The world of work is rapidly changing. People are living and working for longer; many tasks are being automated; modern communication technologies are dissolving the work/home divide and can place 24/7 demands on people’s attention.
Similarly, new materials like nanotechnology — including tiny airborne waste products that can damage our health — can present new risks. All these developments, together with the increased number of ‘flexible’ contracts, can reduce the clarity about the ownership of risks.
With these deep and fundamental changes, the risks associated with work are also changing. The rapid pace of innovation, insecurity and drive for efficiency is putting more pressure on people, which can lead to stress and undermine their wellbeing.
Older workers have different needs for safety and health at work; environmental risks from work activities are growing and others can emerge unexpectedly when new ways of working combine humans with technology, robotics and artificial intelligence that connect people across the globe.
But all these changes can also be the trigger for improved workplace health and wellbeing programs. In the context of a more mobile and flexible workforce, employers will likely have to compete for talent and do more to create working environments where people feel valued and trusted and, in combination with new technology that can allow people to work more flexibly, there are positively healthy aspects to the new world of work.
However, the changing world of work is also likely to increase inequality – at least in the next 20 years – and there will be many less skilled workers who will not benefit from such changes.
At a time when the world of work is undergoing a major process of change, it is important to understand and respond effectively to these new challenges.
In its 60-year history, the British Safety Council has always made sure it has the most up to date information on the risks that people experience at, or bring to, work. To argue for change, evidence must be at the heart of everything we do and, in the context of rapid changes to how we live and work, we are pleased to see a new British Safety Council literature review Future changes to the world of work and the impact on employee health, safety and wellbeing, prepared by Professor Cary Cooper’s teams at Robertson Cooper.
As a literature review, its findings give us an overview on the breadth and depth of research on the risks most associated with the changing world of work. We can now see that some of the health consequences of more flexible, often insecure work, is under-researched, as is the potential safety risks from working in close proximity to robots (co-bots), and the benefits of existing wellbeing programmes. Much more needs to be done to improve the evidence in these areas.
The review does though bring together evidence to show that 24/7 working and the ‘always on’ culture can reduce mental wellbeing and affect people’s ability to cope with work pressure, something we see with high levels of stress-related sickness absence. We can also see some good evidence on the health benefits of ‘good’ work, whether we define this in terms of good employment practices, reward and recognition or fulfilling jobs.
At the British Safety Council we are using this work as a framework for a series of events and seminars, including our event in Bristol on 24 May.
We hope to see you there and engage with our many members and the broader community on this highly significant topic. Robertson Cooper have produced a report that tells us about how the economy is changing and the state of the research on the risks we can expect to face. It gives all of us – with its full reference list and bibliography – a map to plot a course towards safer, healthier and happier work in the future.
Mike Robinson is chief executive of the British Safety Council
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