An excellent occupational health (OH) service for staff can help the NHS be more productive, reduce sickness absence, improve retention and save money. For OH to have the greatest impact on an organisation it should work in partnership with key stakeholders including human resources, health and safety, infection prevention and control, and, more crucially, managers. Managers need to be aware of what services OH provides and feel able to approach these services for support and advice when 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 and give advice on adjustments in the workplace to assist staff to remain in work.
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?
OH 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, for example by completing risk assessments.
- 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 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?
Having a workplace OH service gives staff and managers rapid access to professional specialist advice which will help protect, retain, 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 that someone without that knowledge and understanding may not be able to offer. This can support staff with staying healthy and in work, which can increase retention in line with the renewed focus on this as set out by the NHS Long Term Workforce Plan.
A healthy and happy workforce is also another step towards improved patient care, so ensuring OH services are delivering the best service possible is imperative.
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.
The NHS Growing occupational health and wellbeing (OHWB) together is a five-year strategy to improve health and wellbeing services for NHS people, to keep them safe, healthy and empowered to pass good care onto our patients.
This strategy now forms a mandate for action for integrated care systems and NHS organisations as part of whole system workforce planning, demonstrating the importance placed on looking after the health and wellbeing of our NHS people in the workplace. They have also developed a draft directory of services around what a good OHWB function may likely need to have in-house or commission in, which can be viewed here.
Useful guidance for implementing occupational health
To support the implementation of robust NHS occupational health services, we've produced two documents to support OH leaders, HR directors and boards in commissioning OH services and understanding what these services should be delivering for their organisations.
This guidance is to support commissioning teams in procuring the best possible occupational health services for staff.
This guidance aims to support occupational health leaders, HR directors and boards to ensure they are clear about what they can expect from an occupational health service. It also provides guidance on how they can monitor that service to ensure it delivers the best support to staff.
Careers in occupational health
OH is a rewarding and interesting career, and one that allows a good work/life balance. Whatever your background or interests there is a wide range of career options to explore. Take a look at the SOM careers page for more information.