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‘More must be done to tackle barriers to sick workers return to work’ says Welsh expert

30 August 2011

Psychological factors and problems in the workplace are the biggest barriers to people’s return to work after illness which employers must do more to help tackle, according to a leading Cardiff University expert.

Professor Sir Mansel Alyward, Director of Cardiff University's Centre for Psychosocial and Disability Research, argues that despite work being the most effective way of improving people’s health and well-being, a person’s return to work is often hampered by lifestyle, environmental and psychological factors rather than illness itself.

It’s estimated that the total cost to the UK taxpayer, in terms of benefits and lost tax revenue, is more than £60 billion per year with some 172 million working days lost to sickness which the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) estimate to cost the economy over £13 billion.

Speaking at a conference of leading US health experts in Massachusetts, Sir Mansel said: "What the evidence shows is the main determinants of health and illness are lifestyle, socio-cultural environment and pyschological factors rather than the person’s 'medical' issue.

"How people think and feel about their health problems often determine how they deal with them and their impact. The clinical evidence also shows that people’s beliefs actually aggravate and perpetuate illness and disability. Psycho-social factors act as the main barrier to a return to work."

Of the negative influences, a recent Cardiff University survey found that 38% of people ranked psychological factors like fearing the worst, questioning their own ability to succeed in situations and life factors which limit autonomy highest, followed by 32% of people who cited problems in the workplace as barriers to return to work. In contrast, pain or symptoms of pain were ranked by only 7% of people as a negative influence on a return to work.

Sir Mansel adds: "We know that long-term worklessness is one of the greatest known risks to public health – with suicide risk increasing and people at greater risk than most dangerous jobs.

"Unfortunately many people think that you must be off work to recover fully from illness – our challenge is therefore to uproot these misconceptions."

According to Sir Mansel one of the key ways to tackle this problem is to improve the poor understanding of health and well-being, focus on early intervention and to tackle social disadvantage.

"Many employers are unaware of the business case for investing in health and well-being. There is a need for more of a multi-disciplinary approach from the outset – with health professionals, employers and multi-disciplinary services working together to achieve a sustained return to work," insists Sir Mansel.

"In particular, line managers need better training to detect and respond to early signs of ill-health and protect the physical and mental health of workers. We need a radical behavioural and cultural change towards work if we have any real prospect of improving people’s well-being and getting people back to work.
"The message is a simple: Work remains the most effective means to improve well-being of individuals, their families and their communities and we must do more to facilitate it," he added.



Further information:

Chris Jones
Public Relations
Cardiff University
Tel: 029 20 874731

A copy of Sir Mansel’s presentation to the SEAK Workers’ Compensation and Occupational Medicine Conference is available on request.

Cardiff University
Cardiff University is recognised in independent government assessments as one of Britain’s leading teaching and research universities and is a member of the Russell Group of the UK’s most research intensive universities. Among its academic staff are two Nobel Laureates, including the winner of the 2007 Nobel Prize for Medicine, Professor Sir Martin Evans.

Founded by Royal Charter in 1883, today the University combines impressive modern facilities and a dynamic approach to teaching and research. The University’s breadth of expertise in research and research-led teaching encompasses: the humanities; the natural, physical, health, life and social sciences; engineering and technology; preparation for a wide range of professions; and a longstanding commitment to lifelong learning.

Three major new Research Institutes, offering radical new approaches to neurosciences and mental health, cancer stem cells and sustainable places were announced by the University in 2010.