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Will marriage of long-term sickness and workplace health be blessed?

Date posted
15 January 2024
Corey Edwards
Estimated reading time
4 minute read

Anyone familiar with the IOSH Catch the Wave campaign might think key UK government ministers had swapped mid-winter celebrations of decorated trees, present-filled stockings and mince pies for a sun, sand and surf getaway, writes IOSH policy expert Corey Edwards.

When launching the government’s WorkWell scheme, close to New Year, it seemed such was ministers’ enthusiasm to surf our Catch the Wave principles around “looking after your people, so they can look after your business” that the best gift they’d received this festive season was the realisation that by building the social sustainability and long-term prosperity of their business, employers can also help build stronger, more sustainable communities.

The season of goodwill to all had not only inspired work and pensions secretary Mel Stride, and health secretary Victoria Atkins to put people first, it had also brought glad tidings for the business bottom-line.

From inside the exploding WorkWell party crackers would fall therapy and life coaches for workers; running, singing, cooking and gardening clubs and other such community and NHS ‘social prescribing’ packages; as well as a commitment to get a more joined-up approach from service providers, including doctors, physiotherapists, social workers, mental health services and jobcentres This really was the season of goodwill.


But, bah, was all this so much humbug? Were the planned WorkWell measures more a last-ditch attempt to do something about the UK labour shortage and economically inactive workers than genuinely wanting to take a more human-centred approach that could boost people’s health and wellbeing? Rather than a strategic decision to invest in support for disadvantaged workers so they can start or return, stay and succeed in work, was this just a ruse to slash the welfare bill?

Yet, with all its talk of introducing a national occupational health service, maybe the government had seen the light and really wanted to help the more than a quarter of working-age Britons who are currently unemployed or economically inactive (with long-term sickness being the most common reason). Perhaps it really wanted to support those 875,000 workers currently suffering from work-related stress, depression or anxiety to stay in work.

So, could it be this is a government that has decided to get to grips with the country’s mental health crisis and is taking action to prevent any further increase to the economically inactive number of tomorrow and create a more people-focused future?

Jury out

The jury is out on all of this and whether WorkWell will prove enough in the face of such huge challenges, especially the debilitating mental health situation and an ever more under pressure National Health Service and social care system.

But why did the government abandon the much-needed Employment Bill and Mental Health Bill, both of which were regrettably absent from the recent King’s Speech? The Employment Bill, first announced in the Queen’s Speech of December 2019, was intended to provide a framework of ‘good work’ based on the recommendations of the Taylor Review. It also formed part of the Government’s ambition to embed a world class approach to flexible working that would see flexible working become the default, ensuring that certain groups – including women, disabled and older workers – can access support to prevent sickness and stay in work.

Poor mental health costs UK employers up to £45bn a year through absenteeism, presenteeism and staff turnover. Yet studies have shown that every £1 invested by employers in the mental health of their people brings a return, and that return can be as much as £5. There’s no question investment in good OSH practice yields valuable returns and should never be viewed as a cost that can be avoided.

IOSH advocates a prevention-first approach to help reduce mental ill health in the workplace. We encourage the integration and adoption of psychosocial risk management strategies into occupational health and safety management systems and, of course, call for greater investment in occupational health. If WorkWell can support workers’ health, safety and wellbeing, especially those who are more vulnerable such as those with disabilities and long-term illnesses, our instinct is to give the scheme broad support. But we will need evidence of positive outcomes, which includes the promotion of a more human-centred approach within the workplace and a commitment to greater inclusivity and diversity, as well as making more people a part of the workplace and thus able to benefit.

Boosting people’s mental health and wellbeing is undoubtedly the way to go, yet it has to be real, it has to have an impact, and it must be sustained.

Last updated: 31 January 2024

Corey Edwards

Job role
Senior Policy and Public Affairs Manager


  • People and workforce