Professor Micheal O'Donnell says he is suspicious of the idea of stress - and his results in cutting police force retirement suggest he may be on to something, writes Johanna Gornitzki
It may sound strange that someone like Professor Michael O'Donnell, who enjoys his job, could argue that "happiness at work is not necessarily the best thing to strive for".
However, far from being callous and unkind, Prof O'Donnell's standpoint stems from his belief that striving for happiness will only make employees feel unfulfilled.
"I found that happiness is usually something that has happened in the past and striving for it would only make people unhappy. Instead, they should try to be content with what they do for a living," he explains.
Prof O'Donnell's career began in 1975 after he qualified as a medical student. However, after working as a GP for nearly a decade, he found that general practice was not rewarding enough and decided to specialise in occupational medicine.
Having found his niche, Prof O'Donnell has worked in occupational medicine for 21 years, holding down various roles including working for the oil and petrochemical industries in the Middle East and running occupational health services for the Sussex Police. He is currently chief medical officer for UnumProvident, where he has been for four years.
As part of his role, Prof O'Donnell is supervising the work undertaken at the provider's research centre in Cardiff – a five-year partnership between Cardiff University and UnumProvident which aims to explore why people respond differently to the same disease and why it may render some people unable to work while others continue.
Prof O'Donnell and his team of researchers are trying to understand the relationship between health and work and why work makes us healthier and happier.
"It is always worse for your health being unemployed than being employed and ill health is strongly linked to being jobless," he says.
"What we are hoping from Cardiff is to get a greater understanding of issues surrounding absence. In particular, we want to identify people with real risk of long-term absence as this could help develop a better approach to intervention and how to help with claims early on," he says.
Prof O'Donnell thinks there are two main challenges when trying to get people back to work – the absent employee and the employer.
He explains: "The employee may be frightened to return to work and the employer may be worried about pushing them too early.
"However, you have to cancel all these beliefs because the resistance is just a matter of fear."
He believes early intervention is critical when trying to get absent employees back to work. And the best way to intervene is to make sure you engage with the person off work. "Get them to visit work, talk to them and try to get them to engage with what is happening at their workplace. That way, they will not feel left behind.
"It is important not to ignore people who are absent because as soon as they feel isolated they start disengaging with what is happening in their work life. While hardly anyone intends to be long-term sick a lack of intervention could easily lead to days becoming months," Prof O'Donnell says.
He believes occupational health (OH) services could help employers interact with absent employees in the correct way.
"OH services work as a bridge between the employer and the absent employee, helping the employer to understand what the can do in terms of aiding their absentee to get back to work while at the same time offering support to the employee," Prof O'Donnell explains.
Over recent years, mental health problems have become the most common reason for long-term sickness absence, accounting for a quarter to a third of all UnumProvident's income protection (IP) claims compared with only half in 1995.
While Prof O'Donnell applauds the fact that it has become more acceptable to admit having mental health problems, he is concerned that there is an increased emphasis on work-related stress.
"In my view stress is a very unhelpful concept. It does not actually mean anything and it is very subjective. Its premises are somewhat questionable.
"Firstly, it suggests emotions are harmful for you and secondly, rather than dealing with the emotions that are causing the feeling of stress it allows people to withdraw from the situation that is causing the real problems," he says.
Prof O'Donnell even believes that the concept itself could be harmful and effectively lead to further absence. "It injects the wrong idea in people and makes them behave in a certain way.
"It makes people interpret unhappiness or dissatisfaction as being unhealthy. But while they may not like their job, that is not an illness," he argues.
The problem, he explains, is that people who think they are ill are just as unwell as people who actually are ill. "Therefore, you need to look at the person as a whole and that is what we are trying to do at Cardiff," he says.
Prof O'Donnell tried to take this approach when he worked for the Sussex Police. And it must have worked because over three years he managed to cut the proportion of people retiring due to ill health from 44% to 16%.
While trying to figure out how to get people back to work is his main mission, Prof O'Donnell is equally concerned that people do not have the adequate protection should they need it. The protection gap currently stands at £2.3trn.
Prof O'Donnell believes the new pension legislation has further exacerbated the problem by denying employees the option to pay into final salary schemes leaving them less protected than before.
"There is also a big difference between people's expectations and what they will get," he adds.
It has not helped that IP – the number one protection product that would protect someone's income should they fall ill and become unable to work – is seen as extremely complex.
"This has only added to the problem. I think employers worry about the legal aspects if they reject a claim and that employees lack any real understanding of how little they would get if they were unable to work.Because if they did, they would value the proposition more," he says.
In other countries, such as the US, the market is much more penetrated, with a majority of people having IP through their companies.
What are the reasons behind the success in the US, asks Prof O'Donnell, pointing out that the answer to this question could be crucial for the UK market.
Prof O'Donnell thinks the IP market is heading towards a brighter future.
With the NHS continuing to face difficulties, he believes there will be a move towards increased private healthcare provision.
Age discrimination legislation coming into effect in October this year is also likely to create a push for the group IP market.
Above all, though, Prof O'Donnell argues the market has to invent a simpler and more affordable product that would be easier to understand and more attractive to employers and employees if the market is to see a real uptake in sales.
"I think we need to look at shorter term products as well as shorter deferment periods, which would truly suit the needs of the customer. Because in the end, you can only sell what people want to buy," he says.
The news that UnumProvident is launching a new product in the summer suggests Prof O'Donnell has set the wheels in motion.
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