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Workplace drinking

Workplace drinking
One in three UK employees reports that there is “a drinking culture” in their workplace, according to research. Should we be worried? Certainly, the extent to which alcohol lubricates our workplaces is clearly visible this time of year, as office workers spill out of pubs and bars after work on summer evenings.
Employee health and wellbeing – the perils of workplace drinking
One in three UK employees (33%) reports a drinking culture in their workplace, research from insurer Canada Life has suggested.
What’s more, nearly an equal percentage (29%) say they have regretted their actions after drinking at work, with this being particularly true of younger age groups. More than half (53%) of those aged 25-34 have regretted their conduct after drinking with colleagues.
The research highlighted the extent to which alcohol consumption “lubricates” many workplaces, something that can also be seen on almost any high street after work during the summer months, as workers congregate in pub gardens or drink “al fresco” after work.
Canada Life found that 14% of employees admit to drinking with their colleagues at least once a week, while 6% do so at least three to four times a week – tripling to almost one in five (17%) 25-34s.
And it’s not just younger age groups who find themselves drinking with work colleagues frequently. More than twice as many men drink alcohol on a weekly basis at work (20%) than women (9%), the research concluded.
Peer and colleague pressure
More than a quarter (28%) of UK employees on average said they had felt pressured into drinking alcohol at work in the past, with men more often feel they are subjected to such pressure than women (32% of men versus 22% of women).
A third (34%) of UK employees agreed they drank more with their work colleagues than they would normally, with this highest among men (38%) and 25-34-year-olds (64%).
Paul Avis, marketing director of Canada Life Group, said: “Most of the time, a casual drink with colleagues is harmless and can help to boost employee morale and teamwork. But when taken to the extreme, this can lead to behaviour that might leave some feeling red-faced the next morning.
“A heavy workplace drinking culture could mean that some employees end up in this situation regularly, spelling bad news for their own career, organisational productivity and the HR department.
“Employee Assistance Programmes, such as those provided alongside most group income protection policies, are a great way of offering support for employees who may find their drinking has become a problem. Support services such as these are confidential and free to use for employees,” he added.
Team-building and networking
So, should employers be worried by these findings? First, as Avis highlights, alcohol does have an important role to play within the workplace, especially around networking and team-building.
The danger is when this gets out of hand, either at an individual or organisational level. If workplace relationships – and power dynamics – revolve around alcohol consumption then that is not only potentially damaging in terms of health and productivity, it can be excluding.
Employees who don’t drink, whether for health, religious or other personal reasons, may feel left out or excluded from the office relationships and culture.
From a health perspective, the Canada Life research has highlighted the link between many cancers – the biggest cause of group risk claims – and alcohol consumption.
Excessive alcohol consumption can also, of course, lead to liver and blood pressure problems, damage performance and productivity and be dangerous, especially in a safety-critical environment.
As we’ve highlighted on this site before, outside of the safety-critical environment, testing and screening for drugs and alcohol can be fraught with difficulty.
Value of EAPs
But Avis’ comments about EAPs are perhaps worthwhile taking on board. An EAP, clearly, is not going to be a substitute for a testing or screening programme, but it can be a useful halfway house in terms of giving employees somewhere “safe” and confidential to go where they can talk about any worries or concerns they may have, either about their own drinking or a colleague or family member.
An EAP can also be a useful resource for managers in terms of understanding best practice around managing a team member who appears to have, or be developing, an alcohol problem.
Finally, as well as this, at the very least it is important to have a clear, and clearly communicated and enforced, alcohol at work policy in place.
This ensures employees and managers alike can understand the acceptable parameters of workplace drinking, whether at lunchtime, after work or otherwise.

