Amid rising UK obesity levels and an increase in drink-related health problems, the government has appointed Dame Carol Black as national director of health and work to push the state’s message on wellness, says Vicki Taylor
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Messages about health and wellbeing now bombard us from all directions. Television schedules are packed with diet and fitness programmes with the likes of Dr Gillian McKeith, Jamie Oliver and ex-footballer Ian Wright taking to our screens in a bid to beat unhealthy individuals into shape, while the news regularly features warnings about rising obesity levels and binge drinking.
The government also has health and wellbeing on its agenda having already paved the way for a smoking ban. It plans to deliver its message to the workplace with the help of Dame Carol Black, who was appointed as the first national director for health and work in April.
A trained medical professional, Dame Black has been tasked with spearheading initiatives aimed at promoting and improving health in the workplace, including ways of enabling people with disabilities and health conditions to obtain and stay in work.
She co-ordinates the work of the Health & Safety Executive, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and the Department of Health (DoH). For example, if the DoH is working on obesity issues, she will look at how the DWP can use the same information.
Dame Black recognises that the issue of health and wellbeing is of increasing importance to both the government and the nation as a whole. "[My] appointment reflects the fact that [the government] sees it as not sitting in the sole province of one department," she says.
But despite this, she believes there is still some way to go before employers, staff and health professionals fully appreciate the link between good occupational strategies and wellbeing, so that employees are not placed under excessive demands, have a degree of control over their workload and are given sufficient support.
"That [means] changing [company] culture and changing behaviours. It is difficult to do, but a task that I have got ahead of me," she adds.
Before making any recommendations to employers or launching any new initiatives, Dame Black will visit a range of workplaces to see what health benefits employers already offer.
While she recognises that many of the UK’s employers currently leading the way on workplace health are larger in size, small- and medium-sized organisations are equally important to her.
"I’ve had 74 letters from (employers) who wish me to visit and look at what they are doing. Until I have done that, I don’t think I can make a sensible decision about what particular campaigns or focus I am going to take," she explains.
However, Dame Black already has an idea of what a model organisation should provide in the way of health and wellbeing benefits. "Where possible I would like them to have programmes that encourage good health at work, like healthy eating, perhaps appropriate (exercise) facilities available or real encouragement to facilitate exercise elsewhere, (and) advice about smoking. One wants them engaged with seeing health as part of the board agenda as a corporate responsibility and aim."
She believes that as well as promoting strategies that employees can use to improve their health, there are other low-cost measures that all employers can take.
These include protecting staff from the negative effects of stress in the workplace. "It is a big problem and we know you can reduce [stress] by relatively simple things, (such as) the demands you make. Can you give the person more say or control in the way they do their work? I don’t think these have to be expensive changes," she says.
Employers might wonder whether the government’s increased focus on health and wellbeing could force them to provide relevant benefits and initiatives in the workplace whether they want to or not.
Health, work and wellbeing – caring for our future, a strategy for the health and wellbeing of working age people published last year, clearly outlines the government’s goals. When it comes to the responsibility employers may be expected to shoulder in the future, one of the government’s most telling statements says "work offers opportunities to promote individual health and wellbeing". Its aims also state that the "health and wellbeing of people of working age should be given the attention it deserves" and that "work should be recognised by all as important and beneficial to wellbeing".
Inevitably, some employees may view employers taking a proactive approach on health as interfering in their private lives. Dame Black, however, does not view such measures as being controlling. "I don’t see it as control, I see it as making facilities available. If you are busy and you are going to work, you have to get up early and get the train. (If) you get home late at night, you probably don’t spend too much time thinking about your diet, your exercise programme (and) your health."
However, she acknowledges that it would be wrong for employers to force staff into any course of action whether it be taking more exercise or giving up smoking.
"You can’t force anyone to stop smoking but you can make available the help and encouragement that permit people to come off this addiction," she adds.
But her aims will inevitably be met with criticism from some employers that believe that providing health and wellbeing benefits is not their responsibility but that of the National Health Service (NHS), which they help to fund by paying National Insurance contributions.
"I would say that (employee health and wellbeing) is a joint venture. The NHS and the DWP have many projects which are working towards this strategy but I think we all should be in there doing it together. [In my opinion it] would be part employer, part government and part medical, nursing and healthcare profession (taking responsibility)," Dame Black adds.
Of course, as she points out, employers that take staff health and wellbeing seriously are likely to reap rewards.
"I think (these employers) will have a healthier workforce, and a healthier workforce is going to be a more productive workforce. They are going to have a lower level of accidents and ill health, lower sickness absence, higher performance and greater energy and dynamism".
Dame Carol Black began a career in medicine after first reading history at Bristol University, and then undertaking a diploma in medical social work. She entered medical school as a mature student, qualifying in 1970.
In 2002, Dame Black was awarded a Commander of the Order of the British Empore (CBE) for her work on the skin disease systemic sclerosis. Last year, she was then awarded the Dame Commander of the Civil Division of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (DBE) for her services to medicine.
Dame Black is also chair of the Nuffield Trust, an organisation that aims to improve the health of people in the UK, and chair of the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges. She is a former president of the Royal †College of Physicians, a post she was elected to in 2002.
Dame Black has also lectured extensively abroad and is a master of the American College of Physicians, and fellow of 15 other Medical Royal Colleges and Faculties.
- Any employers that would like Dame Black to visit their workplace should contact her at the DWP by writing to: Room 612, Adelphi, 1-11 John Adam Street, London WC2N 6HT
There are a range of resources available to help employers promote healht and wellbeing in the workplace. These include:
The British Heart Foundation (www.bhf.org.uk) which provides employers with various resources such as the Think Fit pack to help employees become active.
The Healht & Saftey Executive’s (HSE) website which contains a range of advice aimed at cutting work-related stress.
The BBC’s website has a section on workplace health. Visit www.bbc.co.uk/health/healthy_living/health_at_work for more information.