Addressing health inequalities: creating aspiration and healthy working conditions

To truly address health inequalities, policy strategy must be devised at a multi-level society approach. Building on from the previous article on Addressing Health Inequalities: Empowering young people to live healthy lifestyles, the next area of policy strategy should be at the workplace.

From the dramatic rise in unemployment rates in the 1980s, research was conducted which revealed poorer health outcomes across all social gradient levels, from those both in and out of employment.

Using the recommendations of the ‘Marmot Review: Fair Society, Healthy Lives’, the Labour Party ought to create a policy which could change the culture of working life and conditions as a vehicle to reduce health inequalities. Within the review, the two principal aims were to create fair employment and good work for all, and ensure a healthy standard living for all.

Insufficient funds, health inequality, and a reform of the welfare system

At home, a lack of income and money are a key driving factor in living an unhealthy and unstable lifestyle, leading to a significant cause of health inequalities.

The benefits system is one of the most significant creations of the welfare state, raising many children and families out of poverty. But in the 21st century, its structure must be overhauled and updated to meet the modern challenges faced by many British people today.

Firstly, it must be appropriately government-funded to support those who are unable to work and thus require the support of the welfare state to ensure their needs to live a good standard of living. Secondly, it is important to reconstruct the system so that it does not act as a disincentive or alternative to employment.

Employment is a known protective factor for good health, whereas unemployment contributes to poor health. Lone parents often worry that once they enter employment, and their earnings rise, tax credit and means-tested benefits will be withdrawn. A solution to this could be a tax cut for low-income jobs and/or employers to meet the ‘Real Living Wage’, both designed to stimulate the economy.

Good working conditions are essential

Even with employment acting as a protective factor for health, inequalities can only be reduced if good working conditions are also established.

Typically, low-income jobs involve those with caring responsibilities, people with disabilities, mental health disorders, lone parents, those from some ethnic minority groups, older workers and, in particular, young people. These jobs typically have poorer working conditions and are harmful to health.

Policy strategy must look to promote good working conditions, especially for low-income wages, as a key for addressing health inequalities.

The Labour Party must continue to champion for employers to offer their workers the ‘Real Living Wage’. Otherwise, we are accepting a country where good people who have jobs and are contributing to society, earn below the needs for themselves and their families.

Flexible working in Scandinavian countries and the health benefits

Scandinavian countries have some of the most progressive social reform policy in the world, and when looking at their methods, it is clear that ‘flexible working’ is a key way to maximise productivity.

Finland proved to provide the most flexible working schedules, with 92 percent of companies allowing workers to adapt their hours, compared to the UK with 79 percent, and the USA with just 50 percent. In 1996, and then 2020, Scandinavian countries introduced two Working Hours Act; the first, allowing workers to adjust the daily working hours by starting and finishing up to three hours earlier or later, the second allowing almost all workers to decide when and where they work for at least half of their working hours.

This form of progressive policy is shown to meet the ever-growing nature of the world by changing the concept of a ‘workplace’ to a ‘working place’. As people start to settle-down away from the big cities, policy should look to meet this trend in order to boost and maximise the UK workforce.

Work-life balance

OECD figures also show that Scandinavian countries rank in the top 10 in the world for best work-life balance. Only 4 percent of employers in Finland work over 50 hours a week, considerably lower than in the western world. On top of this, employees in these countries were found to do the most exercise amongst other European countries.

In part of this shift to encourage people to maintain a good work-life balance, policy should be devised where sessions are delivered to workers on how to live a healthy lifestyle. Similar to the previous article for early years interventions, ideas for sessions include healthy eating, managing finances, how to manage your mental health etc.

Employment is one of the greatest tools to addressing health inequalities. The benefits system needs to be re-structured to support those in need of the welfare state but does not act as a disincentive for excluded groups to enter the employment ladder.

Incorporating some of the social and economic policies of Scandinavian countries could help change the culture of work in the UK where productivity is maintained, but workers can sustain a work-life balance. The government should work with businesses to design and implement these policy changes that look to empower individuals to have control of their lives.

This is the second of a three-part series by Hasnain Khan, looking at addressing health inequalities. Hasnain is a medical student at the University of Sheffield and was president of the Sheffield MedSoc 2020-21. He is the vice-chair of the Yorkshire Socialists Health Association, running ‘Rethink Healthcare’ policy workshops to shape regional and national health policy.

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