Younger Generation New Health Problems

Young health
Young people are increasingly suffering from ailments more normally associated with the elderly, causing worries for the future health of the working population.
Employee health and wellbeing – the worrying ill-health of younger generations
Young people are increasingly suffering from ailments more normally associated with the elderly, such as back or neck pain, varicose veins and irritable bowel syndrome, research has suggested.
A study by Bupa Healthcare has argued haemorrhoid removal and varicose veins are now two of the most common heart or circulatory surgical procedures for 26-35 and 36-45-year-olds.
Just as worrying, 36-45-year-olds are now the most likely to undergo knee and back procedures.
Multiple arthroscopic knee operations and transforaminal epidurals for back problems were both in the top five most common procedures for this age range in 2015.
This trend is also apparent in younger “millennials”, with multiple arthroscopic operations on knees also being one of the top five procedures amongst the 16-25-year-old category.
There had also been a sharp rise in patient searches on Bupa’s health information site for conditions associated with stress.
Searches for “piles”, “IBS” and “peptic ulcers” increased 2,454%, 1,818%, and 347% respectively in 2015 compared to 2014. Searches for stress itself increased 388% year-on-year.
Sedentary lives and stress
While the precise causes for this are likely to be multiple and complex, the rise in back and neck pain and venous disease may be associated with increasingly sedentary and connected lives and simply bad posture, Bupa argued.
It is estimated treating leg ulcers in the UK already costs the NHS up to £600m a year.
Dr Steve Iley, medical director for Bupa UK, said: “When you consider the amount of time young people now spend, sat using their mobiles and tablets, streaming boxsets or playing with the latest games console, you can see why these conditions are rising in this age group.
“From their early twenties, more and more people are working long hours, with jam-packed schedules, and without the ability to ever really switch off. This, combined with bad postures and lack of movement, are taking their toll physically and mentally.”
The findings also feed into what is building up to being a worrying picture for the future health and wellbeing of our working population.
Not only will employers have to manage the “greying” of the workplace with an increasing population of elderly workers, it may have to be managing an unfit younger population, too.
Younger obesity and diabetes
Already, as Public Health England has argued, as many as eight in every 10 people aged 40 to 60 in England are overweight, drink too much or get too little exercise.
Diabetes and obesity are growing (and of course connected) problems for younger people, with exercise levels often declining well before adolescence.
The government did publish a childhood obesity plan back in January and last year unveiled plans for a sugar tax, which is set to begin from next year.
Clearly, this is a serious societal issue that will require a societal response, encompassing political and public health leadership.
Employers can, and should, play their part in terms of health promotion and education, both in the workplace and in terms of engaging younger generations and working with schools.
However, if our young future workforce is already storing up health problems for the future, perhaps even before they get to the workplace, that is going to be a serious challenge in future decades, and a challenge for which there are no easy answers.

Wearables and Workplace Stress

Wearable technology
Workers wearing a “wearable” health device in the workplace to track their breathing patterns have reported experiencing fewer stress symptoms and “anxious days”.
Employee health and wellbeing – could wearables help to reduce workplace stress?
Mobile and wearable technology is playing a greater and greater role in health and wellbeing. Think your 10,000-steps-a-day apps, even if their value has been questioned, and devices such as the FitBit.
But now research from the US has suggested wearable devices could have a role to play in helping to reduce workplace stress and anxiety.
Research by The LinkedIn Corporation and Stanford University’s Mind & Body Lab has concluded that workers who wore a “Spire” tracker experienced significantly less stress and negative moods, and felt more productive and “focused” during work hours than non-Spire users.
For the 30-day study, workers who wore the tracker, a pebble-sized device that clips to a belt buckle or bra strap, reported significantly less stress and negative moods, as well as more productive and “focused” work hours than non-Spire users.
LinkedIn’s global wellness manager Michael Susi said: “Our employees are our greatest asset – especially their health and minds. They used Spire to make tangible improvements to things that can seem fleeting: focus, distraction, and productivity. Lowering stress while increasing productivity is crucial to the success of any business, and to be able to do both of those with one device is rather powerful.”
So, what should employers take away from this?
Data and security worries
Clearly, wearables are still what we might call an “early adopter” technology, in that, while becoming more commonplace, they are still certainly not mainstream.
It is also clear that one of the areas where they could add value, and are already increasingly popular, is within health and wellbeing.
But, at the same time, introducing them into a workplace setting may not be as straightforward as some might assume.
UK research last summer by management consultancy firm PwC concluded the use of wearables in the workplace can be stalled by a lack of trust and worries about data security, especially if the devices are given to employees as a perk.
While two thirds (65%) wanted their employer to take an active role in their health and wellbeing, and felt technology should be used to help them do this, just 46% said they would accept a free piece of wearable technology if their employers had access to the data recorded on it.
Role of technology in return-to-work
Nevertheless, there is a strong argument to be made that technology has the potential at least to transform occupational health provision.
This is not just in terms of general health and wellbeing devices, such as wearables, but also in the context of how employers interact and connect with employees around health, wellbeing promotion and education and even interventions, rehabilitation and return to work.
We’re not there yet, and technology and telemedicine should not be seen as a replacement for face-to-face interaction, rather as a tool that complements it.
Making predictions about the future workplace is always fraught with uncertainty. But it’s probably a relatively safe bet to predict that, 5-10 years down the line, we shouldn’t be surprised if the role, and use, of technology within workplace health has completely transformed the health and wellbeing interaction between employer and employee.

