Month: June 2023

Reducing the number of people not working due to ill health

Data published today by the Office for National Statistics shows that the number of people who are not working due to long term sickness has risen to a record high.

From previous research, we know that the most common medical problems that can prevent individuals from working include mental health issues such as depression, stress, and anxiety, as well as musculoskeletal disorders like back pain. In addition, cardiovascular diseases, respiratory conditions, cancer, and neurological disorders are among the many other medical conditions that can significantly impact a person’s ability to work.

We have also seen higher death rates than usual in recent years in the UK; which probably reflects an increase in the number of people with long-term medical problems and their severity. A parallel challenge is demographic change to an older population, given that the disability employment gap increases with age. Trying to reverse the trend in the number of people in the UK who are not working due to poor health will not be easy and requires a much more active approach and collaboration from employers, the NHS and government.

The recent increase in the number of people in the UK who are not working due to poor health is likely to be due to short-medium term changes rather than to longer term problems such as rising rates of obesity. There was a rise in the number of people with mental health problems during the COVID-19 pandemic and this will account for some of the increase. We also saw some reductions in physical activity which would affect the number of people with musculoskeletal problems. There are also many people waiting for specialist NHS care (e.g. joint replacement surgery) who may not be able to work until they receive their treatment. Some people are also suffering from the post-COVID problems (i.e. Long COVID).

Reducing the number of people in the UK who are not working due to ill-health requires a multi-faceted approach involving various stakeholders and this is a priority for government, the NHS and employers.

Improving healthcare accessibility should be a priority. Many individuals are unable to work because they are waiting for NHS treatment, such as patients waiting for joint replacement surgery. To address this issue, we must ensure that healthcare services are readily available and accessible to all. This means reducing waiting times for consultations, diagnostics, and treatments, as well as increasing the number of healthcare professionals.

Mental health support is another crucial aspect that needs enhancement. The prevalence of mental health conditions is on the rise, and it is essential to provide better access to counselling, therapy, and mental health resources. Additionally, we must work towards reducing the stigma associated with mental health issues, allowing individuals to seek the help they need without fear or judgment.

To promote overall health and prevent illnesses, comprehensive public health campaigns are necessary. These campaigns should focus on encouraging healthy lifestyles, raising awareness about common health issues, and providing information on preventive measures. Initiatives targeting physical activity, healthy eating, smoking cessation, and mental health can make a significant impact on improving public health.

It is also important to empower individuals with chronic health conditions to self-manage their health. By providing education, resources, and support networks, we can help them better understand their conditions, make informed decisions, and actively engage in their own care. For instance, individuals can monitor their blood pressure at home to self-manage hypertension.

Employers play a crucial role in supporting individuals with health conditions. Encouraging them to provide reasonable workplace adjustments is essential for enabling these individuals to continue working or return to work. This may involve implementing flexible work arrangements, modifying duties, making ergonomic adjustments, and ensuring access to necessary support services.

Occupational rehabilitation programs can be instrumental in helping individuals with health conditions transition back into the workforce. These programs should provide training, education, job placement assistance, and ongoing support to improve employability and facilitate a smooth return to work.

Creating awareness about the benefits of work is essential. Evidence shows that a healthy and safe work environment has positive impacts on physical and psychological health. By raising awareness through campaigns and information leaflets, we can highlight the advantages of work, such as increased social contact and a sense of purpose, motivating individuals to return to work after an illness.

Increasing access to occupational health services is crucial for supporting individuals in the workplace. Occupational health teams can assess and support individuals with health conditions to work, and they can devise and implement policies to maintain a healthy workforce. Investing in occupational health services for those who currently lack access can reduce inequalities, support individuals working with ill health, and contribute to healthier workplaces overall.

Improving workplace health and safety is another area which should be a priority for employers. By encouraging a positive workplace culture and management practices, providing access to healthy food and drink, encouraging exercise, and offering support for smoking cessation, employers can enhance the wellbeing and safety of their employees, creating a productive work environment.

Strengthening social safety nets is vital for individuals who are unable to work due to severe health conditions. This can include providing income support, disability benefits, and ensuring access to appropriate healthcare services. These measures can help individuals maintain financial stability and access the necessary resources for their wellbeing.

Investing in research and data collection efforts is crucial for understanding the causes and impact of ill-health-related work absence. By gathering comprehensive data and conducting research, we can inform evidence-based policies, interventions, and programs aimed at reducing the number of individuals affected and improving overall health outcomes.

Fostering collaboration among government agencies, healthcare providers, employers, and community organizations is key to developing comprehensive strategies for reducing ill-health-related work absence. By sharing best practices, data, and resources, we can create a coordinated and effective response that addresses the various factors contributing to this issue.

Finally, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) has developed a guideline called “Workplace Health: Long-Term Sickness Absence and Capability to Work.” This guideline provides evidence-based recommendations and tools, including a Cost Calculator, to assist employers in managing sickness absences and determining the cost effectiveness of workplace health interventions.

By implementing these strategies effectively, we can improve overall workforce participation and wellbeing. This will benefit individuals, businesses, the NHS and the economy.

Azeem Majeed, Professor of Primary Care and Public Health, Imperial College London

Lara Shemtob, Academic Clinical Fellow in General Practice and Occupational Health Physician, Imperial College London

Kaveh Asanati, Professor of Occupational Health, Imperial College London

This blog was first published by the Society of Occupational Medicine.

