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The Changing Role of Occupational Health

Posted by Conor Hoey on 18-July-2016 15:30:02


The workplace is continually evolving, influencing in different ways, the health agenda. The nature of work itself has changed in multiple ways, including vast technological and global trends and the shift from an industrial to a services- and knowledge-based economy. While risks to workers' health from physical hazards still exist, particularly in some industries, they have been significantly reduced economy-wide. However they have been replaced by the hazards of this new working environment.

Today’s workforce faces the challenges of the 24/7 “always on” society. Stress, sedentary lifestyle and the risks of processed, convenience foods mean that many employees work under physical, mental and emotional health risks as well as learning to live with chronic illnesses such as Type II diabetes.

How does Occupational Health (OH) adapt to this changing environment?

OH has its background in Occupational Health and Safety, acting as a mechanism through which an organisation could monitor how work affects the health of their employees and try to proactively mitigate against risks while also providing care for anyone who suffers an injury at work or a decline in their health due to prolonged exposure to hazards such as repetitive sprain injury or work related stress. Such incidents are referred to as 'Cases', with each case being managed towards the best possible outcome for both employee and employer.

In this light, OH operated more as a risk mitigation tool, helping to ensure that the work employees do does not harm them, rather than an approach at proactively reducing absence and improving wellbeing. In 2015, FirstCare, the UK’s leading provider of absence management, released data that shows just 2.3% of absences are due to work related issues, leaving the remaining 97.7% of absences to be unconnected to work. As such, if OH had remained focused only on work related absences it would have had a very small impact on absence levels.

However, over the last decade, expectations of OH have shifted and the types of absences it intervenes in, and the resulting cases it manages, have broadened to include a greater number of absences, typically including musculoskeletal, mental health and all absences exceeding 28 days.

For each of these cases a Case Manager will be assigned to the relevant employee and will take responsibility for managing the case to its conclusion. This traditional case management approach has a number of weaknesses in addressing these new demands:

  • Ineffective referral criteria, which result in employee being overlooked,
  • Long Referral times which result in delayed treatment/intervention,
  • A high level of resource and budgets being dedicated to inappropriate referrals,
  • A high level of resource and budgets being dedicated to inappropriate referrals.

Spread of Absences over Short, Medium and Long Term (FirstCare Data)

OH needs to work with a range of other services and stakeholders to ensure organisations get value for money. OH primary focus is on long term sickness. According to FirstCare data, while this accounts for 46% of days lost it only represents 4% of absence cases. The majority of health issues that are in an organisation do not appear on OH's radar. Despite its best efforts then OH remains a reactive rather than proactive solution.

Occupational Health needs to look to support all staff all the time irrespective of their health status.

An absence management service will engage with and support all staff, it touches upon 100% of the absences that take place, helping not just to address isolated incidents but to support and enhance a collective and holistic improvement in general health and wellbeing. AMS will not have a direct influence on LTS but will use appropriate day one referral to OH to allow their services to be more effective.

Organisations need to facilitate OH, AMS, Wellness and EAP to work together with HR and line managers to deliver an integrated health and wellbeing strategy for all employees.

Download our 9 Objectives of Absence by clicking the image below:


Topics: Occupational Health, Absence

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