Tacking mental distress at work

Mental health
Nearly nine out of 10 people with experience of mental ill-health have at times felt “distressed” in the workplace, and nearly two thirds of Britons say they want to build their ability to bounce back from setbacks, two separate studies have concluded.
Employee health and wellbeing – tackling mental distress at work
Nearly nine out of 10 people (88%) who have experienced mental health problems admit there have been times where they felt distressed in the workplace, according to a study by Unum and the Mental Health Foundation.
Almost two in five people (39%) with no history of mental health problems indicated they too had experienced similar emotions.
Almost half (49%) of those surveyed who had experienced a mental health problem in the last five years had also come to work while experiencing suicidal thoughts, the study argued.
Intriguingly, 5% of the managers surveyed who argued they had not experienced a mental health problem had also gone to work while experiencing suicidal thoughts or feelings.
Jenny Edwards, chief executive of the Mental Health Foundation, said this illustrated that distress at work should not be seen as something confined to those with diagnosed mental health problems. “This is why businesses need to take a whole company approach to addressing mental health within the workplace.”
The research has come as, separately, a study by AXA PPP healthcare has concluded that nearly two thirds of Britons (62%) say they want to build their ability to bounce back from setbacks, yet only 15% rate the overall resilience of the UK population as “high”.
The survey of 2,000 adults was published to coincide with Time To Talk Day in February.
Desire for resilience
This desire for greater resilience was highest among 18-24 year-olds, with 78% wanting to be more resilient. More than a third (35%) of this age group believed being more resilient would help them at work (compared with just 6% of those aged 55+), it added.
So, what does this all show employers?
First, as highlighted on this site back in the autumn, managing employees who are in distress or threatening self-harm can be challenging. You have to take it seriously, of course, but at the same time, management can involve making tough decisions that people may not like and having “difficult” conversations.
EAPs can be a valuable resource in this context, both as somewhere “safe” and confidential for employees to go, but also as a resource for managers in terms of best practice advice and support and how to respond to what will often be a difficult and emotionally challenging situation.
The AXA PPP research, meanwhile, illustrates the appetite that is there – potentially – for tools and training to build resilience, especially among younger workers who may have yet to have developing the same sort of day-to-day coping mechanisms of their older colleagues.
Positive messages
Either way, this is yet more evidence that being proactive and engaging – offering tools, advice, resources, and interventions – is often an effective way forward when it comes to tackling mental ill health.
Not only, of course, can these tools help directly, they also send a powerful indirect message that, as an employer, mental ill-health is an issue you are taking seriously.
In turn, this will help to create an environment where it is OK, where people feel confident, to raise issues and concerns about mental and emotional health without fear of being stigmatised.
Given the amount of evidence that is out there to suggest many organisations have a long way to go on breaking down these barriers and taboos, that is a virtuous circle we should all be aiming for.

