The government is to test how offering a subsidy might encourage more employers to invest in occupational health provision, but has pulled back from reforming sick pay or putting in place a ‘right to request’ workplace modifications.
Other key announcements within the document include:
- New non-statutory guidance to be developed to support disabled people and people with long-term health conditions to remain in work, with the Health and Safety Executive also being tasked to explore the introduction of statutory guidance at a later date.
- Better information and advice on workplace health support for employers, with the government looking at “refining” the information available.
- The government “to explore the potential merits” of a new Centre for Work and Health Research to strengthen the evidence base around OH intervention.
- The government committing to “considering methods” to promote the expansion of clinical roles, improving OH multidisciplinary workforce models, developing new training approaches and “establishing an OH leadership function”.
- The government also working to explore extending fit note certification to a wider group of healthcare professionals, introducing digital certifying of fit notes and “looking towards further opportunities” to make the fit note interactive.
On the issue of a subsidy, the document did not go into detail as to what this would look like or precisely how it would work.
However, it made it clear that responses to the 2019 consultation had been strongly in favour of some form of subsidy to allow small and medium-sized businesses and the self-employed to access OH more easily, with employers being asked to contribute part of the cost “to ensure their commitment and to protect against exploitation of the scheme.”
The response document therefore said: “Government will test a subsidy which would aim to gather evidence on whether targeted financial incentives improve access to OH and employment outcomes.
“This test will be robustly evaluated and findings, alongside developments in OH reform policies, and affordability, will inform the case for potential fixed term roll-out in the future.
“Government will work with experts to ensure minimum qualification criteria are in place that OH providers should meet in order to be able to deliver subsidised services, and will assess provider suitability criteria as part of the subsidy test.”
Recognition of need for workforce reform
On a right to request modifications and reforms to sick pay, the government indicated that during a pandemic was not the right time to introduce either of these, although it did pledge to “take a broader look” at sick pay reform as we emerged from the pandemic.
The document indicated the government did recognise work needed to be done around the OH workforce and better workforce planning.
As the document argued: “Government is committed to supporting a sustainable OH workforce, recognising that immediate actions are required, alongside the development of a longer-term strategy, which acknowledges the cultural, behavioural and administrative changes required amongst organisations and stakeholders.
“Government recognises that this is a large programme of work and will initially focus on immediate actions around the provision of information and advice for OH professionals and those interested in an OH career, alongside exploring training improvements and support. These actions will help inform the longer-term workforce strategy which could include creating greater training and development opportunities for the current and future workforce subject to future funding.”
Minister for disabled people, health and work Justin Tomlinson and minister for prevention, public health and primary care Jo Churchill said of the document: “As the UK continues to recover and comes to better understand the longer-term impacts of Covid-19, it is more important than ever that disabled people and those with long-term health conditions are supported to remain in work so that no group is left behind.
“This government is committed to building back better, and providing the right support to disabled people and people with long-term health conditions will help create a healthier population with a higher level of employment that benefits productivity and drives the economy.
“By working together to look after the health and prosperity of our people and our businesses, we champion not only the wellbeing of every individual in this country but also the nation as a whole.”
Initial response to the document from the profession has been cautiously positive, with SOM (the Society of Occupational Medicine) arguing it was “pleased” the government had recognised the lack of access to OH services and the need for reform.
However, SOM president Dr Jayne Moore indicated the focus was now likely to turn to how these aspirations can be backed by hard cash. “SOM welcomes investment in occupational health as it facilitates healthy and safe workplaces. Occupational health doctors, nurses and health professionals are vital to ensuring there is the capacity for scale up of occupational health services that we all want. It will help business confidence as they support workforce health, and as we move to the next stage on the roadmap out of lockdown.
“We look forward to the government’s Comprehensive Spending Review backing up this response with investment in the occupational health workforce,” she added.