Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) account for more than half of the UK’s private-sector workforce, yet few have access to occupational health (OH). Malene Nielsen discusses how this might change.
The Government’s forthcoming Health and Work Service promises to help employers of all sizes cut the number of work days lost to sickness, offering access to OH to many smaller employers for the first time.
Smaller businesses, despite employing the majority of the UK’s workforce, traditionally do not seek help with OH unless it is unavoidable. Perhaps this is because OH providers are not accessible to them.
Market research by Vista Employer Services shows that this is changing. It is important to note that these conclusions about “smaller businesses” are not solely applicable to start-ups or SMEs. A small to medium-sized enterprise, by definition, could have several hundred employees, but even organisations where headcount runs into several thousand many do not have OH support. Traditionally the OH market only really caters for the very largest employers.
Why do smaller employers seem so unwilling to engage with professional OH providers? It is not, as one might assume, due to cost. Of course, perceived value is always a factor, but the real reason why non-corporate businesses do not tend to work with OH providers is simply that their need is ad hoc rather than constant, and very few providers cater for this.
Because of this disconnect, SMEs have limited knowledge or understanding of the OH market, or of what it can offer, so when they do go looking they are not entirely sure what they are looking for, and this often leads to dissatisfaction.
Many SMEs only seek OH support as a last resort, for example when a case has become so problematic that a lawyer recommends they send an employee to see an OH provider.
Any business without a contract with a retained OH provider is most likely to resort to the internet. Online, you will typically find the bigger players, which are not interested in dealing with SMEs (or indeed any client) on an ad hoc basis.
Other employers will refer employees to the NHS but are then directed to a general medical adviser rather than a specialist in OH. This means that the medical report will not include the necessary management information, so the employer remembers this as a bad experience which will exacerbate their perception that OH is of no value.
In many cases, OH providers fail to cater for the SME market because an ad hoc model is less profitable and convenient for them than a retained model.
Investment is another issue. In order to build a credible, value-added, tailored service to the SME market, the OH sector needs to be prepared to offer two things: education and accessibility.
Is technology the answer?
In both cases, technology is the means to offer this. An appropriate online platform gives the SME community access to both information and expert advice, and will also enable the bulk purchase and piecemeal resale of services, meaning that even the smallest companies will be able to tap into the resources of the right OH provider.
But most big OH providers do not consider this market a priority, while most small ones do not have the time, funding and resources.
The industry is looking for the missing link to stimulate commerce between OH and SMEs. Small employers not only need access to information and advice to give them confidence, but will also need access to a wider network of private physicians and advisers, or even the opportunity to reach legal services at the same time. The internet is the smaller employer’s first port of call when making a distress purchase such as the handling of a claim or managing long-term absence, so the OH industry should embrace this channel.
As well as answering the employer need, it will open up a much wider market to smaller OH providers, which will also benefit from a central, shared clinical support team to help with referrals, case management tools, online referral forms and an e-commerce or telephonic platform that they would not otherwise have.
The demand is already there – all the OH industry needs to create opportunity is the means to meet it.