Health at Work for Managers

Why Health is so difficult to Understand

Many Managers are perplexed, trying to understand how workers are affected by the work they do and ask why health at work is so difficult to understand?

What is so different from everyday health at home or on holiday?

The simple answer is that it is considered unethical and immoral to injure worker’s health for profit. Society has said that businesses must protect the health of the workers – what workers do in their own time is their choice.  When you make a profit from injuring health that cannot be right.

The problem that Managers face when trying to protect health at work is that the effect on health is complicated and not straightforward, instant and logical like mathematics, where if you add 1 + 1 together it always equals 2.

Personal Differences

People react differently to different health risks. Managers struggle to know which is the right strategy given those three concepts which are far more complex than a safety issue. The secret to understanding health at work and differences between the health and safety management strategies enables Managers to not only be clearer on the subject but be more accepting of the complexity of work health.

Occupational health professionals understand this complexity and are best placed to advise the business on how to protect workers. We need to explore those three concepts of health being complicated, not instant and sometimes not logical and hence why they are so difficult to compute:

1. Not Straightforward:

Health in individuals is not straightforward.  Consider the smoker who has smoked all his life and lives to a healthy age.  This flies in the face of all the health advice; what about those who use sunbeds (research has shown that sunbed use increases your risk of skin cancer by 70%) and don’t develop skin cancer?  Why not?

If all smokers and sunbed users developed cancer we would think twice before opting for that.

Health is affected by many individual personal characteristics such as age, genetics, behaviour, gender, ethnicity, past medical health, nurture etc, so to try and predict what is going to happen is sometimes highly complex.  I am sure in the health predictions in the future the computer will have the capacity to predict this and come up with an individual’s risk factor for say, skin or lung cancer taking into account all of these ‘variables’.  Until then the health researchers give a best guess of the outcome for the majority of the population.  But the stories remembered are those who do not follow the statistical norm and thus justifies not taking any action for the unscrupulous or the ignorant.

2.  Not Instant:

With safety issues there is no time delay with what you see, someone falls over on the wet floor and whoops! The worker has a sprained ankle or broken leg.  Instant! Clear up the water, retrain the workers and fill in an accident form and the incident is unlikely to happen again.

With health issues, there is often a delay from the time you are exposed to a health risk until you start to see the effects.

Take for example the case of asbestos which is the biggest single occupational killer today but the workers were working with this back in the 60’s and 70’s.  Yet I am sure if Managers knew what the effects of asbestos were then they would be more eager to protect their staff – if everyone who had worked with asbestos had suddenly developed a hacking cough and gone off sick – society would have begun to inquire as to the reasons. But a hacking cough and cancers took 40 years to develop. It’s today we have to deal with the fallout.

So health problems are slow moving and effects delayed. But we know that now and dealing with health risks much better by having health laws such as Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) and reporting of ill health to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) via the Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations (RIDDOR).

3. Not Logical:

Why do some people want to come back to work the next day after a heart attack and others take a week off with a cold?

How a person feels or believes about their health can affect their behaviour and recovery. Some are wimps and some are at work when they should be at home.  This is often an unconscious behaviour but the Manager sees so many reactions to ill health that the application of logic to predict a return to work date becomes impossible. Everyone is unique.

Many studies show the placebo effect. Or the benefits of illness, e.g. if you are sueing an employer. It is not in your best interests to get better before the case is resolved.

Cultural and ethnic differences also impact on how sickness is viewed – from the macho culture in industries such as mining to the nurturing and tentative management practices in others.

I have worked with organisations at both ends of the spectrum. Foundry workers who tolerate extreme heat with little or no effect. Line production workers who work 12-hour shifts in repetitive roles packing telephones. Or city bankers who experience ‘burn out’ and stress.  Interestingly foundry workers tend not to get burn out and stress and line workers cannot tolerate high heat levels. City bankers would be unlikely to enjoy the other roles of line work and extreme heat.  Those are just three roles – how many others are there each with their own seemingly illogical health tolerance?

Luckily, or maybe unwittingly, workers adapt to whatever environment they find themselves or leave for a more comfortable job.

OH Professionals and Health at Work

Whilst Managers struggle to understand workplace health, occupational health professionals understand the three points above. They also understand health behaviours and can advise organisations accordingly on meeting the objectives:

  1. Of keeping costs down and
  2. Helping to keep a business viable and protecting workers health.

Both linked and interdependent.

So until the day comes when we discover a formula for good health, OH will help Managers protect workers.

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