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Cary Cooper

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Tackling health and wellbeing: why we created the National Forum for Health and Wellbeing at Work


Professor Sir Cary Cooper, CBE, is the 50th Anniversary Professor of Organizational Psychology and Health at Alliance Manchester Business School, President of the CIPD and Co-Chair of the National Forum for Health and Wellbeing at Work. We asked him to tell us more about why the forum was set up, and what it hopes to achieve.

A concerning trend in the UK and other developing countries is that, according to a recent CIPD report, common mental disorders including anxiety, depression and stress are the leading causes of sickness absences.

Add the fact that job satisfaction and security are still at a very low level since the recession, and that UK productivity per worker being one of the worst in respect of our global competitors, and the need for improved health and wellbeing at work comes into sharp focus.

A year ago, a group of HR Directors and Chief Medical Officers of leading global companies and major public sector bodies came together to discuss what could be done to tackle the issue, enhance national employee satisfaction and make inroads into dealing with our poor productivity record.  

A time for action

In the inaugural gathering of the National Forum for Health and Wellbeing at Work, it was felt by senior people in HR and occupational health that there was no focal point for ‘action’ for improving the health of UK employees in the public and public sectors, although numerous ‘talking shops’ already exist.

Leading employer organisations can stimulate a movement to change policy and practice to make the workplace in the UK and globally better, by inspiring people and organisations to challenge their thinking about the opportunities that healthy high performing people can bring to work and the economy.  

The overall objective is to change practice and policy in the health and wellbeing arena

Representing some of the big UK and global employers, the Forum meets quarterly and comprises of 21 HR Directors and Chief Medical Officers from major companies including BT, Rolls Royce, NHS England, Empactis, Shell, John Lewis Partnership, Deloitte, GSK, BUPA, Marks & Spencer’s, Barclays, BP, UK Government Wellbeing Lead, Civil Service Employee Policy, Serco, Pentland Group, Tesco, Alliance Manchester Business School, HSE, HSE Labs and Public Health England.

The overall objective is to change practice and policy in the health and wellbeing arena, and to reinforce the evidence and belief that “good health is good for business, good business is good for health”.

A centre for guidelines

Topics are determined by the group at the beginning of the year, with some fascinating issues to tackle in 2017.  

With the help of international experts, we will be exploring issues such as the role of line managers in creating healthier workplaces and enhancing productivity; the impact of technology on working peoples’ lives; the impact of multi-generational workforce on health and wellbeing; the effect of a long working hours culture and its impact on health, and flexible working; and how we can help the SME sector to create ‘good work’.

With the support of leading scholars, The Forum develops policies and guidelines for good practice, and then works with relevant government departments, businesses and public sector bodies, to create awareness of new ways of working with the aim to improve conditions for employers and employees across the country.

We will be exploring issues such as the role of line managers in creating healthier workplaces

In early December 2016, Professor Sharon Clarke, of Alliance Manchester Business School, provided a review of the evidence on the role of line managers in the health and wellbeing of employees.  This evidence-based review identified the fact that a high proportion of line managers do not have the social and interpersonal skills essential to support and nurture people who have high workloads, excessive pressure and working longer and longer hours to cope.  

The Forum came to a conclusion that UK business schools need to train their MBA and undergraduate management students in ‘people management skills’, something they currently do not do, concentrating more on cognitive input of the various management disciplines.

Our most valuable resource

Already, a meeting is being arranged early in 2017 between the Chartered Association of Business Schools, The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, the Chartered Management Institute and the British Academy of Management (all responsible in one way or another for the development of UK and global managers), together with some members of the Forum, to come up with solutions to this problem which can be implemented as soon as is feasible.  

This should have positive implications for the health of employees, and could also help to close the productivity gap that has existed in the UK for over two decades. This is only one strand of action the Forum will be taking, with two other actions to ensure that line managers truly action the commonly heard management speak: “the most valuable resource we have is our human resource!”

The workplace has come a long way since the industrial revolution in the technological advance of business, but we haven’t learned the lessons so aptly put by the great British social reformer John Ruskin in 1871 when he wrote “In order that people may be happy in their work, these three things are needed: they must be fit for it, they must not do too much of it, and they must have a sense of success in it”.

The next topic we shall tackle in March/April 2017 will be the impact of emails and other communication technologies on the health and wellbeing of employees.

5 Responses

  1. An interesting post and once
    An interesting post and once again highlights the need for employers to look at the health and wellbeing of their teams. However, there is also a need to to address the reasons why employees are experiencing ill health (depression, stress,anxiety) and often this can be down to organisational culture. With an increasingly aging workforce, the demands of caring for elderly parents whilst also juggling work, ladies experiencing the difficulties which can accompany the peri-menopause and the menopause and some organisations offering little support to employees who are faced with these life events it is little wonder employees are experiencing ill health. When staff feel unable to talk to line managers/HR managers about these issues this can exacerbate the situation. Let’s start having conversations about these life events and difficult situations, which, let’s face it, at some point in our lives most of us will have to contend with.

    1. Very true Liz – hopefully the
      Very true Liz – hopefully the forum will go some way to also educating employers about how to proactively avoid mental ill health among employees and create a more open, understanding and caring environment.

      1. I also support your excellent
        I also support your excellent point Liz.

        While I applaud the intention of the group that has been formed, I continue to plead with HR and IR folk to use their experience and qualifications to engage front-line managers so that they are the focus of all things managerial. As has always been the case, they are the ones who ultimately have the responsibility to implement whatever management require. Therefore, they must be the ones involved; the ones supported; and the ones consulted on these and all personnel issues.

        It is not the role of HR and IR specialists to implement these changes…………it is their job to assist/support/engage/call-it-what-you-will their front-line managers get the changes in place and be monitored and then improved.

        I will be greatly heartened if this very high-powered group at least considers this long established and highly successful approach. What was relevant in 1871 is just as relevant today.

        Cheers. DonR.

  2. Good to see more movement
    Good to see more movement happening in the sphere of health and wellbeing at work. I agree with Lizdm that organisational culture can be an important factor in employee health. I read many articles about companies improving health and wellbeing at work and even though the approaches are laudable, they rarely focus on the culture. But it’s the culture that can make or break these interventions. If the (implicit) culture is ‘get the work done at any cost’, I’m not sure a health and wellbeing programme will have the intended impact. We can engage line managers consistently and to the best of our ability, but if leadership doesn’t engage and role model it in the organisation, then I wonder how successful will it be. In this movement, I would also like to see them define what they mean by ‘health’, a ‘healthy high performing employee’ and ‘good health’ as this would allow us to see the assumptions underpinning the definitions and sense check if they support the overall aim.

  3. It seems to me like the
    It seems to me like the intentions are great and the questions are coming from a misguided direction.

    For example, training people to have social skills under the relentless pressure of expectations, long hours, and increasing demands on time and delivering results.

    It doesn’t make sense. What we are saying here is that without those demands, managers know how to communicate and their social skills work well.

    As the quote at the end suggests – the issue isn’t that people need training in how to have social skills – it’s that people need less on their minds and some of the pressure and demands released.

    I don’t know about you but I find that I’m a lot more compassionate and generous in my communication when I’m not over-worked and being asked to constantly over deliver

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Cary Cooper


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