A discussion at this week’s Cambridge Festival highlighted health risks at work and how the pandemic has escalated many of them.
How can we redesign jobs for better well-being?
Mental ill health in the workplace is at epidemic levels and employers need to do more to share what works to tackle it, with the focus being on job design rather than merely tackling the symptoms of ill health, a webinar at the online Cambridge Festival heard this week.
The discussion, Why work needs to shape up, hosted by research institute RAND, focused on the major issues for occupational health in the aftermath of the pandemic.
Professor Chris Warhurst, Director of the Institute for Employment Research at the University of Warwick, said that while there is more talk about mental health issues at work it seems to be focused mainly on tackling the symptoms rather than the causes, with mindfulness and drug treatments being seen as the solution rather than job design. Occupational health experts are pressing to get in earlier to address the issues, but they too are not focusing on the causes, said Professor Warhurst.
He argued instead for a proactive approach to building better jobs, similar to that outlined in the Matthew Taylor review of modern working practices. Good work is vital, he said, given research shows that insecure work, such as zero hours contracts, leads to more mental health issues and higher risks of mortality.
He also added that physical health risks have been overlooked by researchers in recent years following the introduction of regulations. However, he said, physical risks, such as back pain, have not disappeared or been solved and occupational health is vital.
Chris van Stolk, executive vice president at RAND Europe, said that sickness absence and presenteeism [being in the workplace but in poor health] have gradually been increasing in the last few years, with presenteeism a major cause of lost productivity.
The main drivers for this are poor musculoskeletal health and mental ill health. Other factors are poor sleep, financial wellbeing [linked to job insecurity], lack of control in the workplace, poor relationships at work and lack of clarity about roles. He said: “We are currently facing a mental health epidemic in the workplace.”
Research during the pandemic shows mental health issues are getting significantly worse and issues such as increasing worries about job security, problems sleeping and back pain are combining to make mental health worse. Certain groups are affected more, he added, for instance, NHS staff, particularly those in ICU settings, suffering PTSD.
Van Stolk said that following other economic crises the emphasis has been on jobs, but that is not enough. We need to build better jobs, he said. Professor Warhurst said that jobs need to be seen as a wider public policy issue. There is a real cost to the NHS, for instance, of poorly designed jobs, he stated. “Better jobs can alleviate the pressure on the NHS,” he said, adding that paying back the Covid borrowing would mean the health service would face more financial pressures.
Van Stolk said there had been positive initiatives taken during the pandemic by some employers with regard to health and flexible working, but he said the lessons need to be shared more widely, especially with SMEs, who make up the bulk of UK employers. Professor Warhurst added that, while productivity had improved during the pandemic as a result of remote working, this seemed to be in part due to people working longer hours so there needed to be a review of flexibility to ensure people get the work life balance they need.
Both speakers also called for a rethinking of occupational health to give it greater prominence. Professor Warhurst added that there needs to be a joined up approach across business, medical and engineering education to include the health implications of changes such as more artificial intelligence in the workplace, with the impact on humans taking centre stage.