We all know that a job is a key part of a healthy life. But what makes work healthy? And how can we reach those not yet benefitting from current efforts to improve workplace health?
The London Assembly Health Committee has been exploring these questions with a wide range of stakeholders— from small business owners to trade union reps and national charities. We heard from several experts , including Matthew Taylor, the author of the UK Government’s independent review into employment practices in the modern economy. The Committee also commissioned fresh research from Populus on Londoners’ experiences of workplace health and some of the messages we got back were shocking.
So, what makes work healthy? It comes down to security and autonomy. Feeling secure in your job brings a sense of safety and peace of mind. A well-designed and healthy job should make you feel in control of your work day and able to make your own choices. After all, no-one likes being told what to do…
We are not just talking about office jobs though. Too often we are caught thinking that some jobs, especially lower paid jobs, will always have poor working conditions. It’s just “how it is”. But that doesn’t have to be the case.
Some jobs are harder to make healthy - that isn’t intrinsic to the job, but the work culture. Social care, for example, is a sector in the UK that is known for precarious, low-paid and often unhealthy work. This doesn’t have to be the case and in some parts of London we are already seeing innovative approaches that give care workers more control over their working lives.
So what helps? Having someone to talk to can make all the difference. But we found that too many people feel unable to bring up workplace health with their employers. Our survey found that just 2% of the lowest paid employees have spoken to a manager about workplace health support in the last six months. Instead employees are turning to their GP to access workplace support. We are essentially medicalising workplace conflict.
It is particularly important that we get things right for some of our more vulnerable workers. Disabled people still find it far too hard to find employment, and some employers are still wary about how to adapt job roles. Low paid workers are much more fearful of how their employer will view ill health. And flexible workers often lack basic protections at work such as sick pay.
Interestingly, we also found poor health outcomes for older workers. Before our survey, we had associated workplace insecurity and exploitative practices with younger workers. But workers in the 55-64 age bracket had some of the lowest positive responses to statements such as “my employer regularly discusses my health at work with me” or “my employer cares about my mental health”.
So the big question is - how can a small business owner afford to make their workplace healthier? Fixing any of this sounds really expensive!
And you’d be right, but only if we base our ideas of workplace health around what we do already. You don’t need an HR team sending out a staff survey and developing an action plan to start taking workplace health more seriously. The best example we found was at the Royal Free Hospital – and it involved simple (and free) things like just going for a walk with your team once a week.
What is the Mayor doing? In London we have the Healthy Workplace Charter that businesses can sign up to to demonstrate their commitment to workplace health and wellbeing. Our survey found strong evidence that people working for employers who are signed up to the Charter do feel that their workplace health is more valued.
But the Healthy Workplace Charter only seems to work for a certain kind of employer. This employer is office based and likely to be a public-sector body. What’s more, there are more public sector and third sector organisations signed up to the Charter than private sector organisations. Only 20 retail companies are signed up, in comparison to over a hundred professional services firms. The Charter is still a positive force, but we need it to be a positive force for all.
The Mayor needs to use the economic power he wields to encourage healthy workplaces. We should only buy from companies that we know are healthy places to work.
Ultimately, we spend so much of our lives at work that we owe it to ourselves to make work as healthy as we can. A healthy workplace is better for us and better for our employer. London is the best city in the world because of the hard work of Londoners each and every day. The city should work just as hard to make those Londoners’ lives as healthy as possible.