How to successfully supervise your student’s research project

Postgraduate students in universities across the UK will currently be undertaking their summer research projects. How can academics successfully support their students and ensure they have a good learning experience and successfully complete their research project?

The first meeting with the student sets the foundation for a successful supervisory relationship. It’s essential for academics to establish clear expectations, foster effective communication, and provide the necessary guidance to support the student during their research project.

1. Introduction & Background: Begin the meeting by introducing yourself and providing an overview of your research expertise and experience. Ask the student to introduce themselves and their background, including their research interests and motivations for pursuing the project.

2. Research Project Overview: Provide a detailed overview of the research project, including its objectives, scope, and any specific research questions that need to be addressed. Ensure that the student understands the broader context of the project and its significance in the field.

3. Project Timeline & Deliverables: Discuss the expected timeline for the project, including key milestones and deadlines. Establish a clear understanding of the deliverables expected at each stage, such as literature review, research proposal, data collection, analysis, and thesis writing.

4. Roles & Responsibilities: Clarify the roles and responsibilities of both the student and yourself as the supervisor. Discuss how you will provide guidance, support, and feedback throughout the project. Establish a regular meeting schedule and preferred communication channels.

5. Research Methods: Discuss the proposed research methods and any specific techniques or tools that will be used. Provide guidance on the selection of appropriate research methods and data collection techniques. Address any concerns or questions the student may have.

6. Resources & Support: Inform the student about the resources available to them, such as research materials, databases, software, and equipment. Discuss any potential collaborations, access to lab facilities or data, and funding opportunities that may be relevant to the project.

7. Ethical Considerations: Discuss the importance of ethical conduct in research and ensure that the student is aware of the ethical guidelines and regulations that apply to their project. If applicable, provide guidance on obtaining necessary ethics approvals or permissions.

8. Literature Review: Emphasize the importance of conducting a thorough literature review to understand the existing knowledge in the field. Provide guidance on how to search for relevant literature, critically evaluate papers, and organise the findings.

9. Expectations for the first stage: Discuss the specific tasks or goals that the student should focus on initially. This may include conducting a literature review, refining the research questions, or drafting a research proposal. Set clear expectations for what should be achieved by the next meeting.

10. Questions & Concerns: Encourage the student to ask any questions or express any concerns they may have. Create an open and supportive environment where they feel comfortable discussing their research project and seeking guidance.

11. The evaluation process: Discuss how the student’s work will be evaluated and how they will be graded. Explain what is needed to achieve a good outcome from the assessment by the dissertation markers.

12. Create a positive and supportive environment for the student. Let them know that you are there to help them succeed and that you are interested in their work. Be respectful. Listen to the student’s ideas and be open to their suggestions.

Wastewater Surveillance for Covid-19

Wastewater surveillance is a technique that can be used to detect and track the spread of infectious diseases, including Covid-19. Wastewater is a rich source of genetic material from the people who use facilities in locations such as schools. By testing wastewater for the presence of viruses, public health officials can get an early warning of an outbreak before it becomes widespread.

Our recent study published in the journal PLOS One found that wastewater surveillance can be used to detect Covid-19 with high accuracy. The study, which was conducted in England collected wastewater samples over a period of six months. We found that wastewater samples from areas with high rates of Covid-19 infection had significantly higher levels of SARS-CoV-2 genetic material than samples from areas with low rates of infection.

We also found that wastewater surveillance can be used to track the spread of new variants of SARS-CoV-2. We were able to identify the Alpha and Delta variants in wastewater samples before these variants were detected in clinical samples.

Wastewater surveillance is a valuable tool for public health officials who are working to prevent the spread of Covid-19. It is a cost-effective and efficient way to identify outbreaks early and take steps to mitigate them. In addition to detecting COVID-19, wastewater surveillance can also be used to detect other infectious diseases, such as influenza and norovirus. This makes it a valuable tool for public health surveillance and outbreak response.

Wastewater surveillance will become increasingly important for protecting public health. It is a valuable tool that can be used to identify outbreaks early, track the spread of new variants, and monitor the effectiveness of public health interventions.

Strategies and Interventions to Improve Well-Being and Reduce Burnout in Healthcare Professionals

Our recent article in the Journal of Primary Care & Community Health discusses burnout, a psychological response to chronic workplace stress that is particularly common in healthcare workers and which has been made worse by the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. Burnout is caused by factors such as increasing workload, inadequate support from employers and colleagues, and a stressful work environment. It has negative effects on both patients and healthcare professionals, including reduced patient satisfaction, an increase in medical errors, and decreased quality of care. Addressing burnout requires a multi-pronged approach involving individual and organisational-level strategies.

Managing people’s workload, providing individual-focused interventions like stress management, and offering professional development opportunities can help reduce burnout. Supportive leadership, peer support, and a healthy work-life balance are also important. Organisational culture and leadership play a crucial role in fostering these kind of supportive work environments. A culture of openness and support without stigma is also essential, as is the importance of appropriate support programmes rather than relying solely on individual resilience. Ultimately, preventing burnout and managing when it does occur requires collaborative efforts between healthcare systems and individual healthcare professionals.