A recent report from the UK Society of Occupational Medicine highlights several issues of note to the occupational health and safety (OHS) professional. But it is also worth looking at the SOM’s media release.
As well as offering financial costs and benefits of good occupational health management the full report also contextualises occupational health:
“The report cites a survey of 1,000 UK employers in which respondents gave their most common reasons to spend on health and wellbeing initiatives as: a motivated and healthy workforce is more productive (41%); to attract and retain staff (25%); to be perceived as a caring employer that takes duty of care requirements seriously (21%). Meanwhile, a survey of 1,000 employees found that they were more likely to choose an employer who took employee health and wellbeing seriously (66%) and would feel they have a duty to work harder for such an employer (43%). The survey results are reflective of the intangible as well as tangible benefits of occupational health.”
According to the media release, SOM’s Patron, Lord Blunkett , said of the findings:
“This report provides a comprehensive analysis and evidence review of the value of occupational health. It comes at a critical time for the policy agenda for work and health, and the challenge of the productivity gap. It is essential reading for managers, clinicians and policy makers.”
The crucial element of Lord Blunkett’s comment is the link between occupational health and productivity. The media release provides a type of occupational health pathway
- improve the health of the working population
- contribute to the prevention of work-related illnesses;
- prevent avoidable sickness absence through the provision of early interventions for those who develop a health condition; and
- increase the efficiency and productivity of organisations.
The OHS profession has always struggled to incorporate health in its prevention strategies. As discussed elsewhere, this is partly the fault of the profession, partly the fault of safety regulators and partly due to the social and business attitudes in existence at the introduction of OHS laws. OHS has operated for decades on the cost of traumatic injury because such injuries are difficult to avoid, Regulators are notified of hospital presentations for workplace injuries and, even though inaccurate, the costs of such injuries can be measured through medical, compensation and rehabilitation costs.
Occupational health and mental health are much less visible and so have been easier to ignore or to argue are not definitively related to work. Yet they are directly related to labour productivity. The SOM media release includes the following quote from Dame Carol Black:
“The health of people of working age has consequences far beyond themselves – touching their families, workplaces and wider communities. The economic costs of ill-health and its impact on work are measurable; but the human costs are often hidden. “Working for a healthier tomorrow” ) recommended an expanded role for occupational health that should be available to all. I welcome the new SOM report which distils the evidence to support investment in occupational health services and the benefits provided to people of working age, employers and society.” (link added)
The media release also makes this statement which deserves careful consideration
“Despite concerns over costs of occupational health interventions, the evidence shows that occupational health services should in fact be highly cost-effective, provided that there are a variety of skills on offer, that occupational health professionals work to their distinctive competencies, and that the work performed adds value.”
Such concerns are common across the Western world, largely because companies and countries need to catchup on years and decades of neglect on occupational health. Regardless of the aims of OHS law, occupational health was neglected in practice. The most prominent occupational health hazards were those that had direct and measurable impacts on health such as silicosis, asbestosis and others, and even these were mired in controversy with companies and product manufacturers arguing that non-work factors were equally relevant to the deteriorating health conditions. These positions created part of the murkiness of occupational health.
The cost-effectiveness in the quote above is conditional. It relies on the variety of skills, operating with “distinctive competencies” and the “value” created by the work. Here are three conditions that could generate years of argument themselves.
One of the attractions of this report is that it occurred in the United Kingdom which allows statements such as occupational health interventions
“….also play a major part in protecting and revitalising the UK’s economy.”
This is less likely in the United States where occupational health is directly related to company costs and profits due its employment-linked health insurance. The national health services such as exist in the UK and Australia allow for a more direct causal link to the general economy.
SafetyAtWorkBlog will provide a more detailed assessment of the full report shortly.