Occupational Health

by Anna Harrington

Benefits of promoting health

There are many reasons for promoting and becoming engaged in the health and wellbeing of the workforce. Health is not just a matter for internal (to the organisation) concern, but also involves political and other wider issues, such as the economics of a nation. A business case needs to reflect both these internal and external drivers. The aim of building a business case is to secure senior management team commitment and financial resource for the strategic management of health and wellbeing at work. It is through strategic management and review that the business benefits of managing health and wellbeing at work will be understood and recognised.

Current issues

Any or all of the following issues may help you to build your business case for securing commitment to occupational health within your organisation.

  • Reduced insurance costs – due to risks being managed appropriately
  • Reduced risks of claims being taken against the organisation
  • Increased employee engagement – through their health, psychological, social needs and aspirations being met in the workplace
  • Increased employee productivity – for reasons as above
  • The inclusion of health and wellbeing in external quality systems, such as Investors in People.
  • Company corporate social responsibility – in other words, a commitment to ethical practices that contribute to economic development and an improvement in the quality of life of the organisation’s workforce, and the community on which it has an impact
  • Ageing population/workforce –changes in the life expectancy result in the need for people to be economically active for longer than in previous generations. This means that the workforce now has different skills/experience and needs; organisations need to be aware of and prepared to meet those needs in order to benefit from the different skills and experience of older workers.
  • An increase in numbers of migrant workers: migrant workers bring different skills and abilities, but also have specific needs, such as assistance with housing and finance, integration, language and culture.
  • Economic impact of the service industry – this may relate to increasingly high expectations from customers of the service they should get; so, for example, they expect people to be at work for longer, better hygiene standards and so on.
  • A greater awareness of the importance of work-life balance
  • Competition to attract and retain a quality workforce
  • Impact on brand image – through informal communication between friends and family about how an employer treats their staff
  • Cost of sickness absence and presenteeism (at work, but not fully engaged or functioning)
  • Health and safety legislation and other acts, such as the Equality Act 2010, which requires employers to consider individual characteristics that may make it more difficult for an individual to gain and maintain employment
  • The impact of downsizing or redundancy processes, which affect retained staff through feelings of loss, disrupted communication flows, broken teams, and confusion over objectives and purpose.
  • The effect of worklessness on society – worklessness can run through families, meaning that generations of individuals will not be engaged in the working society. This in turn leads to areas of cities and towns which are worklessness ghettos, the result being that it becomes difficult for individuals to escape this cycle.
  • The effect of unemployment on the individual – feelings of worthlessness, physical and mental health problems, poor quality of life
  • The effects of unemployment on the family
  • Media focus on health and wellbeing, in particular obesity

Legal obligations

It is necessary to recognise that the UK judicial system requires health and safety at work hazards and risks to be adequately controlled. The enforcing body for this is the Health and Safety Executive. The principle act here is the Health and Safety at Work Act, 1974, but numerous and various specific regulations are also applied, details of which can be found through the Health and Safety Executive website.

Reducing the costs

Through effective management of health and wellbeing at work, risks will be controlled and the health of the employees will improve. This will result in fewer of those cases of work-related ill health that could have resulted in claims being made against the company. In addition, insurance premiums may be lower, as risks are controlled and claim rates are low.

Reducing absenteeism and turnover of staff

Part of effectively managing health and wellbeing at work is through understanding why individuals work and what their aspirations are, and ensuring that the workplace goes some way towards meeting these needs. This will result in individuals becoming more engaged and productive at work.

Wider community implications

The rising benefits bill is a major government driver to reduce the effects of illness on ability and capacity to work. However there are moral and ethical reasons as well: it has been proven that it reduces a child’s life potential if the parents are not working. Prolonged worklessness can lead to generations being unable to work, which in turn leads to more physical and mental health problems.

Early intervention

Early intervention is a crucial part of occupational health management, and the lack of such intervention carries severe consequences. According to Dame Carol Black, whose review, ‘Working for a healthier tomorrow – Review of the health of the working age population’, appeared in 2008, there are a number of reasons for the lack of early interventions.

  • There is relatively little occupational health provision, information and advice in the UK (relative to the working population numbers), as these are provided through private businesses and are not an NHS service.
  • The business benefits are not fully recognised by business leaders and there has been little effort towards demonstrating the returns on investment.
  • There is confusion over the replacement of the old ‘sick note’ now by a ‘fit note’ with regard to employers being able to challenge them and overrule the doctor ’s opinion, while doctors feel unable to adequately advise their patients on work and health issues, especially in relation to return-to-work cases.

All this results in the costs associated with worklessness and ill health in the working population running to over £100 billion a year. It also leads to the creation of barriers preventing individuals from either gaining employment or returning to work following extended illness.

Role and benefits of effective management

The role of health and wellbeing management is not only to effectively control workplace risk, but also to assist in optimising the performance of the workforce. As a manager, you can help towards this end by becoming involved in the creation of a culture which nurtures, encourages and engages employees. The other side of the coin is that this also reduces loss from poor workforce performance, due to presenteeism and/or sickness absence.

British Standard 18001 (BS 18001 OHSMS) Occupational Health and Safety Management System is a quality standard that provides a framework for organisations to assist them in the identification and control of hazards and risks at work. Independent evaluations of compliance with this standard should be conducted by a company that has UKAS accreditation.

It’s also worth knowing that Investors in People (IiP) have a specific award for Health and Wellbeing at Work. In addition, the supply chain often requires proof that systems for managing health hazards and risks are developed and implemented.

The management of health and wellbeing needs to reflect the business and organisational strategies in the organisation. For example, implementing the marketing strategy will require a workforce that are engaged and focused. Similarly, the business plan, management of sickness absence and management of recruitment and retention should all include occupational health management. All of this needs to be planned and organised, and arrangements for implementation monitored and audited.

The HSE promotes the use of HSG65 (their book ‘Successful Health and Safety Management’) as a management system, but comes at it from the perspective of risk reduction. This obviously limits its effectiveness with regard to health and wellbeing management. Health and wellbeing management therefore need to be tied to other business objectives.

An effective occupational health management system should also take into consideration how the organisation encourages employees to be involved, and to be well and productive. Here, the management of stress through using the HSE Behavioural Competency Framework will go some way towards achieving this increased employee involvement.

Return on investment

A benefit of having a formal management system is that resources can be organised to ensure adequate provision for effective implementation. At the same time, plans need to be developed to measure the effectiveness of any implemented system. Data could be collected from staff attitude surveys, sickness absence figures, performance or productivity statistics, reduced insurance premiums, reduced staff turnover, reduced use of staff counselling services and reduced occupational health referrals. This data can then be used to calculate the return on investment.