One of the most exciting things about running a charity interested in maintaining the health of people at work is that nothing stays the same for very long.
The risks we face at work are not only subject to the rapidly changing nature of work, but also the changing nature of who we are: our age, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, even our political affiliations and our expectations from work. When we produced a video with thought-leaders, including Professor Cary Cooper on the future of work and risk, Michael Rendell from PwC noted that the future workplace will be multi-generational; probably an 18-year-old will be working alongside someone nearer 100.
Though there are more people at work who are 60 and over, people from this age group still only make up 10 per cent of the British workforce. Yet, HSE’s annual workplace fatality figures show a quarter of those killed at work were from this age group. Yes, deaths at any age is inexcusable and yes, there are more people at work who are 60 and over.
Nonetheless, this concerns me; the British Safety Council thinks that age should be no barrier to work and, if people can work longer, this is something to celebrate. We remind employers to renew their focus on how we can protect older workers and make people aware that work experience is no barrier to poor risk management.
We are living longer and retiring later and this trend looks set to continue. Though this is inevitable, our response to the vulnerabilities this trend creates is not. With more of us working later in life – and working with existing health conditions – the costs associated with ill health are likely to increase in the coming years. In the UK alone, the state spends over £12bn a year on health-related benefits and foregone taxes and employers face a £9bn bill. There is also the ever-present challenge of reduced economic productivity from poor health. Yet, the response so far to address this issue has not been effective.
In the workplace, the ‘health’ in health and safety remains pretty clear: any age-specific health risks that arise from work activities must be controlled and there are clear duties about who is responsible for doing this. There are still compliance problems, of course, as the growing costs of sickness absence due to stress and musculoskeletal disorders testify, but the legal framework and the regulatory response are highly developed, if not fully resourced.
However, given the impact of poor health on economic performance, whether age-related or not, investment is essential. The question raised is investment in what or who? From a regulatory point of view there are no duties to reduce such health risks and the institutional architecture to deliver improvements is not really in place. Of course, when this relates to age-linked health issues like changes to your inner ear which can affect balance, or the increased likelihood of living with cancer or mental disorders (according to the WHO, 15 per cent of those aged 60 or over suffer from a mental disorder) our attitude to responsibility in this area is quite complex.
In either case, one’s health is mostly seen as a private matter, and the lack of regulation and institutional involvement reflects this. Even this is complicated when you consider the impact of work on existing health conditions, as recent research shows in relation to work-related stress and cancer. But the fact remains that ill health – irrespective of what caused it – has a negative impact on productivity and public finances. The business case to address this health gap remains.
This takes us back to where we started. The mantra ‘good health is good business’ is backed up by the evidence. We now need to reframe it in terms of health economics that improved health will stabilise or even reduce public spending, that work will be available to all ages as well as improve productivity. An avenue to explore will be how the skills and experience of the health and safety community in identifying and managing work-related health risks, can be harnessed for the future as we live and work for longer and the wellbeing agenda grows. Such a direction could be the start of new efforts to promote work for all ages.
Mike Robinson FCA is chief executive of the British Safety Council
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