The Watercooler Event: Key Issues for Workplace Health in 2022

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What are key issues for workplace health in 2022? Returning to work after the latest COVID wave will of course be an immediate challenge – supporting those who do not wish to return to the workplace due to Covid fears, to do so. There will also be a continuation of hybrid working for those that can; and mental health issues will be ones to manage with the help of occupational health, alongside muscular-skeletal problems. 

A key driver will be retaining and recruiting talent.  Employers will need to offer greater flexible working and provide a wider “duty of care” of employees e.g. on menopause, financial distress, sleep, and shift patterns and even fertility. 

Reducing stigma on mental health issues is an overarching imperative with a challenge to maintain that momentum and build a mental health at work strategy that really improves organisational culture, leadership, and management. 

SOM have produced some useful factsheets this at https://www.som.org.uk/covid-19-work-worklessness-and-wellbeing-factsheets

The role of Occupational Health

Occupational health (OH) is a multi-disciplinary approach to maintaining the well-being of employees, preventing, and removing ill-health and developing solutions to keep staff with health issues at work. It helps keep a consistent evidenced-based approach to workplace health – so workplace health is not a random intervention involving, for example,  un evidence-based Apps. SOM produced a value proposition document on occupational health – revised in 2022 – which makes the case as to how OH improves worker health and wellbeing and ultimately productivity.

OH also needs to communicate better how it contributes to business  value beyond generic arguments about performance and absence management. In 2022 we expect OH to be promoted more by Government with assistance to expand capacity (SOM are launching a £50k Scholarship fund to assist), and creating a platform that links OH with small business.

Levelling up and diversity

All employers need to focus on the needs of lower paid, higher risk jobs. Key workers continue to take higher risks with the Covid Pandemic and there are also sectors such as Construction where we know there are challenges e.g. in terms of suicide. In 2022, SOM wishes to shine a light on sectors where there are workplace health difficulties – such as in higher education and prisons.

Diversity and inclusion is a key part of the “build back better2 agenda. OH needs to ensure all who seek an OH consultation are understood, recognised, safe and able to speak openly. 

Structurally,  it would be good to see business making more use of satellite offices in smaller towns for hybrid working – to encourage more inclusivity in employment opportunities.

Measuring change

Metrics are important to measure change – but how do we do that? I think we should move away from the sickness absence narrative and use attrition/resignation/retention as a useful wellbeing measure – particularly as wellbeing is so aligned to having purpose and feeling valued. Job quality is a key issue – look out for a great new toolkit coming out from the University of East Anglia with a cost-effectiveness calculator linked to a free on-line CPD course for workplace wellbeing.

Sustainability and climate change 

The pandemic has shown how important health is for society and economy, and that a culture of health needs to be central. We are discovering that action on the environment and climate change improves health – from promoting mental health by connecting with nature to linking the benefits of renewable energy with improved air quality. 

At the same time, the role of business and investors in improving health is gaining greater recognition. Workplaces need to act on sustainability and health by:

  • Preparing for the impact of climate change – becoming more resilient to heat stress, fires, and floods;
  • Linking actions to promote health, and prevent chronic disease with shared benefits for the planet;

Baking in workplace health” going forward

Overall, my top three areas to focus on are:

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  1. Changing organisational cultures with a focus on diversity and inclusion – reducing stigma about workplace mental health, stamping out issues such as bullying and harassment and supporting managers to support their line reports
  2. Offer targeted, strategic workplace health support both to young people and older workers to help retain and recruit talent, using OH.
  3. Measure change – strengthen your health and wellbeing metrics, recognising their importance with sustainability and action on climate change. 

The Society of Occupational Medicine is supporting with The Watercooler event which is taking place on 25th and 26th of May at Olympia in Central London. The event is all about helping employers connect to achieve the right joined-up mental, physical, financial, social and environmental wellbeing solutions that deliver the best possible outcomes both for employees and for the business.  You can find out more and register to attend free here. 

About the author

Nick Pahl

Nick Pahl is CEO of the Society of Occupational Medicine (SOM),  the leading professional association for workplace health.

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