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Work = Health = Wealth? Why UK businesses must step forward to shape a healthier future

6 min read Partner content

If the relationship between work and health was not at the forefront of policy discussions 5 years ago, it certainly is now. The pandemic triggered a much wider awareness of the relationship between the jobs people do, the places that they work, and the impact on their health. But what steps should UK businesses take to ensure a healthier nation? A Legal & General supported webinar explored the key issues.

The world of work is rapidly changing, with significant consequences for both employers and employees. But how can we make sure that those changes contribute to better health rather than increasing the gaps between different groups in our society?

A recent webinar brought together key figures from business, academia, the health sector, and trade unions to explore this challenging question.

Event chair, writer and commentator Anne Ashworth opened by reminding the audience that the pandemic ushered in some fundamental changes to traditional models of employment in the UK. These, she suggests, are likely to remain long after the immediate impacts of Covid have faded.

“We are hearing terms we had never heard even 5 years ago,” she reminds attendees. “’Quiet quitting’, ‘the great resignation’, ‘hybrid working’, ‘Working from Home.’ These are all phrases that we may not have understood, even a few years ago.”

Clare Bambra, Professor of Public Health at Newcastle University, also believes that the pandemic has propelled public health to the forefront not just of policy discussions but of wider boardroom debates as well.

“Before the pandemic, we had to do things to make public health stand out,” Professor Bambra tells us. “But employers are now much more aware there is a strong association between good working practices and health outcomes.”

David Finch, from The Health Foundation, explained how he believes the pandemic exposed some of the faultlines present in previous labour market models. This he argues can now act as a catalyst for change.

“The really positive thing here is we have seen a big increase in recognition by employers of the importance of health since the pandemic and a genuine enthusiasm to do something about it,” he tells us. “We are starting to see the business consequences of poorer health in the wider population.”

For John Godfrey, Director of Levelling Up at Legal & General, another issue highlighted by the pandemic was the differences experienced by those in professional roles that could be delivered flexibly and people in more precarious employment for whom hybrid working was often not an option.

He cites the scandals that we saw throughout the pandemic when some industries operated in an exploitative way, placing their staff at risk. These “hidden workers”, he warns, must not be forgotten in wider debates about health and work.

Godfrey does recognise the challenges that some smaller businesses will face in supporting their staff and believes larger businesses can play an important role in championing and supporting wider change through their supply chains.

“If we are a purchaser of goods or services, we should be saying to our suppliers, you are not doing this well enough,” he tells us. “We can help you do it better, or we can give the work to some other supplier.”

This issue of hidden workers and poor employment practices is also something that concerns Janet Williamson from the TUC. Williamson is clear that any attempts by business to improve health cannot ignore the fundamental fact that so many working people remain in poverty.

“The truth is, for too many people work is trapping them in poverty rather than helping them out of it,” she says. “Over half of those living in poverty are in working households. Getting rid of the insecure working model and paying people enough to live on is easily the most important thing that employers across the board could do to support the health of their workforce. Getting the basics right is absolutely essential.”

Professor Bambra agrees that an inclusive approach is critical. She cautions that changes in the labour market may potentially increase the divide between those in secure and highly valued jobs and the increasing number of people who are in precarious low-paid employment.

“One of the key things that comes through in research is insecurity and flexibility,” she says. “Work becomes a more uncertain factor in people’s lives. That impacts on physical and especially mental health.”

All of the panellists agree that the effects of poor health are not only felt by individuals. They are also now affecting businesses and the wider economy.

“For the first time in 200 years health is a headwind to economic growth, not a tailwind.” John Godfrey explains. “Businesses absolutely need to be bought into this agenda.”

But how can we get businesses to step forward and take on a greater role in contributing to a healthier nation?

Anne Ashworth believes that we should start with the economic arguments. She tells us that the evidence base for businesses to do more on health is compelling, citing ONS data that shows that 185.6 million days are lost to sickness in the UK each year.

“Anyone who thinks we can improve productivity in our economy without addressing these types of problems is entirely wrong,” she tells us.

And that productivity gap plays out differently across the country. This makes it a key challenge if we are to successfully level up the economy. Professor Bambra drew attention to research findings that show that around 30% of the economic performance gap between the North and South can be attributed to health issues.

“Put simply, if we can improve the health of the North to match that of the South,” she explains, “we would gain around £13 billion each year in terms of productivity.”

David Finch acknowledges that arguments about increasing productivity will encourage some larger businesses to do more. However, he warns that the scale of the issue means that it is not something that many businesses, particularly SMEs, will be able to address alone.

“There is a really clear economic business case for businesses to do more on health,” he tells attendees. But there is a broader conversation about recognising the costs of changes and identifying who will cover those. Smaller businesses simply won’t be able to pick these costs up. There needs to be a different offer from the state to support that.”

If we are going to find new ways to collaborate that deliver healthier, fairer, greener, and more secure working environments, then John Godfrey believes that it is essential to develop clear metrics that enable businesses to accurately understand, and report upon, the progress that they are making.

He tells us that there are lessons that we can learn from the steps businesses have taken over recent decades to mainstream the way in which they are responding to the challenge of climate change.

“One of the unfortunate things about climate is it took 25 years to agree on what the metrics should be,” he tells us. “We need to do that with health in 5 years. It shouldn’t be an impossible thing to do.”

As the labour market continues to change, and the population continues to age, ignoring health is simply not an option for UK businesses. However, this webinar shows that, with a coordinated approach from employers, unions, government, and health providers, there is the potential to make an enormous positive difference.  

Key links from the webinar:

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