A focus on workplace health has never been more important, both at an individual level and an economic one. Professor Dame Carol Black tells Maggie Williams how a change in attitude to workplace wellness is long overdue

wellness on a budget

“We need to embed health and wellbeing into the workplace,” asserts Professor Dame Carol

Black, Principal of Newnham College Cambridge and expert adviser on health and work to NHS England and Public Health England.

“Bowls of fruit and cycle schemes are very nice but they are plastering over the cracks. Employers need to be prepared to address the difficult stuff.”

Black is speaking at the British Safety Council’s annual conference and her message is clear. “Mental health needs to be a business issue. The economic cost is high and you can’t expect managers to understand this without training.”

Making sure that managers get that support and training needs to be part of an organisation’s culture, she adds. “The top of the house has to be committed”, to the extent that Black is in favour of boards appointing a non-executive director with a remit for workplace health.

Achieving that goal isn’t easy, however. “I fully appreciate how difficult this is to achieve.” That partly comes down to the challenges involved in building the business case for wellbeing affecting your bottom line. “Tools for doing this are now becoming available, and there are an increasing number of UK companies using them to good effect.”

Black points to the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) guidelines for workplace health, released in June 2015, as a starting point for businesses. The guidelines focus on six key areas:

  • physical work environment
  • mental wellbeing at work
  • fairness, justice, participation, and trust
  • senior leadership
  • line managers’ role, leadership style, and training
  • job design.

She says: “Line managers are THE most important factor. If I could address only one thing out of the NICE guidelines, it would be line manager training with a focus on mental health - understanding what human behaviour is all about. Managers need to get the best out of people, to listen to them and build trust. If you do this, you’ll have a worker who will be more willing to be engaged. But people often think it’s just a nice-to-have.”

Despite a challenging landscape, Black believes change is achievable, especially when there are exemplars to draw on at sector level. “Get one or two champions to push best practice in an industry sector and it can make a huge difference.” She cites the 2012 Olympic project as an example of outstanding practice that has influenced the wider construction sector. The build had an accident frequency rate of 0.17 per 100,000 hours worked - less than half the average for the construction industry. Strategies to improve employee engagement and manage health and wellbeing on the Olympic site helped to keep accident rates low. “The message is that if there is a role model in your industry, you’d better join in. Construction workers, for example, can now discuss their working conditions and apply peer pressure.”

“We need a modern approach to occupational health,” concludes Black. That, she says, comes from a good health and safety at work offering, line manager training, flexible working, and also empowering individuals to act on their own health and wellbeing. “We can bring these things together, it is doable,” she asserts. The productivity and engagement benefits to business are then clear: “A resilient worker is much better for business than a non-resilient one.”


Professor Dame Carol Black principal, Newnham College Cambridge, and expert adviser on health and work for the Department of Health and Public Health England

This article first appeared in Reward's new research report, Wellbeing in the Workplace 2017. To read the report in full, CLICK HERE