Claire Aiken: Our workforce was sick long before this pandemic . . .


IT'S a test to write any article at present that does not relate to either the pandemic or Brexit. This piece is no different, I’m bringing Covid-19 into the picture right at the start, bear with me though as I’ll move on quite quickly.

The virus has brought many challenges, not least amongst them the need for employers to take heed, and take care of, the health and safety of their workforce. This care over the past 10 months has manifested in different ways according to perceived business needs; the installation of physical barriers and sanitisation stations in the workplace, the introduction of weekly well-being staff catch-ups over zoom, the sharing of links to webinars on self-care etc.

While useful, to a large degree these are all ‘sticking plaster’ measures introduced to see us through the worst of the pandemic. As we move forward, we will need a great deal more from the health and well-being medicine cabinet to ensure a robust workforce that has the capacity to bring about a sustained recovery. Because it was not just the pandemic that made the Northern Ireland workforce sick, our collective ill-health was in evidence before the virus reached these shores.

More obvious to see in the public than in the private sector due to reporting, the health of the Northern Ireland worker is poor. In late 2019 two reports, one from the Northern Ireland Civil Service, the other from the Local Councils, had the Auditor General and the Local Government Auditor warn that absences due to sickness are putting a strain on the delivery of services.

More than this, the level of sickness in the Northern Ireland Civil Service has cost the public purse £32.9m while NI Council sick leave is the highest in the UK.

This day last week this paper reported on the cost of sick leave in the Northern Ireland Prison Service, some £3m per year over the last three years. The author of the report in which these findings were highlighted states that “the days lost to sickness absence should significantly reduce if much earlier interventions are made and the investment is made at the front end of the process. A short-term investment for longer-term gain should be considered.”

This is the crux of the matter. Whether in the private or the public sector, action must be taken now by business leaders to reduce levels of absenteeism and that action has to be a focus on the overall health of the workplace. A more holistic and strategic approach must be taken; rather than being reactive to sickness, we must be proactive towards health. Just as a business or organisation has a strategic focus on critical areas such as finance, logistics, operations etc. it must now take a strategic approach to health.

In recent years government has sought to make individuals consider their health in proactive terms. There is no doubt that significant sums have been spent on marketing campaigns getting us to consider our individual well-being, government campaigns around obesity are a case in point.

There are elements too of preventive care, the introduction by former chief medical officer Dr Etta Campbell of mammograms for women between 50-70 for instance, has not just saved the lives of many women but public services too.

But the reality is our over-burdened health service is not coping now and government, as we can all too plainly see, cannot alone fix this.

In this reality business has a role to play. I’m not suggesting that business steps up to the mark out of altruism but out of self-preservation. In doing so the benefits do however, go beyond the business; individuals and society as a whole are set to gain.

There are numerous approaches that businesses can take to this, what is important is that the approach must be considered and must amount to more than a few ‘health events’ that ultimately amount to not much more than paying lip-service.

The organisation Healthy Place to Work recently held its global launch in Northern Ireland. It’s chief executive John Ryan says that “A healthy organisation does not take a tick box approach to employee wellness but rather a data driven, evidence based, strategic approach to ensure that they are focusing their efforts and investment in the right areas, achieving a real return and creating a sustainable future for all.”

His contention is that a business will only be sustainable if the workforce is made up of individuals who have the vitality to flourish at work and beyond. The good news, he says, is that it is eminently possible for any business to enable its workforce to be full of healthy individuals.

As we move forward into 2021 and look at ways to achieve a sustainable economy, taking stock of our own business’ health and well-being medicine cabinet will allow us to prescribe the right approach for our people and our organisation.

:: Claire Aiken is managing director of public relations and public affairs company Aiken

:: Next week: Paul McErlean