Interview with Willl Cavendish, director of health and wellbeing at the Department of Health

Will Cavendish, director of health and wellbeing at the Department of Health, believes employers can improve the nation’s health while also helping themselves, says Nicola Sullivan

Employers can play an important role in tackling some of the UK’s most prevalent health problems while at the same time improve their own financial performance through increased productivity. This is the message from Will Cavendish, director of health and wellbeing at the Department of Health, who is responsible for promoting employer engagement in workplace health.

He hopes to enlist employers in his battles to reduce obesity and tackle alcohol abuse across the nation. In addition to these two key priorities, Cavendish is also responsible for promoting greater physical fitness within the population, improving breastfeeding rates and nutrition, and looking after the health of children and young people.

Cavendish says employers that take steps to help him achieve some of these objectives by putting health and wellbeing at the heart of their business strategies can expect to be rewarded in the shape of more productive staff, lower sickness absence levels and greater financial returns.

“Staff spend much of their day at their place of employment and there is a natural duty of care that employers have to their employees. But many employers are finding that they have a direct business interest in the health and wellbeing of their staff because it positively affects their bottom line,” he explains.

Cavendish is keen to point out that comprehensive health and wellbeing strategies are not just the preserve of large organisations with huge profit margins. He cites as an example the work of Royal Mail, which with limited budgets has introduced a raft of health and wellbeing initiatives to reduce employee absence levels from 7% to 5% over the past three years.

The initiatives offered by the organisation include an online health checking and assessment service which was launched by Royal Mail, Parcelforce Worldwide and the Post Office in March, allowing 180,000 employees to examine their lifestyles and take measures to improve their health. They were given access to information on a number of subjects including nutrition, stress and exercise.

Royal Mail has also worked with the DoH to recruit a team of health trainers to offer practical advice and support for the group’s workers. In addition, the organisation’s occupational health programme offers a 24-hour employee assistance programme (EAP), sickness absence management, pre-employment screening, driver medicals, health screening, vaccination services, and programmes to educate staff on health-related issues.

Although Cavendish does not believe employers should shoulder the entire burden of responsibility for their employees’ health, he feels they have an important role to play, especially when it comes to mental health issues and musculoskeletal conditions. These are two of the biggest causes of sickness absence that are sometimes triggered by failed systems within the workplace.

“There is often a significant relationship between poor management, and work-related stress and ill health. For example, employers that understand the issues of workplace harassment and bullying, which often vary widely across divisions even in the same firm, know this is about good management that supports the mental health and wellbeing of the workforce. Many employers are beginning to derive real benefits from taking action in this area,” explains Cavendish.

Under pressure
Absence through stress can also be caused by non work-related issues, says Cavendish. For example, people who are saddled with a lot of debt may struggle to balance managing their finances with the pressures of holding down a full-time job.

Employers can no longer ignore sickness absence, whatever the cause, as it costs the economy some £103 billion a year according to Dame Carol Black’s Review of the health of Britain’s working age population: working for a better tomorrow. This same report found there was a role for the government to help employers to maintain their employees’ health.

One option currently being piloted by the government is an early intervention service for employers that can provide health and employment advice once employees have gone off sick, with the aim of getting them back to work as quickly as possible.

“We have to try various things and see how we can best support employers. We will evaluate this service and compare it against other models,” says Cavendish.

He adds that the government has introduced other initiatives that will indirectly affect employers by helping to ease the burden of managing the return-to-work process. For example, employment advice services have been introduced in some GP surgeries to help people manage financial difficulties including debt problems.

“Very often, it is not going to be a medical problem [that is behind an employee’s absence]. People may be off because they have debt problems that cause them unhappiness and [result in] mental health issues. They get depressed and feel unable to go to work. If you just treat them for depression you may not be getting to the root cause. They might also need help from Citizens Advice Bureau or debt counselling,” says Cavendish.

When it comes to helping staff manage their stress levels, achieving a good work-life balance is crucial. One benefit that can help staff in this regard is flexible working.

In April, the government accepted the findings of a review by J Sainsbury’s HR director Imelda Walsh, that came out in favour of extending the right to request flexible working arrangements to parents of children aged up to 16 years.

“Rather like health at work, this is an area where we must carefully balance the legitimate and proper requirements of the business community to have a reasonably competitive economic environment in which to operate with ensuring that health and family life are promoted. The government has been trying to redress some of the balances that were out of kilter some years back, particularly concerning things such as maternity and paternity leave and flexible working [arrangements],” says Cavendish.

However, following the downturn in the economy the government is looking to make life easier for businesses and the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform has said that it will revisit the proposal to extend flexible working to parents of older children from those with children aged up to six years or who are disabled.

“We must make a judgment about promoting a competitive dynamic and how best to link that with promoting the health and wellbeing of staff,” says Cavendish.

Ultimately, it is in employers’ long-term interests to ensure that their employees are healthy. High levels of sickness absence and unfit employees only serve to undermine business productivity and profits.

Career History†

Before taking up his present role as director of health and wellbeing at the Department of Health (DoH) in January this year, Will Cavendish spent two years as the department’s director of strategy.

Prior to joining the DoH, he was non-executive director of the South-West London Strategic Health Authority.

Cavendish has held the position of senior policy adviser in the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit.

In the run-up to the 2001 general election, he served as special adviser to the secretary of state for education and skills. This followed his appointment as head of policy for the Labour Party in 2000.

Cavendish has an extensive background in economics and has carried out consultancy work for the World Bank and other international agencies.

He holds a doctorate in economics from Oxford University and has published several articles and academic papers on a variety of subjects.†

The Department of Health†

The Department of Health (DoH) seeks to improve the health and wellbeing of people in England. It is also responsible for national standards of healthcare, including in the National Health Service (NHS).

Within its remit, the DoH sets the framework for adult social care, advises on local authority spending and works to protect the public’s health by dealing with issues such as environmental hazards, infectious diseases, health promotion and education, the safety of medicines and ethical issues.

In addition, the department supports healthcare strategies, policies, legislation and regulation. It is involved in the allocation of healthcare resources, supports the NHS, integrates health and wellbeing into wider government policy by working with external sectors and systems, and works on incorporating public policy within healthcare services.

It also liaises and works with international partners including the European Union, the World Health Organisation and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

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