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Brett Hill


Head Of Health & Protection

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Government announces task force to tackle sickness in the workforce

Occupational health is rapidly evolving to meet growing demand as the NHS’ battle to bring down its waiting list continues – Brett Hill spotlights growing trends and initiatives that HR professionals can leverage.
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Last week the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) announced its new occupational health taskforce which aims to tackle the post-pandemic surge in illness-related absenteeism and economic inactivity due to long-term sickness. 

Occupational health aims to keep people well at work – physically and mentally – or support them to get back to work quickly if they become ill. In doing so, occupational health services save businesses money, increase productivity and improve the health and wellbeing of their staff.

Demand for occupational health services is growing rapidly. As the NHS’ battle to reduce its 7.6 million waiting list continues, millions of people are reporting negative impacts on their mental and physical health as a result of not being able to access the treatment they need, when they need it.

There are positive actions employers can take to tackle the problem of an ailing workforce. 

Nearly one in five of those waiting for a hospital appointment, test or to start treatment said that they had been waiting for more than a year. 

With 33 million people in employment in the UK – or 60.4% of those aged 16 to 64 – it’s no surprise that the difficulties people face in accessing timely and efficient healthcare is turning employee healthcare into a mission-critical business investment.

UK employers are struggling with low productivity and increased sickness absence, or even people leaving their jobs due to ill health. 

When confronted by such worrying statistics, it is easy for businesses to feel helpless in the face of what is a national healthcare challenge. The good news is that by investing in occupational health services there are positive actions employers can take to tackle the problem of an ailing workforce. 

Remote workstation assessments

Working from home has become the ‘new normal’ but a rise in musculoskeletal (MSK) conditions among home and hybrid workers is now a pressing concern. MSK conditions are a significant driver of sickness absence, with over 30 million working days lost due to MSK conditions every year in the UK. 

While many workers embraced the benefits of homeworking such as work-life balance and avoiding the daily commute, millions of workers have been working at unsuitable homework stations, perhaps at kitchen or dining room tables using chairs or display screens that can’t be adjusted correctly. 

Out of sight has often meant out of mind when it comes to home working and Display Screen Equipment (DSE) suitability assessments. 

To overcome this growing issue, occupational health specialists can conduct remote workstation DSE assessments to identify ergonomic risks, make suitable adjustments and mitigate potential injuries, ensuring ill health prevention fits for a remote workforce. 

Proactively putting in place this type of support is a great example of how occupational health can prevent conditions that might worsen over time, stopping potential issues at source.

Primary care 

For organisations with a large onsite or hybrid workforce, HR professionals can explore arranging onsite GP services for employees through their occupational health programme. 

These services can facilitate early detection of serious health risks such as cardio-vascular problems like high blood pressure, diabetes or early signs of cancer. 

They can also reduce reliance on digital GP services that can drive up specialist consultation referrals and claims costs on company-funded healthcare schemes – particularly for skin conditions or symptoms that require physical examination. 

Mental healthcare support

Mental health conditions such as stress and anxiety are consistently in the top 5 causes of sickness absence. Yet, NHS waiting lists can leave many waiting months to receive a diagnosis and access talking therapy treatments. 

Occupational health services include access to clinical psychologists, psychiatrists and counsellors who can provide screening and diagnostic assessment services as well as effective treatment pathways, helping employees return to work and effectively manage their mental health. 

Occupational health providers can also provide workplace mental health awareness and resilience training for managers and mental health workplace champions, helping employers create a positive, supportive, and resilient workplace culture. 

Change is afoot

While these suggestions merely scrape the surface of how occupational health providers can help employers, the government’s newly created task force demonstrates the increasing importance of this sector as well as the role of employers in the nation’s health.

In the UK, the direction of travel is unmistakably moving towards occupational health becoming a cornerstone of any people asset-risk management strategy. 

NHS waiting times increasingly impact the productivity of the UK workforce. 

The rising demand for occupational health and private healthcare services since the pandemic is also driving a virtuous circle with increasing innovation and digitisation emerging in the market to deliver more accessible, practical and affordable workplace health solutions.

Demand for occupational health is not only growing, it’s also changing. While referrals for traditional occupational health concerns like mental health and MSK conditions persist, they are now being supplemented by referrals for more general medical conditions as NHS waiting times increasingly impact the productivity of the UK workforce. 

Neurodiversity and occupational health

Increased awareness of neurodiversity in the workplace and the rise of late-stage diagnosis in working adults is driving a rise in occupational health referrals for neurodiverse assessments. 

With NHS waiting times for neurodiversity assessments running into months, or even years, occupational health services not only help employees receive a fast diagnosis, but they can support employers in making suitable adjustments that will help their employees thrive at work. 

In response to this growth in demand, occupational health providers have evolved their proposition to enable smaller employers to more easily access the market and discover how they can support their staff and leverage a more preventative form of healthcare. 

Leading the charge

HR teams should examine how they can utilise the sector to support the physical and mental health of their workforce, protect their business and boost employee wellbeing. 

The investment case is strong, and the sector is innovating and developing rapidly. Early and effective action is vital for employers to get ahead of the sickness absence curve and tackle the hidden health issues lurking in their workforce before they require more complex, costly and lengthy care.

We welcome the Government’s task force and urge employers to monitor closely how reforms could support their employee wellbeing strategy.

Author Profile Picture
Brett Hill

Head Of Health & Protection

Read more from Brett Hill

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