Reviewing the work and health research landscape

Man having panic attack in office, photo by Pixel-Shot/Adobe Stock

Pixel-Shot/Adobe Stock

Researchers mapped the funding landscape for work and health research in the UK for the first time. They examined how much has been spent in the area since 2015, what types of research topic are funded and what the priorities for future work and health research should be.

What is the issue?

Good work is important for physical and mental health and wellbeing. Many workers in the UK suffer poor health, most commonly mental health or musculoskeletal conditions. Additionally, unemployment can also have harmful effects on an individual’s health.

Research in this area is critical to help find solutions to these widespread issues. The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) commissioned RAND Europe to conduct a study on the landscape of funding for research on health and employment in the UK.

How did we help?

Through desk research of publicly available databases, and interviews with work and health researchers and funders, we examined the level of funding for work and health research in the UK since 2015; what the funding was spent on — in terms of type of research and topic; and identified needs for future work and health research.

The study provided an overview of the research funded by UK funding bodies since 2015, including details on the involved research institutions and funders and policy relevance. A second strand of the research helped to assist the Work and Health Unit (WHU) – a joint unit between DHSC and the Department for Work and Pensions – to formulate a future research strategy.

What did we find?

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  • Our research found that £31m has been invested in work and health research by not-for-profit and public funders since 2015. Fifty-six per cent of that funding went to research conducted by academics and less than one per cent of all funding was spent on scholarships or fellowships.
  • The top five topics examined in work and health research since 2015 are: mental health (49 per cent); general long-term physical disability (11 per cent); general health and wellbeing (9 per cent); lifestyle areas (8 per cent); and occupational health (7 per cent).
  • The top five methodologies used are: clinical / randomised controlled trials; (other non-experimental) evaluations of interventions; longitudinal studies; cross-sectional studies; and scoping reviews.
  • The main priorities for future work and health research in the UK which emerged from interviews are: the work and health implications of the COVID-19 pandemic; the role of occupational health services; implementation research; and interventions in the workplace.

What can be done?

  • Our review was intentionally limited to databases with public access to information about the funded research and supplemented only by data held by the WHU. However, future attempts to map the work and health research landscape should include smaller funders (also from the private sector) which would provide a more accurate picture but would require more time and resources.
  • Work and health interventions can be costly. This only emphasises the importance of research and calls for more work and health research funding in future.
  • More funding is needed to develop career paths and support for work and health researchers to ensure there is future research expertise in this area. Policymakers, funders and researchers need to consider whose responsibility this should be and how it could be addressed.
  • To robustly answer the question about future priorities for work and health research funding, a proper systematic process involving broad consultations with a wide range of stakeholders (including policymakers, researchers, employer and trade union representatives) could be carried out.