Page last updated at 23:56 GMT, Friday, 3 April 2009 00:56 UK

Workplace illness 'to get worse'

Office worker
Rates of illness are predicted to soar

An ageing workforce and higher rates of illness and disease among employees will pose a serious threat to British business by 2030, a report warns.

Private healthcare company Bupa estimates the number of workers with chronic conditions will rise by at least 7% to more than four million.

Rates of mental illness and serious diseases, such as heart problems, will also soar.

Bupa warns the problem will damage all companies' long-term productivity.

The commercial benefits of taking action on workplace health are clear as healthy employees can be nearly three times more productive than those in poor health
Dr Natalie-Jane Macdonald
Bupa UK Health Insurance

The report, published in partnership with The Work Foundation, The Oxford Health Alliance and RAND Europe, brings together more than 200 pieces of research to provide an insight into how the health of British workers will change over the next 20 years.

The study estimates that the average age of the workforce will reach 43, while 68 will become the average age of retirement by 2050.

The increasing age of the workforce will be one factor fuelling rates of ill health.

Musculoskeletal disease will rise by 8% to affect more than seven million people, while heart disease will rise by 11% to affect more than a million.

Rates of chronic diseases, such as diabetes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD) and asthma are all likely to increase sharply.

And rates of mental illness will rise by 5% to 4.2 million.

The UK government has encouraged British businesses to take a more pro-active approach to keeping their workers healthy.

This followed a review by Dame Carol Black, in 2008, which found ill-health in the working-age population is already costing Britain over £100bn a year.

Early warning

Dr Natalie-Jane Macdonald, of Bupa UK Health Insurance, said: "For the first time, we have a clear picture of the major health issues that will affect British workers over the next 20 years.

We have to make the working environment as emotionally healthy as possible
Professor Cary Cooper
University of Lancaster

"We know they will be older and sicker, with millions working with long-term diseases such as diabetes and COPD.

"Our report provides British businesses with an early warning of how the health needs of workers will change and, importantly, it gives them time to take action to keep their employees healthy, productive and at work.

"The commercial benefits of taking action on workplace health are clear as healthy employees can be nearly three times more productive than those in poor health."

Christine Hancock, director of the Oxford Health Alliance, said that because most people spent at least a third of their time at work, it inevitably had a significant impact on their health.

She said: "This report signals clearly to British businesses that unhealthy lifestyle behaviours, such as poor diet, smoking and lack of physical activity, will be a major factor driving up long-term diseases in the working population over the next 20 years.

"The good news is that these behaviours can all be easily and effectively tackled in the workplace, by encouraging and influencing change."

Working environment key

Professor Cary Cooper, an occupational health expert at the University of Lancaster, said there was plenty of evidence that working was good for people - the problem came when they had to cope with a poor working environment.

He said micro-managing, using punishment rather than praise, and fault finding all damaged employee health, as did the culture of consistently working excessively long hours.

Professor Cooper said: "We have to make the working environment as emotionally healthy as possible.

"If we can get that right now, then we will probably be able to temper some of these negative prognostications."

A second report is due out later this year which will offer employers advice on how best to tackle workplace health issues.

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