Occupational health advisers should be more involved with absence

Occupational health (OH) advisers should be more business focused and more proactive in managing sickness absence, research by Personnel Today’s sister publication Employment Review has found.

When 57 employers – with a combined workforce of 260,000 employees – were asked about issues that arise when using their organisation’s OH teams, 26% believed OH advisers should be more business focused to avoid one-sided consultations giving only the employee’s view.

Nineteen per cent of employers said advisers should provide greater help in getting staff back to work, as employers have accused advisers of sitting on the fence being unprepared to make any decisions for fear of being responsible for actions taken.

The quality of the advice and reports provided should also be improved, according to 21% of employers, as currently requests for reports on individual health issues are too slow and lack clarity.

OH advisers should also be more proactive in preventing absences, said 23% of employers, including the desire to see their advisers provide services that will reduce the risk of absences caused by non-work related issues, such as smoking, diet and fitness.

Fourteen per cent of employers said advisers should be more willing to collaborate with the employer by providing more risk assessments or preventative health advice.

Employers would also like to see OH advisers take a greater part in reviews of absence records, in participating in case conferences about staff on long-term sick leave, and in reaching decisions about capability dismissals – only 40% of employers use this service.

…but there are limits to their business focus

Occupational Health magazine, Personnel Today’s sister publication, argues that occupational health (OH) staff must always be independent of management, and be seen to be so by the workforce, given the conduct and medical ethics that apply to the profession.

Qualified OH nurse Valmai Hughes said: “It is not the function of OH nurses to manage attendance, but they can be expected to evaluate the reasons [for employee absence], to identify trends and to consider hazards and risks, which may not have been identified or adequately controlled. The occupational health team should, therefore, work with management teams to raise the level of awareness of attendance management and give professional advice.”

Some of the criticisms by employers of their OH services may be due to misunderstandings about the respective roles of their OH advisers, HR staff, line managers and other stakeholders involved in managing absence, the research suggested.

However, Employment Review research among 110 employers – with a combined workforce of 400,000 employees – has shown that employers obtain several benefits from their use of OH services – particularly in terms of helping employees on long-term sick leave return to work.

Employer spend on OH services is rising

Employers typically spend just under £30 a head each year on providing OH services to staff, according to our research of 110 employers.

OH services provided by in-house staff tend to cost more than those delivered by external providers (median amounts per employee per annum of £46 and £29, respectively), and OH services that are rated as being the most useful to employers tend to be more expensive than those with only a fairly good rating (median amounts per employee per annum of £44 and £18, respectively).

The annual UK Occupational Health Market Research Report, from Market and Business Development, finds that the total amount spent on OH grew by 35% between 2002 and 2005, and reached £367m in 2006.

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