Is occupational health being left behind by workplace wellbeing?

Most employers agree that improving workplace wellbeing is a positive thing. But occupational health has to play a fundamental role in this, argues Dr Philip McCrea.

Turn the clocks back a decade, and the term “workplace wellbeing” was hardly known.

Today, of course, employee wellness has become a priority for lots of employers. According to the latest employee wellbeing research from REBA released earlier this year, almost seven in 10 organisations have a wellbeing strategy in place – a number that’s more than doubled since 2016.

There’s a growing understanding that happy and healthy employees are likely to be more motivated and perform better. And the demand for tools to help employers achieve this has inspired a whole new market, with an estimated worth of around $4.2 trillion.

About the author

Dr Philip McCrea is chief medical officer at BHSF

While it’s a positive step that employee wellbeing is on the rise, we appear to have lost the focus on occupational medicine and the value placed on those who have been specifically trained in this field.

In fact, many occupational health providers use medical professionals with little experience or qualifications in occupational medicine – something that’s very different to general medicine.

Providers can push back against this trend by ensuring that their clinicians, nurses and practitioners are trained in occupational medicine. But how can providers challenge the lack of understanding around what occupational health is?

Confusing options

As an employer, the sheer range of wellbeing options can be confusing. Because of that, it’s hard for occupational health providers to get cut through and show what role they can play in achieving positive workplace wellbeing.

In lots of cases, occupational health is seen as a last resort in getting ill or injured employees back to work. I want to challenge this stereotype. Occupational health does more than just get employees back to work, it can actually prevent them from being ill or injured in the first place.

In order to shine a light on the current attitudes towards occupational health, we at BHSF recently carried out some in-depth research with SME employers in the UK. Most employers were clear about the need for healthy employees, providing statements such as:

“I am committed to ensuring the good health of my workforce.”

“There are so many research pieces proving the benefits of being proactive and intervening before a wellbeing problem becomes unmanageable.”

“The welfare of our workforce is essential; we measure absence and sickness, so it’s important that staff know where to get assistance.”

When it comes to the biggest issue facing their HR teams, 60% listed short-term sickness absence as their major concern. Most said they used occupational health to get employees back to work, but few recognised its preventative features.

Surprisingly, given that short-term sickness absence was identified as the most pressing concern, a third of those surveyed were not tracking the cost of sickness and a further 40% were only doing so on an ad-hoc basis.

Joined-up approach

By not following a joined-up approach, employers are potentially missing out on a whole host of knowledge about their business and its issues.

On top of a lack of understanding around using occupational health as a preventative tool, employers seem unclear on what occupational health actually is. All respondents said they offer their employees occupational health support, but only around 25% were familiar with any of the leading providers.

This lack of awareness makes me wonder if employers are confusing employee wellbeing benefits – like employee assistance programmes (EAPs) or PMI, with occupational health.

A total of 82% of our respondents revealed they offered occupational health on an ad hoc basis – meaning they’re only getting support when an issue has already presented itself.

When engaged at the earliest point, occupational health can work as a preventative tool to successfully reduce sickness absence. Combined with a robust wellbeing strategy, employers can expect to see a rise in productivity and performance.

As providers, we need to educate employers on the benefits of occupational health as a strategic tool. It’s not an EAP or PMI, but a way to prevent workplace ill health, intervene at the earliest point and get employees access to specialists quickly.

For employers, working closely with an occupational health provider can provide a huge insight into the stresses and pain points within an organisation.

Occupational health can suggest suitable adjustments that can help to reduce sickness absence and improve employee wellbeing. On top of this, a good provider will help employers monitor statistics that demonstrate the value of occupational health – data that can be used to analyse the impact of workplace wellbeing in their business.

The time is right for occupational health to shine a light on workplace wellbeing strategies that work. An occupational health provider should help guide and shape a measurable programme that’s based on specialist and proven expertise.

2 Responses to Is occupational health being left behind by workplace wellbeing?

  1. Avatar
    Nancy Clover RN, COHN-S 6 Dec 2019 at 10:55 pm #

    excellent article!

  2. Avatar
    Dr Prem Kumar 29 Dec 2019 at 4:09 pm #

    Nice Article. As you rightly mentioned now a days employers preferring wellness programs over occupational health initiatives. Wellness programs may be attractive and short-term. And one can show numbers. But a well planned occupational health program will benefit employee long-term health and productivity.

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