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Matthew Taylor: Improving wellbeing at work takes imagination

Matthew Taylor
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Since my last LGC column the Prime Minister launched the Review of Modern Employment, produced by an independent commission that I chaired.

Apart from those with strong vested interests, the response has been good but it has taken people some time to discover and respond to less high-profile recommendations.

Among those is the following: “We recommend that the relevant government departments – the departments for Business, Energy & Industrial strategy; Culture, Media & Sport; Work & Pensions; and Health – explore ways of supporting and incentivising local authorities, particularly city regions and combined authorities, to develop integrated approaches to improving health and wellbeing at work.”

The relationship between employment and health and wellbeing is an important part of the commission’s vision, summed up in its title ‘Good Work’. There are two elements to this relationship.

On the one hand is the challenge of keeping in work more of the hundreds of thousands of people who drop out of employment every year due to changing health status and needs. The public sector and larger private sector firms have become better at supporting staff, whether through occupational health interventions or offering more flexible ways of working. The bigger challenge is small and medium sized enterprises, which often want to help employees but, with fewer employment roles and tight budgets, find it hard to be as flexible.

On the other hand is the importance of employment to people’s health and wellbeing. Bad work can make people sick. This is true not only in relation to danger and injury; here we have strong framework of health and safety regulation. More broadly work that is mind-numbing or high-pressure and in which employee lack voice or autonomy can damage health, particularly mental health. Conversely, good employers can use their relationship with employees to promote wellbeing in many ways, ranging from information and support services to access to opportunities to improve fitness.

A conversation about work and wellbeing is also likely to address the challenge of improving the rate of employment and routes of progression of disabled people. With government support employment rates have risen significantly recently, but they still lag badly behind, particularly in relation to learning disabilities. Notwithstanding my own review, of which this issue was only a relatively small part, the government has a range of objectives and policies in this area, as do many local authorities. But we need new ideas and to widen the commitment to change across employers and society.

This thought occurred to me as I was recently recording a new series for BBC Radio 4 called The Fix (available now on iplayer). The programme reports a one-day design workshop in which a team of young experts, in disciplines ranging from data analysis and marketing to ethnography, try to develop solutions to challenging problems. The first series has looked at national challenges including cutting childhood obesity, reducing reoffending and building more affordable homes, with the solutions being pitched to Dawn Austwick from the Big Lottery Fund and former cabinet minister David Willetts. If the series is recommissioned I hope we can move from broad national challenges to specific local ones.

Improving health and wellbeing at work could be a great subject for the approach we have been showcasing in The Fix. The process would combine the kind of experts we’ve used in the programme with local employers, the NHS, third sector and, of course, employees themselves. For seasoned policy makers, among whom I include myself, the idea that a one- or two-day event, sometimes using quite unconventional processes, could come up with feasible ideas in a complex area may seem unrealistic, but these processes can capture the imagination and gain buy-in in ways conventional policy making rarely achieves.

Of course, such a process has to be informed by existing policy, by strong local data and by an understanding of the constraints upon action. But to make a real difference to employment, health and wellbeing, we need imagination as well as commitment, and processes like those we used in The Fix are good at prompting thinking outside the box.

Nor is this just a one off. I agreed to host The Fix because it speaks to the RSA’s wider advocacy of approaches which are more systemic – engaging the key actors and understanding how the whole system works or doesn’t – and more entrepreneurial; taking risks, testing ideas, being agile in pursuing opportunities. Anyone out there fancy giving it a go?

Matthew Taylor, chief executive, RSA

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