By Dr Chris Edmond
HEALTHY worker, healthy business, healthy island.
After all the build-up and preparations we are finally here. The highlight of my year, and an event I have been looking forward to for months. That’s right, it’s Occupational Health Awareness Week.
Yes, I know there is also the minor issue of the election today – so do please get out and vote if you haven’t yet. However, in today’s column I want to change tack slightly to highlight how supporting health in the workplace can provide somewhat of a holy grail to our new politicians – an activity that can improve health, productivity, equality and longevity while reducing reliance on the social security system and disability benefits.
So what is occupational health? The World Health Organisation defines it as ‘the promotion and maintenance of the highest degree of physical, mental and social well-being of workers in all occupations by preventing departures from health, controlling risks and the adaptation of work to people, and people to their jobs’.
In simpler terms I describe my work as the medical speciality focused on the effects of work on health, and the effects of health on work. Most people hear about occupational health services when their employer refers them for advice following an episode of sickness absence, but as occupational health professionals we provide a range of services including proactive employee health assessments and surveillance, drug and alcohol testing, and advice on a wide range of work-related issues such as neurodiversity.
More and more often occupational health is also seen as a strategic partner in workplace wellbeing and all the associated factors that link health and work – think of equality and diversity, health and safety, workplace culture and ESG activities. It is being increasingly recognised that workplaces can also have a major impact on the health of not just their employees but also their customers, the wider community and the environment.
So why does it matter? Well we know in Jersey we lose approximately ½ million working days each year to ill-health and injury. We also have around 4,500 people claiming long-term incapacity allowance at any one time – meaning they have a significant long-term mental or physical condition which affects them in day-to-day life, including work. This comes at a significant cost to the social security fund of nearly £40m per year across the various incapacity benefits available.
In 2019, there were 531 work-related accidents and 952 incidents of work related ill health reported through claims made for social security benefit.
Although we don’t know the exact costs in Jersey, a recent review by the Social Security Minister into the benefits system suggests that working age ill-health could be costing Jersey’s economy up to £230 million a year (£140 million lost output from the people who don’t work because they experience long-term sickness or disability and £90 million from lost earnings and business productivity) and that up to 250 people a year permanently leave work due to ill health.
The longer people are out of work due to ill-health or injury then the lower the chances become of them ever returning to work. Being out of work places financial strain on families, the benefits system, and results in poorer health and wellbeing over time.
What about the effect on businesses? Well we know that our businesses are facing recruitment and productivity challenges, both of which are often discussed in the pages of this newspaper. The Channel Islands Wellbeing Report in 2021 identified that for 63% of respondents their work was one of the primary causes of stress, anxiety and poor wellbeing.
Providing dedicated occupational health support can keep employees healthy, support them back to work as soon as possible after an episode of ill-health or injury, reduce presenteeism and improve both productivity and workplace culture. As an island we can also use occupational health to begin to address the challenges of an aging workforce and the rising dependency ratio we so often hear about.
My passion for occupational health grew from seeing patients where their workplace had caused them significant harm, for example through bullying and harassment in work. But I have also seen many amazing examples of caring businesses that thrive through a focus on the health and wellbeing of their people. So I will finish with a quote which sums up the power of caring for your people:
‘The person you report to at work can be more important to your health than your family doctor. What is the ROI for caring? It’s having teammates that are healthier because they feel valued and understood by their leaders and teammates. Because they feel fulfilled by the time they’re spending away from their homes and families, they are inspired and energised instead of stressed. And when they go home to their loved ones, they share that joy and fulfilment instead of the stress and bitterness of feeling unappreciated and insignificant.’ Bob Chapman, chief executive of Barry-Wehmiller Companies.
Dr Edmond is the founder and medical director of WorkHealth (CI) Ltd, a dedicated Jersey-based occupational health provider. He is also a director at Jersey Sport and adviser to the Jersey Community Foundation. He writes in a personal capacity.