What does good health look like in the 21st Century – a work perspective

Nicola Hunter gives her thoughts on the challenges we are facing in the workforce.  On May 2nd Julie Denning, from W2W will be presenting at the joint RCOT/ SOM / VRA symposium “Good Work for Good Health – What Role Can You Play?

 Health challenges

In order to understand what good health looks like in the 21st Century in relation to work we need to understand some of the health challenges that exist more generally.

 We have an ageing working population. People in the UK are living longer than ever before which is a major achievement of modern science and healthcare, and as retirement age extends, older people are going to make up a growing proportion of the workforce.

As one ages, there is an increase in the likelihood of developing one or more long term health condition. Therefore, people could be managing one or more long term health condition whilst also holding down a full time job. Work will therefore have an impact on health and health on work in terms of attendance and productivity.

In the UK there is a growing epidemic of obesity with associated health problems; diabetes, cardiovascular disease cancers and orthopaedic problems.

We are also living sedentary lifestyles than ever before – people are engaging in little physical activity and have low energy expenditure mainly due to sitting for long periods of time, using computers, playing passive video games, travelling in cars and watching television/box sets (who doesn’t like Suits?!). Scientific evidence has shown a direct link between increased sedentary time and decreased fitness, poor self-esteem, weak academic performance, and obesity and poor health.


Good Health

So what is ‘good’ health? The word “health” refers to a state of complete emotional and physical well-being.

  • Health can be defined as physical, mental, and social wellbeing, and as a resource for living a full life.
  • It is not only the absence of disease, but the ability to recover and bounce back from illness and other problems.
  • Factors for good health include genetics, the environment, relationships, and education.
  • A healthy diet, regular activity, exercise and mental resilience or coping strategies enhance a person’s health.


The role of you, the employer?

Healthy lifestyles are the responsibility of the individual but given that people spend more time at work than at home, there is a tremendous opportunity for employers to support healthy lifestyles and general wellbeing. This is not an entirely altruistic behaviour on the part of the employer, a healthy employee is likely to be more productive resulting in a healthy bottom line. A win-win for all.


How do the best organisations do it?

Excellent employers take a strategic approach to health at work and often have some of the following attributes:

  • They look at employees health and wellbeing on a continuum from wellbeing through to absence management.
  • They take an integrated proactive approach which includes:
    • health and safety policy
    • wellbeing initiatives to keep people healthy at work
    • comprehensive occupational and vocational rehabilitation offering to support return to work following absence or sustaining work whilst managing a long term condition.
  • They have a strong focus on both physical and mental health and joining the dots between stakeholders.
  • They have a strong organisational culture where good health at work is promoted both top down and bottom up.
  • Healthy organisations usually have a CEO who positively role models good physical and mental health and who is supportive of company wellbeing strategy.
  • Such organisations are also likely to have wellbeing policies that permeate all aspects of working life and have support initiatives such as EAP’s, PMI, GIP and Occupational Health that are robust and easily accessible and known by every employee.


Good health and Good work

Good work has been shown to be good for an individual’s health. So what does ‘Good work’ look like?

Here are some suggestions, in no particular order:

  • The sale of healthy food in canteens and vending machines providing employees with a choice
  • Encouragement of activity and movement during the day to reduce sedentariness:
    • leave desks at lunch time and go out for fresh air or a walk,
    • to take the stairs not the lift,
    • to walk to communicate with colleagues rather than email,
    • Standing meetings and walking 1:1’s.
  • Reduce extended working hours. There is evidence that people who work shorter days work smarter and harder and are more productive, and have time to rest and play so they return to work refreshed
  • Create a physically and psychologically ‘safe’ workplace using HSE guidelines and tool kits
  • Increasing control over an individual’s area of work, including flexible working hours, clear objectives and tasks
  • Providing the resources for someone to do a good job.
  • Supportive work practices enabling good physical and mental health, e.g. reasonable working hours, flexibility for homeworking and child/parent care, workload management
  • Strong HR policies around bullying, discrimination and diversity/inclusion
  • Ensuring good work ‘fit’ of job role and individual competence, providing training and support where needed
  • Encourage social connection and engagement


To conclude, good health at work in the 21st Century looks multifactorial. It involves maintaining both physical and mental health and having the resources and opportunities provided by the employer to facilitate engagement in a healthy work and personal lifestyle. The outcome: Good Work and Good Health.


Working To Wellbeing (W2W) provides consultancy and intervention for health and wellbeing at work. We provide wellbeing and rehabilitation services, supporting employees with physical health, mental health and long term conditions, the 3 key causes of presenteeism and absence. We join the dots between the physical and mental health issues that cause and perpetuate poor health.

Our specialist clinicians are highly trained to provide a truly integrated service that results in health behaviour change and optimum work capability.