Mental Health in Construction Industry

Construction health
 A programme to tackle awareness and understanding of poor mental health in the construction industry has been launched by the British Safety Council.
Employee health and wellbeing – ‘mates’ campaign for building site mental health
The construction sector has long been something of a health and safety black spot, which can mean the focus when it comes to health and wellbeing is often on physical injury and illness.
But that shouldn’t mean mental ill-health gets overlooked, which is why the British Safety Council has launched a campaign Mates in Mind specifically to raise awareness and understanding of poor mental health in the construction industry.
The programme has been put together by the council in partnership with the Health in Construction Leadership Group (HCLG).
The aim is to give managers the tools, information and training to make construction a healthier workplace.
It is also intended that the programme will help to break down some of the stigma and taboo associated with mental health within construction – although the industry is by no means unusual in this – and to help managers begin conversations with staff about their mental wellbeing.
The campaign is being supported by a range of leading mental health charities, such as Mind, Samaritans and Mental Health First Aid England.
It has also got cross-industry support, from British Occupational Hygiene Society, Build UK, the Construction Industry Training Board, the Health and Safety Executive, the International Institute of Risk and Safety Management and the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health, among others.
Health versus health and safety
The council’s chief executive Mike Robinson said: “Approximately one-sixth of the 2.1 million construction workers in the UK are likely to be suffering from a mental health issue at any one point in time; a figure based on research by ONS. It’s a shocking statistic. Even more shocking is the fact that in the construction sector, people are 10 times more likely to die by suicide than from on-site accidents.”
He also articulated the common disparity in focus between health (especially mental health) and health and safety within the sector, arguing that, like many, “historically, we’ve shouted safety and whispered health”.
Steve Hails, director of health, safety and wellbeing at construction firm Tideway, an executive member of the HCLG and chair of Mates in Mind, outlined how the programme will work in practice.
“The Mates in Mind programme is a single, consistent programme for the construction industry, designed in response to its expectations and requirements,” he said.
“At the heart of it is a three-tier approach, starting with 45-minute general awareness training for operatives that will begin the conversation about mental health. Its third most advanced form is a two-day programme to train volunteer mental health champions who will support workers suffering from mental ill health. We are looking for 100% support from the industry for this initiative,” he added.
Isolation and self-employment
What, then, is the message here employers, especially construction sector employers, should be taking away?
The first is Mike Robinson’s shouting versus whispering comment. Clearly it is good and only right to focus on health and safety, given the industry’s track record.
But it shouldn’t be an either/or scenario – general health and wellbeing and mental health and wellbeing both need to be on the industry’s agenda much more.
Within this, account needs to be taken of how the industry works and is structured. There is a lot of self-employment within the industry, and a lot of casual and transient working.
This can mean not only that support structures can be lacking but if, for example, someone is off work for a physical injury or ailment, there are going to be immediate psychological, emotional and financial worries that accompany that.
It can be a peripatetic lifestyle, moving from building site to building site, sometimes with unsociable hours, which can lend itself to issues such as poor diet but also isolation.
To that end, giving managers and supervisors the tools to recognise mental health concerns (and potential triggers), to open conversations and know where to go to access help and support is all valuable.
There could also be mileage in offering access to a tool such as an EAP. Access to this sort of confidential counselling and support can allow individuals to discuss their anxieties and concerns in a “safe” (in other words non-judgemental) environment.
That, in itself, can often be valuable, both simply in terms of allowing people to open up and express their feelings, but also to allow them to recognise there may be an actual health issue or problem here and it’s not just about them being “weak” or somehow not coping when everyone else appears to be.
More than that, given the focus Mates in Mind has on education and training, an EAP can also be a useful resource for managers in terms of how to approach and manage these situations, and guidance on when and how to refer someone on to more specialist provision.

Workplace Stress Management

Stress management
The Health and Safety Executive has updated its stress management standards to help employers and unions representatives better manage stress in the workplace.
Employee health and safety – new workplace stress management resource
The Health and Safety Executive has updated its Management Standards for Work-related Stress to help employers and unions better manage stress in the workplace.
The new guidance builds on the HSE’s existing standards, and has been developed in conjunction with the union body the TUC.
It has been created specifically to enable trade union health and safety representatives to tackle workplace stress more effectively but, as a resource, is undoubtedly something potentially beneficial for employers as well.
The updated guidance was in part prompted by research by the TUC last year that suggested seven out of 10 health and safety union representatives identified stress as their top concern in their workplace.
Six key stress triggers
Much as with the original management standards, the guide breaks down the causes of work-related stress into six key areas:

demands: issues like workload, work pattern and environment
control: how much say someone has over the way in which they work
support: available resources, line management and colleagues
relationships: dealing with unacceptable behaviour and promoting positive working
role: if the person understands their role at work and does not have conflicting roles
change: how organisational change – large or small – is communicated.

