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Feel-good factor of a healthy workforce

New guidance from NICE recommends that employees’ health and wellbeing should be a core priority for senior managers. Occupational health nurses on building sites and oil rigs are encouraging the mainly male staff to take up healthier diets and exercise and quit smoking.

Improving the health and wellbeing of employees leads to a happier and more productive workforce, says the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE).

But the latest figures from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) show that 28.2 million days were lost to work-related illness and injury in the UK in 2013/14, costing society an estimated £14.2 billion.

In June NICE launched new guidance on workplace policy and management practices. This recommends that health and wellbeing should be a core priority for every organisation’s senior managers. Alongside the physical environment, there is particular emphasis on mental health. Other recommendations focus on fairness, participation and trust, training of line managers, and job design.

For occupational health nurse Allison Rose, the focus on prevention is welcome. ‘I’m delighted to hear the direction NICE is taking in these guidelines,’ says Ms Rose, who is employed by Duradiamond Healthcare, a multidisciplinary occupational health consultancy. ‘In occupational health we’ve always dealt with things like dust and hazards. But this is much more about employees’ wellbeing and general health. It’s a shift towards putting people first.’

For almost two years, Ms Rose has been providing occupational health nursing care to those working on the £600 million regeneration of Birmingham’s New Street station by Network Rail and principal contractor Mace – due to be completed this autumn. Last year 3,000 people were employed on the site in total, with 1,500 working there every day. When the project was at its busiest, a night nurse was on duty.

‘I came in with a fresh pair of eyes and, as a lot of my nursing background is in prevention, I’ve introduced similar ideas to those in the NICE guidance,’ says Ms Rose. All employees have a structured plan, including an induction and pre-placement health questionnaire, plus fitness for work certification and health screening as needed. Minor injuries and ailments are dealt with on site, including giving pain relief and antibiotics.

Mini medicals

But Ms Rose wanted to do some health promotion too. She began by offering ‘mini medicals’ to volunteers, with a range of basic health checks such as hypertension, cholesterol and urine glucose. ‘I discovered that the top three health issues were stress, blood pressure and smoking,’ says Ms Rose.

Picture credit: Daniel Mitchell

Among the complications is a workforce that is overwhelmingly male and largely transient, with many working away from home, including overseas. ‘Many don’t ever visit a GP,’ says Ms Rose. But being visible and having an open door policy has helped to win hearts and minds. ‘Having a presence on the site is helpful, because they see me around all the time,’ she says. ‘If my door’s open, they can pop in and talk to me about whatever is bothering them. I find that if they come once, they will come back.’

Smoking and diet

With 29% of the workers being smokers, a smoking cessation service was high on Ms Rose’s agenda. Her efforts have seen 200 workers attending for advice on stopping and a 52% quit rate after four weeks.

Providing a machine so workers can check their own blood pressure has generated more than 7,000 readings in 12 months, with many employees seeking further advice on diet and lifestyle.

Her initiative to encourage healthier eating habits initially got off to a slow start. ‘I had a budget of £30 to spend on free fruit once a week and I used to throw half the fruit away,’ recalls Ms Rose. But consistently promoting ‘free fruit Wednesday’ at induction, in the canteen and coffee areas has gradually changed attitudes. ‘Now I spend £70 and the fruit is gone in a couple of hours. It’s a feel-good factor.’

This year has seen a focus on mental health issues. Charities such as Mind and the Samaritans have been invited to talk to staff. ‘It has freed people to talk about things – the men open up to each other more,’ says Ms Rose. This year 26 people qualified as mental health first aiders, and more than 100 managers have attended mental health awareness training.

Top tips

Identify the issues in your workplace and gather an evidence base.

Gain the support of managers. ‘Make sure you get their buy-in by explaining what you’re trying to do and why,’ says offshore medic Gary Parkinson.

Join in with national initiatives and poster campaigns. ‘Hold some events around key health issues, such as Know Your Numbers week, targeting blood pressure,’ says occupational health nurse Allison Rose.

Offer drop-in clinics giving one-to-one advice.

Try to exert influence over other important contracts that may impact on health, such as catering. ‘That way you can ensure there are healthy options in the canteen,’ says Ms Rose.

Start small and target simple things. ‘Don’t try to change the world,’ advises Mr Parkinson.

Exercise awards

Offshore medic Gary Parkinson also works in challenging circumstances. Employed by Petrofac for the past eight years, he provides health care on the EnQuest Heather Alpha platform in the North Sea, between the Shetland Islands and Norway. There is a regular crew of around 60 people, and a transient drilling crew of the same number. Emergencies and trauma are Mr Parkinson’s primary role, alongside health issues related to the working environment, such as noise, vibration and chemicals.

But there’s also room for health promotion. ‘My aim is that everyone goes away healthier than when they arrived,’ says Mr Parkinson. To that end, he offers education encouraging workers to look at their diet and exercise.

Initiatives include the ‘common health games’ held while the Commonwealth Games took place last year. Awards were given for achievements such as who completed the most gym sessions or rode the most miles on an exercise bike. Employees even raised money for Sport Relief, organising a two-mile walk by doing laps around the platform.

The service has been lauded with a gold award given by the Scottish Healthy Working Lives Award Programme. ‘We’re very proud of it,’ says Mr Parkinson. ‘It’s visible recognition that we treat our staff well. We’re a beacon. Much of the content of the NICE guidelines is similar with the same broad criteria, but there isn’t recognition for companies that are doing it’.

NICE workplace policy and management practices to improve the health and wellbeing of employees www.nice.org.uk/guidance/ng13

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