Will ‘Brexit’ lead to employers slashing spending on workplace health?

What will ‘Brexit’ mean for UK workplace health, wellbeing and health and safety?

From process to timescales, “Brexit” has led to severe political and economic turmoil. But what does – and could – it mean for UK workplace health, wellbeing and health and safety now & in the future?

Theresa May has now served formal notice of the UK’s intention to leave the EU, signalling the start of the official negotiation period over the terms of our exit. Whether you’re celebrating Britain’s “independence” or in dismay about “Brexit”, debate remains unclear on the impact that leaving the EU could have an effective on domestic workplace health and wellbeing.

Opinion is divided between hope and concern, and yet, both evidence and experience might now denote a positive outcome. One way or another, leaving the EU will inevitably have a strong ripple effect on the UK workplace health and wellbeing landscape.

The obvious and perhaps most tangible concern commonly voiced is the knock-on impact should the UK economy spiral down into a Brexit-fuelled economic recession.

Already, of course, we’ve seen the original and immediate volatility on the financial and currency markets last summer, which led to the governor of the Bank of England Mark Carney declaring that the economic risks of the referendum vote are starting to “crystallise.

The key here in terms of workplace health and wellbeing is the potential indirect effect any prolonged downturn could have on spending, and appetite for spending, by employers. Essentially, if employers lose confidence in the wider economic climate, one possible casualty could be health and wellbeing benefits budgets.

Indeed the pound weakened sharply following the referendum, and ten months on hasn’t properly recovered since, but nonetheless the overall economic weakness predicted hasn’t in fact materialised. The UK economy has in fact grown more strongly than most developed countries and according to BHWA Director Charlotte Cross, this is reflected in the workplace health and wellbeing sector too.

"Many alliance members are now reporting significant upturn in service take-up and subsequent expansion plans. Similarly, employers remain undeterred in their increasing moves toward improving staff health and wellbeing."  

So it appears – at least for now – we are seeing the other side of this coin; in a financially straitened and uncomfortably uncertain climate, it has become even more important for employers to ensure their employees are present and productive at work, rather than off sick, with a resulting persistent growth in focussing more on health and wellbeing.

There is now a recognition among many employers that spending on health is now a “must have” rather than a “nice to have” if you’re serious about wanting to keep your employees firing on all cylinders and, very simply, fit and actually present at work.

This is something also highlighted by Alex Goldsmith, chief executive of OH provider Medigold Health. Even some of the “softer” spend around occupational and workplace health, proactive measures such as general wellbeing initiatives, training and health promotion activity, could well come under closer scrutiny, he suggests.

A further area where we might, in time, see a knock-on from Brexit is in that much-vaunted EU “red tape”. The consensus here is that we’re unlikely to see UK politicians having the time or the appetite to trawl back through and unpick years and years of EU-led health and safety regulation and legislation.

To that end, therefore, any change in the regulatory landscape is unlikely to happen overnight. But, once out of the EU – depending of course on what that looks like – there are those that fear we might see a gradual change in future health and safety policy, law and regulation.

Concerns voiced last year by Richard Jones, head of policy and public affairs at the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health, are no less valid now than they were immediately following the referendum. At the time, he commented

“Post-Brexit, the UK now has less influence over EU law. Now we’re exiting, it’s vital the UK continues to apply our successful risk-based health and safety system, which includes laws from EU directives, because it’s been found to be fit for purpose by several independent reviews and is respected and imitated across the world.”

Nonetheless, of late and despite all the uncertainty, we have moved forward. The Government has responded – at least in ideology – with its reassurance that emphasis on both health and safety will indeed remain a priority, as pledged within last month’s ‘Brexit’ White Paper which designates the protection of workers’ rights as one of the 12 core principles which will guide negotiations for the UK’s exit.  

And confidence has increased accordingly. Confirming IOSH’s formal support of the white paper proposals, Jones commented more recently that Government’s  

“commitment that the UK will remain a world-leader on workers’ rights and will ensure adequate legal protections in the changing labour market – all essential for ensuring safe and healthy working conditions across the sectors”

Time is on our side too. For the short-to-medium-term at least, it is unlikely that UK health and safety law will be subject to drastic change and employers are embracing health and wellbeing for all of the right reasons, offering stability to their organisations in an uncertain climate. Longer-term, disengagement from the EU may well trigger a review of which health and or safety legislations remain useful to the UK on social or economic terms. There is the potential for change here, but in line with current Government agendas, rather than stripping away we could anticipate increasing priority for workplace health. 

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