Occupational health

Having a robust occupational health service and working in partnership with them can lead to increased productivity, reduced absence and money saved.

5 February 2020

An excellent occupational health (OH) service can help the NHS become more productive, reduce sickness absence and save money. For OH to have the greatest impact on the organisation it should work in partnership with key stakeholders including, for example, human resources, health and safety, and more crucially managers. Managers need to be aware what services OH provides and feel able to approach and access them for support and advice when this is needed.

What is occupational health?

Occupational health is a specialist branch of medicine focusing on the health of staff in the workplace. OH professionals aim to find out what impact work has on staff health and make sure that staff are fit to undertake the role they are employed to do both physically and emotionally. OH specialists can support organisations through advising on work-related illnesses and accidents, carrying out assessments for new starters and existing employees, monitoring the health of employees and prevention. OH services are also used to assist organisations in managing both short and long-term absence situations.

The opinion of an OH specialist may be crucial in determining how to manage a capability issue, and the opinion of an OH specialist can be key evidence in an employment tribunal claim. OH typically advises staff and their managers on what adjustments can be made to enable staff to undertake their role safely and effectively and wherever possible, focus on adapting the work to suit the health needs of the staff member.

What services does occupational health provide?

They provide a range of services designed specifically to meet the needs of each NHS organisation. Many of these services are proactive, aimed at keeping staff well and at work and not just about supporting staff when they are ill.

Occupational health activities are likely to include:

  • ensuring compliance with health and safety regulations - and helping maintain a healthy workforce
  • offering pre-employment health assessments
  • preventing and removing health risks arising in the workplace and advising on ergonomic issues and workplace design
  • providing screening and surveillance services in the initial stages of ill health and developing solutions to keep staff with health issues at work
  • providing independent and professional diagnosis, prognosis and advice on staff unable to work due to long-term or short-term intermittent health problems, and organisational wide steps to reduce sickness absence
  • lifestyle, health promotion and wellbeing services increasing productivity and staff retention.

What are the benefits of occupational health services at work?

Having a workplace OH service gives staff and managers rapid access to professional specialist advice which will help protect, maintain and support staff with health issues in the workplace. OH has the advantage of being able to work closely with the manager to understand the complexities of roles within an NHS organisation and can therefore suggest adjustments and support which someone without that knowledge and understanding may not be able to offer.

Realigning occupational health services

Dame Carol Black's report Working for a Healthier Tomorrow identified an expanded role for OH. It saw a need to re-configure OH services to address challenges including uneven provision, inconsistent quality, and a diminishing workforce.

Both our own and NHS Health at Work's guidance underpins the need to have all NHS OH services accredited to the SEQOHS standards and are specifically written for an HR audience. The guidance works towards ensuring that NHS staff (and NHS organisations) have an OH service which improves health and wellbeing and provides a proactive service. NHS Health at Work published a template Service Level Agreement (SLA) (which is currently being updated) for OH services to use with their providers.

Previously, the government published Healthy Staff, Better Care for Patients: Realignment of Occupational Health Services to the NHS in England. The guidance sets out recommendations aimed to help achieve the vision that suppliers of OH services to the NHS should play a key role in the delivery of safe, effective and efficient patient care through promoting and protecting the health of staff. Alongside this, the Department of Health and Social Care's document supporting the commissioning of OH services, provides support and direction for commissioners and providers to establish OH departments that deliver services that meet the full breadth of NHS staff health and wellbeing needs.

Useful information

Consolidation of NHS occupational health services

To support the future consolidation of NHS OH services, we've produced two documents to support occupational health leaders, HR directors and boards in commissioning OH services and understanding what commissioned OH services should be delivering for their organisations.

Download our guidance: Commissioning occupational health services
Download our guidance: Your occupational health service