The handbook also proposes that a group – normally made up of representatives from across every level of the organisation – gathers information on the current situation in the workplace and carries out a risk assessment based on the HSE standards.
This group can then identify practical proposals for change that could make a real difference, such as tackling a long-hours working culture, improving workplace practices or increasing staffing levels.
TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said: “Workers are increasingly suffering from the effects of workplace stress as pressures of long hours and low job security are taking hold across the UK. But it’s in no-one’s interest to have an overstretched workforce, as anxious staff are less productive and are more likely to take time off. And the HSE standards provide the best way of tackling the issue.
“Union representatives have a key role to play in working with employers to tackle this problem once and for all. Stress is preventable if workers have reasonable workloads, supportive managers and a workplace free from violence, bullying and harassment,” she added.
Collaborative approach
And the key message here for employers? There are two, really. First, simply recognise this is potentially a useful additional resource to go into your workplace stress management “tool box”.
Second, also recognise that union representatives in your workplace may have an important, collaborative role to play in terms of helping you to manage stress within your organisation.
In itself, a tool such as this may not be able to tackle some of the more deep-seated environmental, management or cultural issues that are can act as stress triggers within your organisation.
But it can act as a useful starting point for evaluating what is causing workplace stress and, from there, the most effective ways in which to respond.

Too Busy to Exercise

Nearly half (46%) of UK workers claim to be “too busy” to exercise, rising to more than half (52%) of those aged 25 to 34, according to a poll by office furniture firm DBI Furniture Solutions.
Of those who did exercise, the most popular ways of doing so were by going to the gym, participating in a sport or going for a run after work (26%), it found. Some 17% said they got their quota of exercise in at the very start of the day.
Just 6% said they used their lunch break in order to get active. Just 5% said their employer organised physical activity or “team energisers” during working hours.
What this indicated was that, compared with the Department of Health’s recommended minimum that adults do least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity each week, many of us are falling woefully short of this, argued DBI managing director Nick Pollitt
“It’s worrying, but perhaps unsurprising, that such a high percentage of the British working public struggle to fit exercise into their day. Maintaining a healthy social life alongside work commitments is difficult enough, and by the end of the day rigorous exercise is the last thing on our minds,” he said.
“On the other hand, it’s clear that businesses could be doing more to promote exercise in the workplace. When it comes to encouraging exercise, it’s the little changes that make a difference. From bringing fitness experts into the office for quick sessions, to installing a fresh water cooler, you can easily encourage healthier life choices for your team. It will ultimately save businesses money in the long term,” he added.
Receptive audience
And this, of course, is the key point here for employers, not least because, as separate research from Virgin Active has suggested, when it comes to push health- and activity-related messages, employers will often be pushing at an open door.
Its research has argued 32 is the age when most Britons start exercising for their health rather than their looks.
Nevertheless, more than half (58%) of Britons aged under 25 stated that “looking good” was their number one motivator for working out. And just under a third (29.6%) of Britons said they kept fit for stress relief.
Of course, fitness and activity in this context doesn’t necessarily mean having to provide all sorts of expensive facilities or subsidised gyms.
Indeed, the fact so many people evidently use the excuse of being “too busy”, means it may even be valuable to be offering health and activity that can be fitted in around a busy working day, such as taking the stairs, getting up and walking round the office, getting out at lunchtime, regular stretching and so on.
And it need not just be about “in the workplace”. How about offering tips for being more active when just around the home – while watching TV, while preparing the evening meal in the kitchen and so on?
None of this, in itself, is rocket science. But employers do need to recognise they are in a valuable position to be promoting these healthier “use it or lose it” lifestyle and activity messages.
Employers have an important role to play in emphasising the fact that we can – or should be able to – carve five, 10, 15 minutes, or whatever it is, out of our busy, hectic schedules to look after our future health.

