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Healthy work – productive workforce?

18th October 2021

Authors: Stephen Bevan (Institute of Employment Studies, UK), Cary L Cooper (The University of Manchester, UK)

Before 2020 it was still common to hear some business leaders and politicians argue that the health of the workforce was a private matter for workers and their families. Businesses and governments should not intervene, they argued, because to do so would place an intolerable burden on free enterprise. Since then, the COVID-19 pandemic has turned this logic on its head. The pandemic has represented one of the biggest barriers to economic security, business continuity and productivity since 1939. What some argued should be a private matter has become an undeniable public health crisis. But, once the pandemic recedes, how do we make sure that workforce health – and its impact on productivity and social inclusion – does not become a footnote for policy makers?

Many governments are keen to stress their interest in population health and wellbeing and sometimes, like New Zealand and Bhutan, they consider them at least as important as gross domestic product (GDP) as a marker of prosperity. The United Nations (UN) and the World Health Organization (WHO) have quite correctly encouraged individual nations to focus on high-priority non-communicable diseases (NCDs) such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, and chronic respiratory diseases which together account for over 41 million deaths or almost 74% of all deaths annually. The 2030 ‘Agenda for Sustainable Development’ aims to reduce by one-third preventable mortality from NCDs through prevention and treatment, with an understandable focus on supporting public health and health education programmes in developing countries. The cost of these NCDs to health-care systems across the world is substantial, and partly explains why, with ageing populations, they are given such significant policy and resource priority.

However, one of the perverse consequences of NCDs’ dominance for policy-makers, is that the conditions which cause death (mortality) tend to receive more attention that those which cause disability (morbidity). Yet the latest Global Burden of Disease data published by WHO shows, once again, that low back pain, headache disorders, depressive disorders, and diabetes occupy the top four places. The irony is that, while these conditions are also NCDs, they never appear on the list of Sustainable Development Goals priorities. However, if the focus of policy-makers was more oriented to quality of life, social inclusion, health equity and building the productive capacity of the workforce, then the picture might be different. In the UK, for example, musculoskeletal disorders such as back pain and mental illnesses such as depression together account for over 36 million lost working days each year – more than the UK has ever lost through strike action – even during the darkest days of the 1970s. This places a huge dent in the productive capacity of the UK workforce.

We are not arguing the utilitarian case that we should invest in health just to keep workers at work and productive. Nonetheless, we know that many workers see their jobs as a positive source of social connection, of meaning and even positive therapeutic benefit for their wellbeing. The experience of Lockdown has, for many workers, emphasised their craving for face-to-face interactions with colleagues, for knowledge-sharing and for being creative at work. If our economy and the healing power of social capital are to thrive post-Covid19, we need to place more urgent priority on measures to promote, sustain good physical and psychological wellbeing in our working age population.

Book: The Healthy Workforce: Enhancing Wellbeing and Productivity in the Workers of the Future

Series: The Future of Work