Three wellbeing challenges employers will need to tackle in 2023

A proactive approach is needed to address challenges including soaring cancer rates, increasing work-related illness and NHS delays, warns Imogen Cardwell

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The well-publicised NHS backlog, which has increased to more than 7.2 million, has impacted more than a million employees. Not only are 15 per cent of employees affected saying the wait has forced them to go on long-term sick leave, but 40 per cent of cancer patients are now having to wait more than the 62-day target for life-saving cancer treatment.

At the same time, two-fifths of employees believe work has made them sick, with data from the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) showing that work-related ill health is soaring, primarily due to work-related stress and musculoskeletal (MSK) issues.

All of which means the NHS backlog, rising cancer cases and increasing work-related illness are the three major wellbeing challenges employers will need to address in 2023.

Challenge 1: Supporting employees with cancer

With more employees waiting longer to have more serious cancer conditions treated, employers will need to do more to support terminally ill employees to stay in work, so long as it is safe to do so.

Not only is this a legal duty, under the Equality Act 2010, but also as a moral duty as many people with cancer don’t want to be wrapped in cotton wool and want to remain a valued member of society for as long as possible.

Integral to this is supporting employees by making the reasonable adjustments needed to allow them to remain in work, at a time when more than half (58 per cent) of the employees with cancer say they have been forced to change their employment.

For example, someone experiencing tiredness due to hormonal therapy might need to work more flexibly for a time. Whereas someone going through chemotherapy might have an increased risk of infection that requires them to work different hours, so they can travel to and from work at quieter times.

Managers should be encouraged to talk to employees about what they think would help them and an occupational health clinician can also advise on appropriate adjustments that would work for the individual and business, both now and as the employee goes through important milestones and treatments.

Challenge 2: Ongoing NHS delays

Before the pandemic, if someone needed a knee operation and was struggling to work, they would typically get signed off work by their GP until after they had been treated and had some post-surgery rehabilitation.

That might have been OK when they only had to wait six weeks, but it's unacceptable if it's going to be a year. Not least as there is a risk of financial hardship, and long-term absence has been shown to lead to lack of confidence, isolation and an increased risk of future worklessness.

Again, reasonable adjustments to help keep people in work, whereas previously there might have been a perception that they shouldn’t be in work, will be critical going forward. If there are underlying issues causing the problem, such as weight gain putting excessive pressure on joints. Workplace wellbeing initiatives or occupational health advisors might also be able to support the individual to lose weight to reduce their joint pain and need for an operation.

Challenge 3: Soaring work-related illness

Work-related ill health is set to continue to soar during 2023, after more than 30 million working days were lost due to work-related ill health over the past year. At a cost of £11.2bn.

According to data from the Health & Safety Executive, there were more than 1.8 million work-related ill health cases in 2021-22, primarily due to work-related stress, depression or anxiety (914,000) and MSK issues (477,000). 

Although trade unions are calling for statutory sick pay (SSP) to be increased in response, a far more proactive approach would be to review data to understand the underlying causes driving so much work-related ill health.

Employers should review their health data, including referrals to occupational health and health screening insights. As well as conduct ‘employee listening’ with surveys designed to uncover the root causes of work-related stress. This can often be addressed with workshops and manager training based on the HSE’s Management Standards for reducing stress, which look at everything from workload to working relationships.

In the case of soaring MSK issues, workplace risk assessments can be used to identify where employees are setting themselves up for future injury. While body mapping workshops, where employees place stickers on body maps to reveal where they have injuries or niggles, can also be used. These encourage employees to share tips and advice with one another on how they’re using the same equipment, or doing the same job, in a way that prevents injury. As it’s often the smallest behavioural changes that make the biggest difference.

Imogen Cardwell is clinical operations director at PAM OH