Healthy workplaces for all ages

Kim Sunley

Kim Sunley, the staff-side chair on the Health, Safety and Wellbeing Partnership Group and senior employment relations adviser at the Royal College of Nursing, writes about the importance of making the NHS a healthy workplace for all ages. 

With the average age of an NHS worker at 47.3 years and predicted to rise, the working longer agenda is an important issue for the NHS. To support this, the NHS Staff Council’s Health, Safety and Wellbeing Partnership Group (HSWPG) launched new guidance on the health, safety and wellbeing of an ageing workforce.

The cumulative impact of a poor physical and psychological work environment can take a number of years to manifest. Both musculoskeletal and stress related ill health, especially burn out, can be conditions that build up over a number of years of exposure to poor working environments.  These two issues are the main cause of ill health retirement and long term absence in the sector, so cracking these is not just important for the person who is suffering, it is really important for the wider NHS.

The current focus on wellbeing initiatives around exercise and healthy eating is welcomed. The workplace provides an ideal environment to promote health and reduce the risk of long term conditions leading to chronic ill health. However, alongside these initiatives, work factors that lead to ill health must be addressed.  Of course we owe it to ourselves, our families and our employers to do what we can to keep ourselves well, but the reality is that we are not all super humans at the peak of physical and psychological health throughout our whole working lives. 

The first priority, as an employer, has to be preventing staff from becoming ill or injured through their work – this requires risk assessment of roles and designing jobs to reduce the physical and psychological impacts.  Secondly, employers need to support those with health problems or issues associated with the natural ageing process to work by being sensitive to their needs and adapting the working environment. Thirdly, employers should introduce wellbeing initiatives that are targeted and evaluated. 

The new HSWPG guidance on supporting the health, safety and wellbeing on an ageing workforce picks up on these three areas.  I would encourage occupational health, moving and handling, health and safety and HR leads to use the organisational readiness checklist and the supporting guide. It is important to carry out this work with trade union safety representatives and implement a safe and healthy working environment for all ages, to help our NHS staff stay well and at work for longer.

Learn more about the role of the NHS Staff Council’s Health, Safety and Wellbeing Partnership Group (HSWPG) and access the guidance on the health, safety and wellbeing of an ageing workforce.

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