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Monday 04 April 2022

How to support staff by working with occupational health

By Kim Sunley

The pandemic has put the spotlight on the value of good occupational health services in supporting staff and delivering safe and effective services. Kim Sunley shares ten tips on for managers on how best to work with your OH service.

1. Early intervention is key

It’s important to support an early referral to occupational health for staff who are having difficulties with their health, have developed a chronic condition or are likely to be off long-term sick. There is a wealth of evidence on the effectiveness of early intervention in the two main causes of absence – musculoskeletal conditions and mental health issues. Occupational health (OH) can support both the member of staff and their manager in getting the best possible outcome.

2. Support staff to self-refer

Staff may find it difficult to talk to you about health problems, particularly if they’re related to mental health or reproductive health issues such as the menopause. Allowing staff to self-refer to OH and seek help was recommended in the 2009 Boorman review of the health and wellbeing of the NHS workforce (see mip.social/boorman), although is not universally practiced across the NHS.

3. Work with your trade unions

Trade unions should be fully involved in developing local occupational health services, plans and strategies. Partnership working between managers, union reps and OH will help to promote trust in the service. Unions can also provide useful intelligence on the key health issues that are affecting the workforce and contribute to developing preventative measures.

4. Understand the limitations on sharing information

Occupational health staff are bound by professional codes on patient confidentiality as well as data protection rules and the legal requirement for patients to consent to information being released by their doctor.. Seeking consent can be time consuming and frustrating for managers waiting for advice. Unless a member of staff consents, the information OH can share with you is restricted to recommending whether they are fit to continue with work as usual and any adjustments that may be needed. Be patient with occupational health and respect their professional duties.

5. Work with OH on prevention

According to the HSE, the health and social care sector has the highest rates of work-related ill health in the UK, with musculoskeletal disorders and stress, anxiety and depression being the key causes. Other painful and debilitating occupational diseases such as contact dermatitis are also prevalent and can lead to sickness absence or the need to temporarily or permanently redeploy staff. Your occupational health service can support managers to be proactive in preventing or mitigating these and other causes of work-related ill health. OH can also support the development of staff health and wellbeing policies as an ex-officio member of joint union and management health and safety committees.

6. Reduce the stigma

Employees often see a referral to occupational health as a form of punishment, particularly when referred by a manager following sickness absence. You can work to break down this stigma by allowing self-referral, working with trade unions to promote the benefits of OH to staff and highlighting the good work they do to promote workplace health and wellbeing. Always support staff who are experiencing health problems to seek help as early as possible.

7. Utilise the expertise of your OH service

As well as preventing work related causes of ill health, the workplace provides an excellent opportunity to push public health messaging about preventable diseases such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Occupational health can provide expertise and information on preventing such conditions and advise managers on the steps they can take to support staff to stay healthy.

8. Work with OH to tackle health inequalities in the workplace

As health inequalities occur in the general population, they also occur in the NHS workforce – we’ve seen how Covid has disproportionately affected certain groups, including Black, disabled and older workers. Working with occupational health to analyse data relating to ill health, absence, and protected characteristics, while giving staff space to share their personal experiences, will help to identify inequalities and what lies behind them, and equip you to shape local strategies to tackle them.

9. Make use of OH data

Occupational health services can provide headline data to managers on many aspects of work and health. You can use this data can to identify trends and possible causes of ill-health and poor wellbeing in your team or across your organisation.

10. Speak to staff about their experiences

Most occupational health services will have metrics and engage with managers about the quality of their services, but it’s also important to talk to staff directly about their experiences of using the service. Share your findings with OH so you can work together to improve the service.

  • Kim Sunley is a national officer for UNISON and co-chair of the NHS Staff Council’s Health, Safety and Wellbeing Partnership Group.

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