Brent Council's occupational health service has been transformed over the past few years, and the results are reflected in the dramatic reduction in its sickness absence rates.
Brent Council doesn't have an internal OH department. Before 2002, OH was provided in a relatively ad hoc manner, with several occupational health providers working with different sections of the council. It provided a fairly sparse set of services, such as pre-employment screening and medical opinions for staff on long-term sick leave.
The relationship between Brent and the providers was not close, so key corporate objectives – chiefly employee wellbeing and driving down sickness absence – were not knitted in to OH services. Workers did not benefit from continuity – for example, they would see different doctors in different locations – and the message was not getting through about the importance of workplace attendance.
A new approach
When Brent designed a new approach to OH, we sought to address these shortcomings. The council looked for a single contractor able to work with a big, complex organisation such as a local authority. The two organisations then worked together to draw up a contract covering the kind of services the council needed and the roles and responsibilities of each party.
The essential thing was to have joint objectives, and the starting point for this was shared enthusiasm to create a better service. Occupational Health Westminster, the first provider appointed by the council, was keen to take the service to a new level. It felt that if it had a contract that specified the standard of service and how this should be monitored, it could produce a big improvement.
The council's objectives included driving down sickness and reducing the associated costs, creating and maintaining a healthy workforce that was informed about illness and lifestyle, and improving opportunities for disabled people.
Achieving all this saves the council considerable sums of money, in line with the public sector's efficiency agenda. It also contributes to a wider drive to perform well – high sickness rates equate to poor motivation, while an integrated and effective OH service demonstrates the council's corporate strength and focus.
The biggest change that came out of the contract was in relation to sickness absence. Now, employees who hit the 'trigger' – a number of short absences, or more than nine days