As many as 30% of NHS staff who take sick leave are having to wait for 12 weeks before being referred to occupational health, while 5% are sitting around at home for six months or more, the latest national clinical audit of the profession has concluded.
The audit, commissioned by NHS Plus and conducted by the Health and Work Development Unit at the Royal College of Physicians, assessed depression detection and management of staff on long-term sickness absence in England.
It found that, between April and June last year, the average sickness absence rate for the NHS in England was 3.89%.
More positively, more than 97% of the 7,636 casenotes audited contained an action plan and the proportion of cases where depression was assessed had increased from 58% in 2008 to 67% in 2010.
A total of 22% of employees on long-term sick leave were either receiving, or waiting to receive, physiotherapy through the NHS and more than 53% said the same about psychological therapy.
More than 80% of NHS OH services participated, representing 279 NHS trusts across England.
Kit Harling, outgoing director of NHS Plus, told Occupational Health that the fact that so many services took part showed the profession’s commitment to the audit process.
The increase in depression assessment was probably down to better detection but delays in referral were a cause for concern, especially as it is estimated that 80% of employees on sick leave for six months or longer fail to return to work for at least five years, if at all.
“Is it perfect? No of course it isn’t, there is always more to do. But compared with other specialities, what this shows is that we are in the same ballpark,” said Harling.
“What OH practitioners need to be doing is going to their HR directors or chief operating officers and saying this shows how important it is we see people early or within certain parameters, whether four or five weeks or whatever. If we can identify people, we can make arrangements to support them back to work,” he added.
XpertHR provides a line manager briefing that deals with long-term sickness absence.