Good work for all, today and tomorrow

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The British Safety Council has produced a new literature review on how changes to the way we work are likely to change risks to our health, safety and wellbeing in the future.

Produced in collaboration with research team RobertsonCooper, Future risk: Impact of work on health, safety and wellbeing has highlighted that research linking emerging risks to rapid technological and demographic change needs to improve significantly if society is going to respond effectively to maintain people’s safety, health and wellbeing in the future.

The literature review has confirmed that we are living through fundamental and potentially disruptive change to how we live and work. It also makes five recommendations for government, business, trade unions and educators to ensure that we will be better prepared to face any health, safety and wellbeing risks that are likely follow these changes.

Promote good work and better- quality jobs

Though change is inevitable, how we respond to the changing world of work is not. Government and businesses in particular need to make sure they have the right policies to ensure work is safe, healthy and rewarding.

The state of our children’s and workers’ mental health in the UK continues to be a concern, and there is strong evidence to show that good work makes for healthier and more productive workers. New technology can do a lot to help by giving workers more tools for self-determination, and enable older people to stay fitter for longer. We urge businesses, trade unions and others to share their experience of good work and work design as the UK government implements its Industrial Strategy.

Work in the future will involve more collaboration between workers and intelligent machines. Photograph: iStock/zoranm

Build resilience for the future

The ability of workers to cope with the mental pressure of a changing world of work, including increased collaboration between workers and intelligent machines and robotics, is going to be a key attribute in the future. Worker health and wellbeing demands it and, at a macro level, if we are to have a sustainable and productive economy, then we must do more to help workers build their resilience.

Government needs to look at incentives – such as tax breaks – for employers to introduce health and wellbeing programmes, schools should include resilience and wellbeing in their curricula and employers should test innovative approaches and wellbeing programmes in consultation with workers and trade unions.

Ensure education is relevant and forward-thinking

There is a risk that changes to the world of work could leave ‘educators’ behind. If we create a more insecure and inexperienced workforce – who are therefore more likely to suffer injury or ill-health –risk education before work along with induction and training at work will become even more important.

Schools and training bodies need to focus on both soft skills such as collaboration, creativity and leadership – workers can take these skills with them as they change jobs, these skills are less prone to automation and will boost resilience – and skills associated with new technology, such as working in collaboration with intelligent machines and robots.

Occupational safety and health professionals, as well as safety representatives and HR professionals, should include in their development such training, with a larger emphasis on how to reduce ‘stressors’ and promote wellbeing and resilience. What’s key to the ability to do this is adaptability; educators are required to have a fexible mind-set focused on supporting individuals, from school education through to workforce development, to thrive in an ever-changing environment.

Schools need to provide skills such as the ability to work with intelligent machines or robots. Photograph: iStock / vchal

Keep the regulatory system up-to-date

Changes to the world of work presents challenges for how our legal and regulatory systems operate. With working networks, including those between humans and machines, sometimes operating across borders, there is a question about where ownership of the risk lies.

This leads us to a question about liability when things go wrong. The cost of ill health remains high, with PwC research estimating in 2013 that sickness absence costs UK businesses an estimated £29bn. As contracts between employers and workers become more diffuse – where people in the ‘gig’ economy are often not classified as workers– businesses might increasingly avoid the costs of sickness absence or employer’s liability insurance. Government should do more through its industrial strategy to enable gig-workers to take certain basic social protections and rights with them, wherever they work. Good work must be for all.

Extend the understanding of future risks

The report has highlighted some of the sweeping changes to work we are facing. It is vital that determining the risks of the future is a key priority for the research community and people practitioners. Existing research strongly indicates that there needs to be a greater emphasis on soft skills such as leadership, communication and innovation to face these future risks.

However, research on the risks of new technologies, new materials and new ways of working is quite thin in places. For example, research into the risks associated with real-world applications of nanomaterials and the impact on mental and physical health of insecurity or working as co-bots, would contribute to a more coherent view of current and future risks to worker health, safety and wellbeing.

Future Risk report available at: https://www.britsafe.org/campaigns-policy/future-risk/report/


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