Linking work and health: the role of nurses

 Helen Donovan 2 Sep 2019

This blog has been co-authored by Helen Donovan, Public Health Professional Lead at the Royal College of Nursing and Professor Viv Bennett, Chief Nurse and Director of Nursing, Maternity and Early Years at Public Health England.


Professor Viv Bennett, Public Health England

Being in good work is better for health than being out of work. ‘Good work’ is defined as having a safe and secure job with good working hours and conditions, supportive management and opportunities for training and development.

There is clear evidence that good work improves people’s health and wellbeing and protects against social exclusion . Meaningful work contributes to our purpose in life and can enrich and fulfil our sense of self-worth. Conversely, unemployment is bad for health and wellbeing, as it is associated with an increased risk of and morbidity and premature death.

For many people with long-term conditions such as mental health problems, musculoskeletal (MSK) conditions and disabilities, health issues can present a barrier to both gaining and retaining employment.

Most healthcare professionals already recognise the link between good work and good health. That is why the Royal College of Nursing led the way in signing up to the 2019 Health and Work Consensus Statement for Action, alongside the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges and the Allied Health Professions Federation – this sets out our shared commitment to support healthcare professionals in helping people to stay in or return to work.

This commitment and the adoption of the consensus statement are significant milestones helping embed this ambition into everyday practice. Not only does the Consensus Statement demonstrate a shared vision; it also outlines the four key actions to support nurses in proactively supporting this agenda:

  1. Understand the health benefits of good work, and the long-term effects of avoidable health related worklessness 
  2. Have the skill to incorporate discussions about working in the context of a health outcome with patients in their care, as appropriate to the health or disability of that individual 
  3. Feel supported to understand and interact with the wider health and work system employers, occupational health services and other bodies that have a role in assisting individuals who are not working for health-related reasons 
  4. Recognise their own role to support healthy and safe working environments, looking after their own health and well-being and those of their colleagues.

As nurses, our time with patients is often limited, but making a brief, positive intervention can help people consider the importance of work to their health. This can be as simple as asking a patient “How is work?” Not only can this give a snapshot of the patient’s health and happiness at work; it can start a conversation that indicates the most appropriate intervention or advice, if needed.

  • Two new resources are now available to help nurses with these conversations
  • The Work and Health e-learning from Public Heath England and Health Education England provides a quick and practical source for improved knowledge and practice
  • The evidence-based modules include advice on work for people with mental health and musculoskeletal problems and older adults. It also includes a module on self-care for healthcare professionals, in recognition of our roles and the need for us to look after our own well-being as well as that of our patients.

You can also pick up advice from the new All Our Health e-learning tool on workplace health. It is free to use and offers bitesize information and practical advice to help professionals prevent illness, protect health and promote well-being at work. This tool is one of many developed using PHE’s All Our Health framework, a collection of materials, tools and resources to support prevention priorities to help reduce health inequalities and premature mortality. 

Good work is good for you and your patients – and with the right support and guidance, health professionals can help people to achieve their working potential and the health benefits this can bring.

Helen Donovan

Helen Donovan

RCN Professional Lead for Public Health


Helen has wide nursing experience working within the NHS and in local authority public health teams, as well as in health protection. She has a special interest in immunisation.

Further resources

Page last updated - 04/09/2019