Students on the NEBOSH Health and Well-Being at Work Certificate will be aware that one of the beliefs underpinning health and well-being is that work is good for both. I thought I would put this notion to the test one Friday afternoon and conduct an ad-hoc survey into the well-being of the workforce after a week at work. The vast majority of the answers fell into the category of ‘you must be kidding’, or words to that effect, so I reflected on why work is good for us and why we do not always recognise that fact.
A study by Waddell and Burton (2006) found strong evidence that work is good for physical and mental health, while not working (or worklessness) is associated with poorer physical and mental health and well-being.
In considering their findings I reflected that work does provide the material wherewithal (i.e. the money) for life and well-being. Money can support healthy diets and lifestyles – and it can also support unhealthy diets and lifestyles! But well-being can mean undertaking an activity or lifestyle that gives pleasure but may actually cause harm – obvious examples include alcohol consumption and smoking. Having the wherewithal to choose the healthier options within these categories is significant.
Work often also supplies ‘work colleagues’ and, love them or hate them, it’s often good to talk (or socially interact).
Work can be therapeutic – while we are concentrating on a particular work task we assign other problems to the back of our mind. Problems that were ‘disastrous’ earlier on are put aside, allowing a mental resource to deal with the issues to build. Work builds resilience in us that strengthens us for the trials and tribulations of our domestic life. Work is almost a custom-made training course for dealing with pressure and so helps us combat stress.
Work can reverse the pattern of worthlessness that builds within us when we are unemployed. Waddell and Burton proved this to be true for healthy people of working age, for many disabled people, for most people with common health problems, and for social-security beneficiaries. Of course, there is an infinite variety in the types of work that people do, so there is a codicil to the assumption that work is good for you – the nature and quality of work and its social context are relevant. The work needs to be safe and not have an adverse impact on health.
The traditional ‘health and safety’ view of work is that it minimises the risk of danger and, therefore, emphasises the adverse effects on health of work. HSE statistics show thousands of working days are lost as a result of health and safety failings – the government seems more concerned now with the millions of days lost as a result of failings in health and well-being. I agree with Waddell and Burton that the beneficial effects of work far outweigh the risks.
Kevin Coley CMIIOSH, Dip2.OSH, EnvDipNEBOSH
Kevin has spent his entire working career involved in health and safety. A NEBOSH Examiner and tutor he enjoys being able to simplify complex situations in order to explain how legislation is applied.