Manufacturers need to use occupational health more proactively, report finds

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Manufacturers are investing more in workers’ health and wellbeing than ever, but a more proactive approach – including making better use of occupational health – is needed to prevent “avoidable” work-related absences, a report has argued.

Make UK, the manufacturing sector representative body, found that although more than 80% of manufacturers have occupational health support services in place, many are not using them to their full potential.

Two-thirds of the firms that took part in a survey for the Health, wealth and wellbeing for manufacturers report said they used OH to provide clinical support for workers, while 89% offered access to an employee assistance programme to support staff returning to work.

However, many were “missing a trick” in how they used OH, Make argued. For example, only 42% were using professional OH services to help manage their sickness absence.

Just 9% of manufacturers had an internal OH function. More than half (51%) used an external OH resource on a pay-as-you-go basis, which the report suggested showed that employers were taking a reactive rather than proactive approach to their employees’ health and wellbeing.

Companies mainly used OH to help decide on workplace adjustments for employees (85% of firms); to inform decisions about the future employment of the long-term sick (78%); and to provide health screening and surveillance (77%).

“A much more proactive approach is needed to prevent easily avoidable work-related ill-health absences,” the report said.

Mark Fosh, divisional director of Howden Employee Benefits & Wellbeing, which sponsored Make UK’s report, added: “Coupled with a more general workplace wellness trend, manufacturers are investing in their health and wellbeing agendas, in a bid to build and maintain a healthy workforce and reduce absenteeism. This is clearly sending positive ripples across the sector.

“Manufacturers should now look to optimise the investments they are already making through seeking practical guidance on how best to manage their health and wellbeing strategies.”

Many of the 160 organisations that took part in the survey nevertheless claimed to be reaping the benefits of a focus on staff health and wellbeing. More than 90% said they had seen productivity increase and an improvement in workforce relations, and 55% said the overall benefits to their business outweighed the time and costs required. A total of 85% of the manufacturing firms polled saw it as their duty to encourage and promote physical and mental wellbeing.

The report also looked at some of the reasons why some manufacturers did not use an OH service at all. Although all larger firms Make UK spoke did have an OH resource in place, more than a third (37%) of smaller manufacturers (or those with 50 staff or fewer) did not provide access to OH at all.

One-third argued this was because there was “too little” demand for OH support, which suggested there was some way to go until all firms understood the benefits of occupational health as a resource, the report said.

A total of 28% claimed to have had a poor experience of OH in the past, while almost one in five admitted they had no internal budget for spending OH. The same proportion argued they lacked knowledge around what OH services to buy and a similar figure claimed to have no business need for it.

Tim Thomas, Make UK’s director of labour market and skills policy, said the majority of manufacturers understood that a healthy workforce was an effective one.

“But there is still a lot more to be done and manufacturers must continue to work hard to put health and wellbeing at the heart of their business plans. With 10% of the manufacturing workforce due to retire in the next three years and the pressures of new immigration rules post-Brexit, skilled workers have never been more important,” he said.

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