That’s according to ONS data analysed recently by Sir Michael Marmot, director of the Institute of Health Equity at UCL. His troubling conclusion was that growth in life expectancy is now “pretty close to having ground to a halt” which is “historically highly unusual” given the increases seen over the past century.
Alongside possible causes like austerity and regional inequality, Sir Michael crucially linked employment and working conditions with quality of life and declining longevity.
Dr Jenny Lunt, our occupational health and organisational psychologist at Tribe, concurs. She thinks there’s a clear opportunity for industry leaders to respond:
“There’s a wider economic and philosophical argument here, but I think there are changes the H&S industry can make right now, that begin in the workplace. Employers can help reduce health and social inequalities linked to life expectancy, that still exist between different parts of the country.
“To me this slow-down in longevity could be seen as the ultimate lagging indicator of how well we’re running society right now. And on top of all this, it looks like similar inequalities are emerging between generations as well, with our younger generation facing more economic challenges and uncertainty than the baby boomers ever did.”
TO WHAT EXTENT ARE EMPLOYERS IMPLICATED IN THIS?
“People spend most of their lives at work. So the people in charge of that environment have an important role in looking after quality of life there, working conditions and the opportunities people get to improve living standards. By that I mean going beyond just preventing illness and injury to helping people be the best they can.
“Employers aren’t solely responsible for these things, they just have a large part to play, morally, but also because there are real commercial benefits too – the main one being that a fit and healthy workforce is linked to sustainable, profitable business practices.”
WHERE SHOULD RESPONSIBLE LEADERS BEGIN IMPROVEMENTS?
“We see in the news an NHS and social welfare system that’s struggling to cope with our ageing population. This could be helped by better coordination of resources between public health bodies like social services, healthcare and education.
“Likewise, your organisation needs a joined-approach to running a business, so your workforce isn’t having to dance to different tunes.
“We need the kind of joined-up leadership Kate wrote about in her article for SHP Online about silo-working in HR and H&S. We need different leadership groups to work to and measure against the same objectives. It’s about HR and health and safety people reporting to the same director on the board.
“We need leaders who work together for fairer treatment and better quality jobs, who listen and respond in a coherent way, who take workforce well-being into account in every decision, and allow for inevitable fluctuations in health that occur as we get older.
“Think about it this way. What happens when performance dips in one of your teams, because people aren’t feeling their best? Do you push them to breaking point so they go on long-term sick leave? Or pace their workloads so their knowledge and expertise remains useful in the workplace – not just day-to-day, but throughout their careers. Expectations need to be realistic – we can’t just keep demanding more.
“Improving line management skills can really help all this, so managers and supervisors notice when people start to struggle. Do yours know how to hold a constructive conversation around that, so they can approach someone tactfully without making them feel guilty or weak for admitting to a health problem?
“Fairness, equal opportunity and transparency matters too – can anyone from any background get on in your company? Are you creating enough opportunities for staff to better themselves and improve quality of life for themselves, their family and thus wider society? Do people in your workforce feel they have a say?
“Also, do your different systems and processes take account of people’s well-being? Or have their efficiency and scalability gains put even more pressure on them?
“Flaws in society – like nepotism, marginalisation and inequality of opportunities absolutely apply in the workplace – which after all is just a microcosm of wider society. We’re now at the point where you have to ask yourself, as an organisation – have you done enough to stamp these out?”
A MATTER OF URGENCY
“Evidence shows that quality of life at work benefits wider society, not just for employees but their families, customers, suppliers and everyone else along the chain who shares our wealth in well-being.
“The revelation by Sir Michael Marmot is troubling. But the situation is completely reversible, as long as we get more joined-up. We need to act swiftly, but in a measured and thoughtful way.”