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May 17, 2011

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SHE11 – Practitioners can and must focus on the ‘health’ part of their role

Former IOSH president Neil Budworth had delegates in mind of Bob Marley and early-90s indie kids James as he exhorted them to ‘get up, stand up’ and then ‘sit down’ during his lively presentation in the Occupational Health theatre at Safety & Health Expo.

To kick off his talk on the costs of absence and health-related worklessness, the corporate health and safety manager for E.On got the audience to its feet and then urged anyone who had ever lost work time to back pain, or who knew someone who had, to sit down. Around half the delegates settled back into their seats. Of those who were left, Budworth enquired if any of them, or anyone they knew, had ever been off work because of stress. Again, half of those still standing sat down.

When he then asked if health and safety practitioners had a role to play in managing occupational health, there was no one left on their feet – indicative, said Budworth, of the fact that practitioners could and should be fully involved in this hugely important area.

Just how important was illustrated by some stark facts. The Buncefield explosion, said Budworth, changed the way we think about safety and major hazards in the UK, and cost the country almost £1 billion. He then compared the annual budget of the NHS and the annual GDP of Portugal – both equal, at £100 billion. And that figure is also the cost of health-related worklessness in the UK – in other words, he reckoned, “the same as having two Buncefields every week, forever!”

Citing other recent figures on ill health from the CBI and research from the Society of Occupational Medicine, Budworth further underlined the cost to business of failing to manage work-related ill health. Part of the problem, he explained, is the lack of dedicated occupational physicians (currently, there are just 1500 in the UK) and occupational-health nurses (of whom there are around 2200). But IOSH has more than 38,000 health and safety practitioners as members, and they can really help make a difference, he suggested.

The key, he continued, is to change the way we think about occupational ill health and be more proactive, and it is here that health and safety practitioners excel. He said: “We are good at the ‘early identification’ bit – doing assessments, evaluating risks, and educating people. We know that the sooner you get in there, the more impact you have.”

Practitioners, he explained, need to be advocates, keeping communication channels open, recommending and implementing modifications, risk-assessing, and making sure their companies have a sound absence-management policy.

What is equally important, he went on, is to work with others who can also make a difference – occupational-health specialists, human resources, and managers. He then cited examples of cases that managers find most difficult to deal with – for example, what to do if an individual goes off sick halfway through a disciplinary process, or how to deal with an individual who is off work with stress but does not want to be contacted by the company.

Budworth again got the audience involved, giving them a list of options of what to do in each case and asking them to choose the best one. The fact that delegates differed widely in what they felt was the right approach shows, he said, that there is no one, easy answer to most occupational-health problems.

In summary, he said, there are very strong cost and moral arguments for getting involved in health matters, and there is an equally strong argument for cross-functional working between professionals to manage the issues effectively.

What makes us susceptible to burnout?

In this episode  of the Safety & Health Podcast, ‘Burnout, stress and being human’, Heather Beach is joined by Stacy Thomson to discuss burnout, perfectionism and how to deal with burnout as an individual, as management and as an organisation.

We provide an insight on how to tackle burnout and why mental health is such a taboo subject, particularly in the workplace.


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