31st May 2011
Unions have long been campaigners for better health and
safety, but says Tom Wilson, they also have a role in tackling stress and
promoting wellbeing and good mental health
This month, as part of Adult Learner’s Week, thousands of
workers have taken part in classes to quit smoking, have had their blood
pressure taken and have pulled on leotards and shorts in a variety of events at
Unionlearn has helped unions to co-ordinate events for the
week, run by NIACE and the Campaign for Learning, which encourages adults to
take up a range of learning activities from Pilates to PhDs. Adult Learner’s Week [from May 14-20] was also used as an
opportunity to invite in professions to carry out health checks, including
blood pressure and cholesterol levels, screening and cancer awareness sessions.
HMRC staff in Salford had a visit from the Blood Donor
Association and free health checks from a local gym. Events put on by the Unite learning rep for
workers at a Primary Care Trust in Bury included health and well-being courses
and walking and rambling. Staff at Merseytravel were offered everything from
history tours, a comic workshop and alcohol awareness. Workers at a housing association in Moss
Side, Manchester could sign up for sessions in stress awareness and smoothie making.
Trade unions have long been associated with health and safety
issues. Health and safety reps play a
vital role in ensuring that factories, work sites and offices are a safe environment
and that safety procedures are in place.
Historically it was the trade union movement which did battle against
employers over industrial diseases and hazards.
In today’s population, circulatory diseases account for 34 per cent of deaths, cancers 27 per
cent and respiratory diseases 14 per cent.
There is an increasing prevalence of mental ill-health. Many of these
conditions may be influenced by lifestyle, behaviour and inequalities: a quarter of the adult population smoke, two-thirds are
overweight or obese and fewer than 40 per cent meet physical activity
guidelines. I believe that trade union reps can
have a role to play in promoting the well-being and mental health of their
members, beyond the activities of Adult Learner’s Week. TUC research shows that stress is by far the
most common health and safety problem at work.
This is where union reps can help by working with employers to ensure
that work practices place less stress on staff.
conference held by unionlearn’s Southern & Eastern region showed there is an
appetite for ULRs to get involved. I
shared a platform with Dame Carol Black, the National Director for Health and
Work, which explored the relationship between work practices and health. She made the point that work is generally
good for physical and mental health and well-being. Most people, she said, feel
better if they are in work and engaged in work. But that work needs to be 'good
work'. It needs to be well managed so it leads to a healthy, engaged workforce
that is resilient. Too often health and work are not acknowledged as related
from the government’s Health, Work and Well-Being Strategy Unit shows that more
than two-thirds of employers admit to not taking any measures to help keep
staff with health problems in work and only four out of ten are aware of any
Government health and well-being initiatives. A 2008 survey of senior managers
found that half of them thought that none of their workers would ever suffer
from a mental health problem during their working life, whereas one in six
people in the UK will be experiencing depression and problems related to
can negotiate with managers to prevent unsociable shift patterns that prevent
people from having a proper family life, or unfair performance management
systems that put stress on staff. In the report Engaging for Success:
enhancing performance through employee engagement, by David MacLeod and Nita Clark, the authors
quote figures showing that only three in ten UK employees are actively engaged
with their work, that a fifth may be disengaged and only four per cent exhibit
high levels of engagement. An unhappy,
disengaged workforce is often an unhealthy one. Reps can work with employers to ensure that
workplaces are fair, flexible and give their staff autonomy.
There is a
business case for having a healthy staff.
Workplace absence costs the UK £100 billion a year. On average there are
7.4 days lost per employee per year.
Money spent on improving the work environment will soon be recouped if
it prevents sick leave and staff turn-over.
A happy workplace is one where workers feel valued by the
employers and where they have the opportunity to progress in their job. Research from Leeds University on unionlearn
projects shows that where employers and unions have learning agreements and
allow staff to improve their education and training, relations are improved,
productivity is increased and turn-over decreased. A happy workplace is a fair workplace and that is why unionlearn
champions those who often miss out on opportunities at work, because of race,
gender, disability or because they work night shifts. A third of Union Learning Fund projects are
targeted at a specific ethnic or minority group.
Workers who enjoy their work are less likely to be tempted by
a cigarette break and workers are most likely to quit altogether if they
receive support from their colleagues and managers in giving up.
particular, are reluctant to discuss their health problems and go to their
GP. At the unionlearn conference on
health and well-being, Sharon Allen,
a RMT learning organiser, said that her union’s health awareness events had
been a good way to get men involved. She
said that men were more likely to take part in screening or preventative
programmes if their work mates were also going along. Unionlearn’s initiative with Macmillan Cancer
Support provides information for union reps to help them put on cancer
awareness events. The Cancer in the Workplace booklet (http://www.unionlearn.org.uk/publications/index.cfm?frmPubID=175) provides advice to reps to help them work
with personnel to put in place policies to support staff with cancer and those
caring for family with cancer.
The work canteen is often a good place to start. Reps
at our conference noted that the cheapest options on the lunch menu were nearly
always the most stodgy and unhealthy. At
Warburtons bakery in Enfield, north London, the employers and reps from the
BAFWU union used a Festival of Learning
grant of £600 towards providing healthy meals, fresh fruit and goody bags with
recipe cards to create healthy meals.
Staff were also offered free health checks and advice on nutrition and
fitness during the two-day Health Living
The TUC is represented on the Employee Engagement Task Force,
set up by the Prime Minister, joining the IPA’s Nita Clarke, the task force’s
deputy chair, and other leading professionals from the public and private sector,
to “deliver sustainable growth across
the UK, and come up with new approaches to help people improve their wellbeing”. There may be scepticism that the well-being
agenda is 'fluffy', but my view is that it is something unions have always been
involved with – and we will continue to work with employers to make sure that our
members have fair, healthy and fulfilling workplaces.
Tom Wilson is director of unionlearn, the TUC’s learning and