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A strategic approach to workplace health leadership

10 April 2019

The fact that health has always been the poor relation to safety is something of which everyone working in the profession is aware but that doesn’t mean we can wash our hands of it because it’s “too hard”.

Managing director of SP Associates Steve Perkins was unequivocal in his warning to delegates in the BSC Conference Theatre this morning (Wednesday) that we should not be treating the 13,000 people a year who die from work-related disease any differently from the 150 or so who die in accidents and incidents.

The former CEO of the British Occupational Hygiene Society said: “The immediacy of safety risks means we deal with them first. This is one reason why health has been the Cinderella to safety. Safety risks are easy to control, they are absolute, while health is deterministic. Because of the long latency period between exposure and development of a condition, we think it’s all fine and we can carry on doing what we’re doing. But we can’t.”

The good news, he pointed out, is that health is coming up the agendas of business, industry and the regulator. He enumerated the business drivers for dealing with health as follows:

  • An ageing workforce: “workers are increasingly having to manage multiple chronic health conditions as they age, so we will be shooting ourselves in the foot as business leaders if we add to that”;
  • Technology: “devices like wearable tech are driving more awareness of health among young people, so you can demonstrate that you care about their health by getting involved in that”;
  • Well-being: “lots of companies now run well-being programmes, so why would you continue exposing employees to health risks when this will undermine your well-being approach?”;
  • Zero harm: “this is the stated ambition of many organisations, so if you are aspiring to this, then you have to be dealing with health exposures as well”.

Steve then explained how he sees the “whole picture” of workplace health and well-being: “It is made up of: occupational health – managing the health of workers as it presents today; workplace well-being – helping people make good choices regarding their own health; and occupational hygiene – controlling exposures and preventing ill health and disease caused by work.”

He went on: “Some organisations fall into the trap of medicalising everything at work, and now we are also in danger of generalising health as just a lifestyle issue. To avoid this, we have to do all three of the above and understand that they overlap. We need to take a multidisciplinary and holistic approach by ensuring we protect people at work, support people at work and help people stay fit for work. And this doesn’t just apply to physical health but also mental health.”

When it comes to leading in terms of health and well-being, the first step, according to Steve, is admitting that you find it difficult to address. Then, you need to understand what good health looks like. “There are five critical success factors,” he explained. “Hazard awareness, health ownership, risk management, culture change and protection assistance. To achieve these, they have to be built on a solid foundation comprising stakeholder engagement, leadership coaching, competent people and the use of leading indicators.”

Steve summed up his message by emphasising that “leadership is about persuading people that there can be a better future. Change is always possible and health is not too hard.”