Health and wellbeing: Interview with Professor Sayeed Khan, chief medical adviser at the EEF

There are compelling business and legal reasons for employers to prioritise employee health, the EEF’s chief medical adviser, Professor Sayeed Khan, tells Tynan Barton

As chief medical adviser of manufacturers’ organisation the EEF, Professor Sayeed Khan travels the country working with organisations of all sizes, from huge multinationals to small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). Although the UK is making great strides to raise awareness of tackling absence and workplace health, Khan says there is a long way to go.

The seventh annual EEF/Unum Sickness absence and rehabilitation survey of member organisations, published in June this year, found that the sickness absence rate among this group in 2009 fell to 2.4%, or 5.6 days per employee, from 3% in 2007.

Khan says the drop in absence can be attributed to the recession and the possibility that staff are more aware of the time they take off sick. Also, he says there have been rises in the number of policies and procedures implemented by employers, as well as in the number of organisations looking to specialist occupational health services for support, rather than GPs or the NHS.

The survey also raises an interesting point about the number of people who take days off sick, with high levels of attendance on the increase. Some 44% of employees had no absence at all in 2009, an upward trend since 2007. “It is reasonable to say quite a lot of people are ‘well’ in terms of wellbeing,” says Khan. “They might have minor problems, but are well enough to attend work.”

Khan believes that although it is important to pay attention to the percentage of staff who do not take time off sick, the issue of ‘presenteeism’ – when people come to work but are unproductive – is also a serious issue for employers.

“We are getting very caught up with assuming presenteeism is just to do with sickness,” he says. “But there are an awful lot of other causes [of low productivity], such as poor motivation or lack of competence due to inadequate training or an unhealthy work environment.”

Supportive stance towards presenteeism and absence

Khan urges employers to adopt an enquiring and supportive stance toward both presenteeism and absence, in order to identify the root cause of an individual’s poor performance or attendance.

He believes tackling these issues is all about putting health and wellbeing into perspective and recognising that “the wellbeing of the working-age population is important because they are the wealth creators”. He also poses a controversial question: should we allow better health service access to people of working age rather than the elderly and the young, because they generate income?

Khan also points to ways of improving health services for workers without affecting the old or the young, as outlined in Dame Carol Black’s Review of the health of Britain’s working age population and the Department for Work and Pensions’ Health, Work and Wellbeing initiative. These include an occupational health helpline and ‘Fit for Work’ services to help employees stay at work or return more quickly after an illness or when they develop a health condition.

Employers need to tackle health issues in a methodical way, says Khan. There are fundamental issues that every organisation should address as part of its duty of care as an employer, as well as ‘nice-to-haves’ that can improve employee wellbeing and motivation, he says.

“The essential work-related stuff is value for money from the employer’s point of view, because it could cost them money or they could be prosecuted if they do not do something. Then you have the value-added stuff, which looks at sickness absence, rehabilitation and keeping people with chronic diseases at work. Then you have value-creating stuff, which is employee performance, enhancement, goodwill and people working at their best.”

Khan says all industries need to tackle, to some extent, the big five work-related health issues – noise, vibration exposure caused by machinery such as road drills or hand drills, skin disease, lung disease and cancers – as well as musculoskeletal disorders and mental health issues. The danger with some of these is that once employees develop a condition, it cannot be reversed.

“The important thing is to tackle the [big five] essential things that are work-related or caused by work,” he says.

Employers must be proactive and focus on any health problems that may affect their particular working population, says Khan. For example, many of their workforce may suffer noise-induced hearing loss through working in a noisy environment.

Address lifestyle risk factors

Addressing lifestyle risk factors, such as smoking, poor diet and lack of exercise, should also be high on organisations’ agendas. Khan says employers can offer support through risk assessment and suggested methods of action. “Testing lifestyle factors on an individual basis is valuable because it personalises it,” he says. “For example, it might suggest you make one little change, like doing a bit of exercise.”

As well as the business case for ensuring the health of their workforce, employers also have legal responsibilities to protect their welfare. In his role as a board member of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), Khan highlights the legal importance of ensuring that the major work-related health issues are addressed.

“Inspectors are more likely to prosecute [organisations] for the big five now than ever in the past,” he says. “We have put all the guidance together and the legislation is all there. Ignorance is no excuse. Just get on with it.”

There are simple things that employers can do to tackle health and wellbeing issues in the workplace, says Khan. These include dealing with people with chronic problems and those on sickness absence, and it comes down to creating a healthy culture that encourages people to commit to the organisation.

“If someone has a chronic disease, workplace disease, or their lifestyle is causing them to underperform, employers will suffer reduced productivity and increased costs,” he says. “If they are motivating people to put in that extra mile, they are going to be more productive and perform better.”

The EEF at a glance

The EEF is a membership organisation dedicated to the manufacturing industry, offering business services, government representation and industry intelligence.

The body works with policy-makers to create policies that are in the best interests of manufacturing, encourage a high-growth industry and boost the sector’s ability to make a positive contribution to the UK’s economy.

The aim of the EEF is to create highly productive workplaces in which innovation, creativity and competitiveness can thrive.

Manufacturing is responsible for 55% of UK exports and its productivity regularly outpaces economic growth. All of this helps the UK maintain its position as the world’s sixth largest manufacturing nation – a position the EEF is working to improve. About one-quarter of the UK’s manufacturing businesses are members of the organisation.

Career history: Professor Sayeed Khan

  • As chief medical adviser of manufacturers’ organisation the EEF, Professor Sayeed Khan works with employers of all sizes.
  • He began his career as a GP before specialising in occupational medicine. He is a fellow of the Royal College of General Practitioners, the Royal College of Physicians and the Faculty of Occupational Medicine.
  • Khan also serves on the National Stakeholders Councils for Workplace Health Connect and for the government’s Health, Work and Wellbeing strategy.
  • He is also a member of the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (Nice) programme development group looking at guidance on long-term sickness absence and incapacity. He has worked closely with the Royal College of General Practitioners in developing and piloting a national education programme for GPs on health and work.
  • Khan is also a member of the Health and Safety Executive board, and is the first special professor in occupational health at the University of Nottingham.
  • He has an interest in the gathering and analysis of occupational health data and was awarded a doctor of medicine degree from the University of Nottingham for a thesis on this subject.

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