As the political parties fight for our attention at this week’s Election, a key theme has emerged from the main party manifestos to encourage leaders from the health and safety profession.

It’s a theme that featured prominently in the manifesto of the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH), launched last Spring. It’s the drive to help more people return to work.

In Great Britain, in 2008-09, 24.6 million working days were lost through work-related ill-health and 1.2 million workers suffered an illness they put down to work. In its manifesto, ‘Creating a healthier UK plc,’ IOSH highlights our ageing population and the drive for a more inclusive workforce, where people are not excluded simply because they’re not 100 per cent fit. The Chartered body for health and safety professionals goes on to call for a greater role for its members in supporting workers with health problems to stay in or return to work.

The return-to-work issue has gained strong pre-election support across the political parties. Labour has an eye on reduced spending on benefits that would come from supporting more people into employment, making this manifesto pledge:

“More people with disabilities and health conditions will be helped to move into work from Incapacity Benefit… we will reassess the Incapacity Benefit claims of 1.5m people by 2014, as we move those able to work back into jobs.”

Labour also sees a return-to-work programme making a key quality of life contribution for many with disabilities:

“For those with the most serious conditions or disabilities who want to work there will be a new guarantee of supported employment after two years on benefit. We will seek to ensure that disabled people are able to lead dignified and independent lives, free of discrimination and with the support to which they are entitled.”

The Conservative manifesto also seeks to move people off Incapacity Benefit:

“We will reassess all current claimants of Incapacity Benefit. Those found fit for work will be transferred into Jobseekers Allowance. Recipients of Incapacity Benefit who are genuinely disabled will continue to receive the financial support to which they are entitled.”

A return-to-work programme is also being promoted by the Conservatives:

“(we will) offer people targeted, personalised help sooner – straight away for those with serious barriers to work and at six months for those aged under 25.”

And the Liberal Democrats agree, offering this manifesto commitment:

“Giving disabled job seekers better practical help to get to work, using voluntary and private sector providers, as well as JobCentre Plus services. We will also reform Access to Work, so disabled people can apply for jobs with funding already in place for equipment and adaptation that they need.”

All three main parties also pledge to address society’s mental health issues:

“We will pioneer better mental healthcare and tackle the scourge of mental illness. Over the next Parliament more than 8,000 new therapists will ensure access to psychological therapy for all who need it as we seek to change our society’s attitudes to mental illness.” (Labour)
“(we will) enable welfare-to-work providers and employers to purchase services from Mental Health Trusts; and, increase access to effective ‘talking’ therapies” (Conservative)
“(we will) improve access to counselling for people with mental health problems, by continuing the roll-out of cognitive and behavioural therapies.” (Liberal Democrat)

“There’s evidence that ‘good work’ is good for people’s health and wellbeing and also that positive perceptions about work are linked to higher productivity, profitability and staff retention,” said IOSH Policy & Technical Director Richard Jones.

“IOSH believes rehabilitation and the promotion of health and well-being at work needs to become the norm. As a nation, we need to make sure that everyone understands how to protect and improve health, and emphasise the message that ‘worker-friendly’ workplaces are productive and benefit everyone,” he added.

But to make returns to work sustainable, IOSH believes other changes are needed, as outlined in its own manifesto:

A multidisciplinary approach, making more use of trained health and safety professionals
Better access to high quality occupational health services
Improved management to prevent illness / injury and promote health and wellbeing at work
More support to help workers with health problems stay at or return-to-work
Tax-relief for certain employer-provided therapies for non-work injury / illness (e.g. physiotherapy)
Increased availability of cognitive behavioural therapy and less stigma about mental health problems
Embedding of health and safety in the education system (doctors, teachers, managers, school leavers, etc.), to create a ‘risk intelligent’ society.

To maximise the impact of qualified occupational health professionals, and to prevent conditions becoming chronic, IOSH suggests that better use be made of trained safety and health practitioners:

“There are large numbers of these practitioners; they already have basic occupational health knowledge; and they are well-established in the workplace,” said Richard Jones.

“With a little additional training they could, for example, act as workplace advocates; play a role in educating managers, communicating policies and services and promoting health messages; and they could help spot the early signs of problems, ensuring earlier interventions and referrals,” he added.

IOSH, with support from the Department for Work and Pensions, is piloting a free course for a group of its 37,000 members who want to develop skills in occupational health support and rehabilitation. The course helps implement one of the recommendations from Dame Carol Black’s review of the health of Britain’s working age population.

The pilot’s stakeholder steering group includes Dame Carol, Dr. Bill Gunnyeon and representatives from the Royal College of Nursing, Society of Medicine, Association of occupational health nurse practitioners (AOHNP) and the Institute of Ergonomics and Human Factors (formerly the Ergonomics Society).