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What is Occupational Health not there to do

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16th May 2013
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This article was written by Brett Edwards, Managing Director of Corporate Health.

Working at the heart of Occupational Health (OH), I am often struck by the amount of people who fail to fully grasp what the service can deliver. Frequent changes to legislation and increasing levels of employment-related litigation make OH a useful business tool, but a lack of understanding is hampering firms’ ability to utilise it in order to avoid HR headaches. But as much as the issue is caused by companies not appreciating what OH is here to do, I believe that just as many problems are created by organisations and individuals who fail to comprehend what it isn’t there to accomplish.

This knowledge gap doesn’t do anyone any favours, so I thought it would be pertinent to highlight some areas where HR professionals’ expectations of OH miss the mark. The main misunderstanding – and this covers a whole gamut of potential pitfalls – is the notion that OH can produce the solution to every HR problem. Take, for instance, a case where a company’s HR team believe an employee is no longer able to perform their current role. They may pass such a case through to their OH provider who, as an expert in providing medical and clinical opinions, will be able to suggest if and when they might return if they are off work and reasonable adjustments that could be made to resolve the situation and improve the employee’s health.

So far so good, but the problems begin when the HR professionals expect the OH report to not just include medical opinion and suggestions of future steps but dictate precise courses of action. Not only is deciding on a particular remedy – redundancy or dismissal, for example – a job for HR and their legal experts, it is also impractical for OH practitioners unfamiliar with the ins and out of a particular business. A clinician could say that the person being reported on should work different shifts or not use certain equipment, but that would be counter-productive if it was not feasible for the firm or the individual. Instead, information in an OH report should be viewed as a firm foundation on which HR professionals base their next move.

A second common misconception about the role of OH is in diagnosing employees’ medical conditions. Contrary to a seemingly widely-held belief, our industry does not provide diagnoses, nor do we ask for proof of existing medical diagnoses. Instead, OH clinicians work on medical facts supplied to them as well as the views of the referrer and the employee. Submitting an HR referral and expecting a diagnosis to come back is a recipe for disappointment. From my experience, one of the most common barriers to effective use of OH is HR representatives passing cases to us with insufficient thought and expecting quality reports back. Each individual’s situation is different and clinicians need as much information as possible fed in at an early stage in order to produce clear, effective reports.

As much as we would love to be able to, Occupational Health is not capable of knowing every detail of every case, so it is essential that HR provides as full a picture as possible in their initial referrals. Handing over a case containing accurate, pertinent information speeds the process up and makes it far more likely that the outcome is acceptable for everyone involved.

Equally, OH is not capable of meeting unachievable expectations. There have been cases of HR managers being upset because they haven’t received the answers they wanted from their OH provider, but often this is because their perception of their needs was wrong in the first place. There is a huge opportunity for people to think more clearly about what it is they want and that is something that, as a charity, we are working hard to achieve. The common thread running through each of these points is that occupational health is not here to take sole charge of the relationship between ourselves and HR. Providing the best possible OH support requires a collaborative approach with both sides taking their share of responsibility. From HR’s perspective, that encompasses producing more detailed reports, being more aware of what is achievable and even questioning OH providers if you feel they are not delivering.

While this piece may paint a picture of OH as a field with a number of limitations, it is important to remember the benefits it brings when working to its potential. OH providers delivering clear, commercially-focused, independent advice raise productivity, reduce absenteeism and ensure that firms are able to focus on their bottom line. Consider the fact that the market for Occupational Health is estimated to stand at £655 million – with an increase to £811 million expected by 2017 – and you will see that it can represent a significant expenditure.

Occupational Health is ultimately here to benefit businesses and industry, so making sure you know what you can and cannot expect from your provider is invaluable for your working relationship and to ensure a return on investment.

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