Rising Cancer Rates

Cancer and work
Rates of cancer will climb nearly six times faster in women than in men over the next 20 years, and the disease is now the most prevalent cause for a range of insurance claims, research has suggested.
Employee health and wellbeing – the challenge of rising cancer rates and claims
Cancer rates will climb nearly six times faster in women than in men over the next 20 years, according to latest figures from the charity Cancer Research UK.
The new statistics were published to coincide with World Cancer Day in February, and have suggested UK cancer rates will increase by around 0.5% for men and by around 3% for women.
This will mean that by 2035 an estimated 4.5 million women and 4.8 million men will be diagnosed with cancer in the 20-year period, the charity warned, with smoking and obesity key factors for this.
Cancer Research UK chief executive Sir Harpal Kumar said: “The latest figures show that more than 8 million people die from cancer each year across the world. More people die from cancer than AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis put together. With more investment into research, we hope to make big improvements over the next 20 years in diagnosing the disease earlier and improving and developing treatments so that by 2034, three in four people will survive their disease.”
The figures have emerged as, separately, research by the insurance body Group Risk Development (GRiD) has concluded that cancer is now the most prevalent cause for claims on Group Income Protection, Group Life Assurance and Group Critical Illness.
Around 1,000 people are diagnosed with cancer every single day in the UK, it added, and therefore there was a greater need than ever for employers to support their staff in ensuring that they have appropriate financial protection in place.
As GRiD spokesperson Katharine Moxham has put it: “With the incidence of cancer so prevalent, employers are in the perfect position to take significant steps towards helping staff to protect themselves and their families financially, should the worst occur.”
Cancer survival rates
So, what should employers make of all this?
First of all, a cautionary note about the Cancer Research UK statistics. There’s nothing wrong with its figures but they are, of course, in part symptomatic of improved rates of awareness and diagnosis as well as a consequence of the public health challenges we face as a society from smoking and obesity.
As has been highlighted on this site many times in the past, the other side of this coin is rising rates of cancer survival, which in turn poses its own challenge to employers in terms of providing support and rehabilitation back into the workplace following a diagnosis of and treatment for cancer.
But GRiD also makes a very valid point: there is a lot employers can do, whether through insurance-based or health-related benefits or simply more generally.
And the further point to make about this is employers and managers need to recognise that, while managing return-to-work post-cancer is never going to straightforward, there are tools out there that can help. You’re not on your own.
For example, resources such as cancer charity Macmillan’s Macmillan at Work training and outreach service can be valuable.
Offering access to an EAP can also be useful, not just in terms of helping and supporting employees (or their colleagues) who are affected by cancer, but also in terms of offering best practice advice and guidance to managers.
Rising cancer rates will, yes, continue to be challenge. But it is one where employers can continue to play an important role.

High blood pressure Awareness

As many as 5.5 million adults in England have undiagnosed high blood pressure and, as a result, are risking heart attack, stroke or even vascular dementia, the government’s Public Health England (PHE) has warned has warned.
With only half the adult population knowing their blood pressure, PHE has launched a campaign to encourage all adults over the age of 40 to get it tested as part of the NHS Health Check.
‘Silent killer’
Often dubbed the “silent killer”, as it rarely causes symptoms, high blood pressure affects more than one in four people in England and was responsible for around 75,000 deaths in 2015, it said.
PHE has also outlined a range of other statistics, such as  the fact that, despite being largely preventable, diseases caused by high blood pressure cost the NHS more than £2.1bn a year.
If the population as a whole reduced their average blood pressure by 5mmHg this could save the NHS, social care, and local authorities £850m on health and social care costs.
And £120m in savings could also be achieved just by increasing the number of adults who have high blood pressure diagnosed by 15%.
PHE’s latest edition of its Health Matters, a resource for local authorities and health professionals, has outlined actions that can be taken to combat high blood pressure.
Professor Kevin Fenton, director of health and wellbeing at PHE, said: “It is a serious problem when a disease that is largely preventable, like high blood pressure, is one of the leading causes of premature death and ill-health in the country.
“We all memorise important numbers in our lives, whether it’s our PIN and telephone numbers or the latest football scores. Knowing your blood pressure number is an easy step to take that has the potential to save your life.”
Health education
The message here for employers is a relatively straightforward one, too: you can do your bit to help.
Health promotion and education are likely to be an important tool here, especially as high blood pressure can be asymptomatic.
The fact it is “invisible” can also make it easy to overlook or not be considered as a health promotion topic whereas, in fact, its prevalence means it should be perhaps given a much greater level of priority.
Professor Fenton’s “memorise the number” message is certainly one accessible message that could easily be incorporated into a health promotion campaign.
But it is also worth being aware that PHE has a range if tools and apps you can use or promote. These include a new free Be Food Smart app by Change4Life.
This shows how much salt, saturated fat and sugar is in the food and drink they consume, making it easier to choose low salt and saturated fat options.
PHE’s One You quiz is a relatively easy way for someone to assess their current lifestyle, including diet, physical activity, smoking, and alcohol consumption, and receive free personalised information, apps and tools to help prevent or improve high blood pressure and achieve a healthier you.
NHS choices and the British Heart Foundation’s heart age tool can also be useful in this context.
Finally, of course, there is the NHS Health Check. While some clinicians have cast doubts on the value of this check as public health tool, it can nevertheless offer value in the context of potentially being a wake-up call for high blood pressure.
Employers should therefore advertise the fact these checks exist, and encourage eligible employees to take them up – or at the very least be positive about the need they may need to take time off work to attend such checks.

