Using Occupational Health, why you should do it, and how to make the most of it

Apr 14, 2014 | Time Off Work

Long term sickness absence is a problem for many employers, and although it may be less likely to affect small businesses because there are obviously fewer employees, when it does hit a small employer, the impact can be devastating. One of the measures we usually recommend is taking advice from an Occupational Health professional, but how can this help, and what should you remember when considering a referral?

What help can Occupational Health provide?

A good occupational health provider can:

  • Recommend adjustments that might help employee back to work sooner. Might be things you or the employee would not think of.
  • Provide more information about how the condition might affect the employees work, and vice versa.
  • Provide assessments of (hopefully) a realistic timescale by when the employee might be back to work enabling you to plan.
  • Provide an opinion on whether the condition is a disability and therefore protected under the Equality Act.
  • Provide a view on whether the employee is realistically likely to return to work at all.

All of this can help you manage the sickness absence, help you plan cover, and help you make decisions about getting the employee back to work or taking action if that isn’t going to happen (see dismissing for long term absence).

Obviously with some of the above, Occupational Health providers can understandably be a bit cagey, but it’s fine to press them and ask the difficult questions. Good providers will be as specific and helpful as possible.

Can’t I write to my employee’s GP instead?

Yes you can do that. It’s cheaper, and for more regular absences rather than long term sickness absences, or where funds are tight, it can definitely be worth trying a letter to the GP as a first option. Some GPs are more helpful, experienced and/or knowledgeable than others, and for some absences, the specialist knowledge about medical conditions as they relate to the working environment isn’t as important.  However bear in mind that the GP has a pre-existing relationship with the employee, so may be very reluctant to include anything in the letter that might be to the detriment of his/her patient, and he/she doesn’t usually have expertise in recommending workplace adjustments

But I don’t have Occupational Health

Many large employers have a dedicated occupational health professional or even department in house. Obviously this isn’t an option for smaller businesses, but there are plenty of providers who are used to working with small employers. If you work with an HR consultant he or she probably has one or two providers they’ve used previously and can guide you through the information you need to provide and even liaise with the provider for you.

What about the new Government scheme?

The Government are introducing a new Health and Work Service, probably in Spring 2015, designed to allow more employees and businesses quicker access to occupational health support. The idea is that employees will be automatically referred once they’ve been off work four weeks for an assessment by an occupational health professional. There will also be access to advice through a phone line and website.

This should make access to occupational health easier and cheaper for small businesses, who in our experience would often not consider paying for OH assessments after only four weeks’ absence. It remains to be seen how helpful the reports will be. One of the advantages of good providers being instructed by employers is that employers can ask exactly what questions they want to in order to get the information they really need. A more generic report might not be as useful, but we’ll see. The government thinks the service will reduce long term sickness by 20-40%, which would certainly be welcome.

My employee refuses to see an Occupational Health professional

We usually include clauses in handbooks and contracts giving our clients the right to require employees to cooperate with medical advice requests, but ultimately, although that’s helpful, an employee can still refuse if they want to, or can refuse to give consent for you to see the report.  If you have a reluctant employee, explain to them that the assessment is to their benefit, as it is aimed at informing you what you as an employer can and should be doing to support the employee and assist them back to work. If they are still reluctant, you will be left with no alternative but to make decisions about their employment without that expert advice, and that is not likely to be advantageous to the employee.

Tips to make the most of Occupational Health

So do consider taking Occupational Health advice to help you manage a long-term sickness problem, and follow these key tips to make the most of your referral:

  • Make sure the provider has a good understanding of the nature of the employee’s role, the tasks and responsibilities involved, particularly if it is a physical role.
  • Make sure the provider has a good understanding of the background surrounding the case.
  • Ask specific questions to get the information you need.
  • If reports are too vague, generic or unhelpful, push back, or consider a new provider.
  • Take recommendations into account when making decisions, but don’t blindly follow them if you have concerns.

If you need help managing sickness absence in your organisation, please contact us at [email protected].