How Does the Workplace Influence Public Health?
Businesses in 2021 have had to consider the health of their employees more than ever as they return to the workplace after long periods of uncertain ways of working during the pandemic.
What is rarely discussed is the impact that the workplace has on public health – businesses are an integral element of the national public health system.
Both employers and employees impact wider public health through the health decisions made at work.
Additionally, public health is also impacted by the knowledge of occupational health professionals that often guide a workplace’s approach towards employee health, and health and safety hazards in the work environment.
(Occupational Health practitioners aren’t in the Specialist Community Public Health Nursing (SCPHN) for nothing, you know!)
So… how does the workplace influence public health?
A summary of health at work
The concept of promoting health at work has changed significantly since coming to prominence in the 1970s.
Generally, a focus on health in the workplace related to single illnesses or risk factors, or tackling one lifestyle habit, such as smoking.
This approach tended to overlook the environmental, social and organisational determinants of health that we now know are integral in our approach to health in the workplace.
Since then, wellness programmes targeting behaviour were more commonly implemented, followed by the more holistic approach to health that began to gain traction in the 1990s.
Unlike previously, health and wellbeing are now seen as an integral part of workplace culture.
Most importantly, the workplace is now not seen solely as a location of convenience to target health, but instead, it is seen as a place that can promote health to a wider benefit.
Reducing the impact of ill-health and its related costs
Whilst healthcare costs in UK are measured more by government expenditure than cost per person (though it is estimated to be around £2,989 per year, mostly collected in taxes), there are still multiple associated costs relating to ill health and injuries.
The total costs of workplace self-reported injuries and ill health in 2018/19 was £16.2 billion, with ill health accounting for 66% of this cost, and injury accounting for around 34%.
Though injuries account for a higher proportion of cases, ill health results in more time off work on average, hence the higher costs.
This is merely a fraction of the related costs of health and safety.
Employer and employee injury and illness are both impacted by the workplace approach to their health – if health in the workplace is a priority, the costs incurred from occupational determinants of health drastically reduce the overall costs relating to public health.
It’s not just about businesses increasing productivity.
In a review of the health of the NHS workforce, the largest employer in Europe, a 30% reduction in NHS sickness absence rates was estimated to lead to an annual direct cost saving of £555 million.
Outside of monetary terms, the positive influence that a workplace prioritising health can have on wider society comes from their potential to encourage people to lead healthier lives.
We spend so much of our lives working that the opportunity that workplaces have to positively impact wider public health cannot be ignored.
Traditionally, occupational health has been restricted or viewed under the narrow lens of helping those who become ill whilst they are in employment.
In actuality, much of occupational health is about preventative functions – at its heart, occupational health has always had a public health focus, even if it is located in the workplace.
Areas of employee health such as physical activity, obesity, and smoking have been focused on not just by employers but also addressed by occupational health professionals, all of which have broader societal implications.
Musculoskeletal health, mental health, physical activity, diet, and drugs have all, over the years, been areas of focus for both occupational health providers and also wider public health initiatives.
Viewing our health as simply our health at work and our health at home would seem nonsensical, which is why the impact that strong employer action on health and preventative work by occupational health professionals should be acknowledged.
The health of the 32.4 million people in the UK workforce is hardly irrelevant to the health of society at large.
Workforce health aims and public health aims overlap
Workplace health, specifically occupational health practice, has frequent overlap with the aims of public health.
For example, improvement of health, including health surveillance and the monitoring of risk factors (e.g., lifestyle issues such as smoking), or health protection (e.g., exposure to environmental hazards).
Once employers understand the wider implications of workplace health, occupational health professionals can assist in guiding the bigger picture towards one of unified health for the benefit of society.
This goes hand-in-hand with the approach towards health inequalities which could allow for a more comprehensive stance on tackling them.
From employers and employees to governing bodies and society at large, health is in all of our interests.
Taking action towards health in the workplace does not occur in a vacuum, it has broader implications on public health and the way in which we approach and appreciate it – a workplace benefits from healthy, productive employees, and society benefits from higher employment, a productive workforce and reduced healthcare costs.