Fit for work update

Fit for Work
More than a year on from its launch, the government’s Fit for Work sickness absence service appears to be woefully underused by employers, according to research. But is the picture more complex?
Employee health and wellbeing – verdict still open on Fit for Work service
More than a year on from its launch, the government’s flagship Fit for Work sickness absence service remains underused by employers, a poll has suggested.
A study by PMI Health Group has concluded more than four-fifths (82%) of HR professionals are now aware of the scheme, yet only slightly more than a fifth (21%) say they use it.
One positive from the finding was that awareness of the service does appear to be rising, with the 82% figure being up on the 70% recorded just ahead of the service’s launch right at the end of 2015.
But, one year on, the level of take-up and usage does, at least on paper, appear to be disappointing.
“It would have been fair to expect an increase in awareness of the Fit for Work scheme to have gone hand-in hand with a reasonable level of participation but this clearly hasn’t happened,” said Mike Blake, director of PMI Health Group.
“Part of the problem may be that employers must wait until an employee has been absent for four weeks before referring them to an occupational health professional. Many employers opt for early interventions, which can be so important in tackling long-term sickness absence, and they may be pursuing a course of action that does not easily include the Fit for Work service,” he added.
The research also concluded that three-fifths of those questioned (60%) felt the service had too great a focus on “fitness” to work rather than early intervention or phased returns to work. However, two thirds (68%) said the free health advice offered under the scheme was useful.
Early interventions
So, what should employers make of this?
Certainly, Blake’s comments about the four-week stipulation is a reasonable point to be making – this had long been something that occupational health professionals have questioned, and Blake is right to highlight that, often, intervention at an earlier point can be beneficial.
It is also certainly true that, anecdotally, awareness of the service remains low. The precise picture is hard to gauge, however, as the government has been remarkably coy about putting out anything official around take-up or success rates.
For the more cynical among us this might, arguably, be said to prove the point. But, equally, it may just be a case of the service getting on with things quietly and building up slowly and steadily.
There is also an argument to be made that these things do often take time to bed in and for people – employers, GPs, and health professionals – to become comfortable and familiar with using them.
Expansion of fit note
For example, the GP fit note was launched back in 2010 and, even now, is viewed with suspicion by some doctors and employers.
And, even seven years on, it is still evolving. For instance, last November the government indicated in its Improving Working Lives green paper that it wanted to investigate the feasibility of allowing non-healthcare professionals, as well as GPs, to certify using the fit note.
To that extent, the Fit for Work service remains a newcomer on the health and wellbeing scene and so maybe it is, even a year in, still a case of reserving rather than rushing to judgement.
There is also the fact the PMI study was a survey of HR professionals. Clearly, on the one hand, HR professionals should by rights be aware of, and up to speed on, a workplace resource such as the Fit for Work service.
But, at the same time, it is predominantly larger employers – medium-sized and upwards – that can afford, and have the need for, dedicated HR professionals or teams within their workforce.
Smaller employers
And that is not who the Fit for Work service is aimed at – it is aimed at the smaller employer end of the market. Bigger employers are more likely to have, and perhaps prefer, more bespoke self-funded occupational and workplace health services and benefits.
Therefore, arguably, the fact only a fifth of HR professionals said they were using the service is neither here nor there because they are not who the service is for. It would, if anything, be more surprising if there was high take-up rate among this sort of cohort.
Although it is a bit of a stretch, you could even possibly make the case that a low take-up among HR professionals is a sign (though no more than that) that the service is potentially proving effective at reaching its target audience.
The hole in that argument, of course, is the lack of evidence to show that smaller employers are in fact engaging with and using the service, or even know about it, or whether they are simply continuing to rely on GPs and the NHS for managing their employee workplace health issues.
Ultimately, what this all suggests is that, on the evidence so far, we should not (yet) rush to damn the Fit for Work service as being unfit for purpose – the picture is more complex and nuanced.
But, again on the evidence available so far, it is still far from clear how effective the Fit for Work service truly is, and some detail either way from the government on this would be valuable.
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