabled people that are out of work are economically inactive (not in employment and had not sought work in the previous four weeks and/or are unable to start work in the next two weeks).

Additional figures from PHE suggest that almost all workplaces will have an employee affected with a health and wellbeing issue:

  • One in six adults will have experienced a common mental health disorder in the last week
  • One in 10 employees report having a musculoskeletal health condition.
131 million working days lost

empty chair representing absent employeeEach year in the UK, 131 million working days are lost due to sickness absence. The main reasons include minor illnesses such as coughs and colds (34.3 million days), musculoskeletal ill health (28.2 million days) and mental wellbeing such as stress, anxiety and depression (14.3 million days).

The ever increasing number of older people remaining in work – over nine million people at work are aged 50 to 64 – also means there will be an increase of employees with one or more health condition.


Impacts of poor health and wellbeing

Unemployment not only affects people’s incomes, but also their social interactions, identity and purpose. All of which impact overall health and wellbeing, potentially contributing to:

  • Long term illnesses
  • Poor mental health
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Suicide.

Additionally, long term health conditions such as musculoskeletal ill health could also actually be the cause of unemployment (due to poor ergonomic working conditions, for example) which has been termed ‘health-related worklessness’. For some people, work is also the reason they experience poor mental health e.g. work related stress.

Ill health costs UK £100m annually

PHE advises that the impacts of unhealthy workforces go beyond the individuals and employers concerned. The annual costs to the UK Government associated with ill health, such as via benefit payments, tax and national insurance, are estimated to amount to a huge £50 billion. Combined with the costs of worklessness, the wider costs are estimated to be a whopping £100 billion each year.

How employers can address the issues around health and work

In its guidance, PHE advises the actions employers can take to prevent, address and monitor workplace health and wellbeing issues.

PHE’s recommended employer actions include:

  1. Implementing strategic (senior) level support and communicating it to your staff.
  2. Carrying out a Workplace Health Needs Assessment, to highlight issues and focus attention.
  3. Encouraging healthy behaviour at work (taking breaks, healthy eating and physical activity).
  4. Promoting health and wellbeing initiatives that are widely available from the NHS, such as stop smoking services.
  5. Providing training for people who manage staff, on physical and mental health.
  6. Implementing workplace wellbeing monitoring systems (e.g. absence data recording), and using that data to target future action.

Other workplace factors that employers should review include:

  1. Ensuring the basics of health and safety management are in place at work.
  2. Thinking about the demographics of your workforce, and how you can support staff.
  3. Tackling stress issues in the workplace.
  4. Ensuring measures are in place to help disabled staff.
  5. Enabling flexible working.
  6. Addressing workplace environmental issues such as noise.
  7. Taking preventative measures, such as training staff to ensure everyone’s competence for their role.

Benefits of addressing health and work issues

It goes without saying that addressing workplace issues causing ill health and unemployment, is beneficial. It means that people remain in work, are physically and mentally well, feel they have a purpose, and are able to sustain a fulfilled work and personal life.

PHE also reports that for each person moving from worklessness into employment saves:

  • Local authorities £540
  • The NHS £85
  • The Government £11,410.

The total economic benefit adds-up to £12,035 per person.

Speech bubbleProvide good work that improves health and wellbeing
Talk to us about implementing PHE’s recommendations for your company


Further reading

Access the full guidance from PHE, Heath matters: health and work.

Information on carrying out Workplace Health Needs Assessments.

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