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30 August 2011
Psychological factors and problems in the workplace are the biggest barriers to people’s return to work after illness which employers must do more to help tackle, according to a leading University expert.
Professor Sir Mansel Alyward, Director of the University's Centre for Psychosocial and Disability Research, School of Medicine, has found that despite work being the most effective way of improving people’s health and well-being, a person’s return to work is often hampered by lifestyle, environmental and psychological factors rather than illness itself.
It’s estimated that the total cost to the UK taxpayer, in terms of benefits and lost tax revenue, is more than £60 billion per year with some 172 million working days lost to sickness which the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) estimate to cost the economy over £13 billion.
Speaking at a conference of leading US health experts in Massachusetts, Sir Mansel said: "What the evidence shows is the main determinants of health and illness are lifestyle, socio-cultural environment and pyschological factors rather than the person’s 'medical' issue.
"How people think and feel about their health problems often determine how they deal with them and their impact. The clinical evidence also shows that people’s beliefs actually aggravate and perpetuate illness and disability. Psycho-social factors act as the main barrier to a return to work."
Of the negative influences, a University survey found that 38% of people ranked psychological factors like fearing the worst, questioning their own ability to succeed in situations and life factors which limit autonomy highest, followed by 32% of people who cited problems in the workplace as barriers to return to work.
In contrast, pain or symptoms of pain were ranked by only 7% of people as a negative influence on a return to work.
Sir Mansel adds: "We know that long-term worklessness is one of the greatest known risks to public health – with suicide risk increasing and people at greater risk than most dangerous jobs.
"Unfortunately many people think that you must be off work to recover fully from illness – our challenge is therefore to uproot these misconceptions."
According to Sir Mansel one of the key ways to tackle this problem is to improve the poor understanding of health and well-being, focus on early intervention and to tackle social disadvantage.
"Many employers are unaware of the business case for investing in health and well-being. There is a need for more of a multi-disciplinary approach from the outset – with health professionals, employers and multi-disciplinary services working together to achieve a sustained return to work," insists Sir Mansel.
"In particular, line managers need better training to detect and respond to early signs of ill-health and protect the physical and mental health of workers. We need a radical behavioural and cultural change towards work if we have any real prospect of improving people’s well-being and getting people back to work.
"The message is simple: Work remains the most effective means to improve well-being of individuals, their families and their communities and we must do more to facilitate it," he added.
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