Navigating occupational health in the ‘next normal’

Employers won't necessarily want to return to expensive office buildings when workers are productive at home
Om1/Zuma Press/PA Images

The Covid-19 crisis created an imperative for all of us within occupational health to reconfigure operations. Just as significantly, as we begin to look beyond the pandemic to the ‘next normal’, it has also provided us with an opportunity to transform how we deliver OH services, argues Fiona McGill.

Much is being made of the pandemic trends that may stick around as part of our future routine. The more sartorial amongst us, hope that the reliance on ‘comfort fashion’ will eventually wane, but when it comes to the ‘next normal’ to coin a McKinsey phrase, there is no doubt that the pandemic has forever changed shopping, fitness, working and healthcare behaviours.

Aside from joggers, shoppers bought far fewer clothes last year as people had less opportunity to socialise and go out. But, according to the ONS in a sign of the way the pandemic has changed shopping habits, the value of online retail sales jumped by 46.1% in 2020 when compared with 2019 and online trade now accounts for more than one-third of all retail sales.

While home fitness was popular before the pandemic, the closings of gyms and fitness clubs has driven sales of home exercise equipment, like Peloton, to an all-time high. In the future, gym-going might become more of a hybrid activity, like employees who split their time between home and the office.

Covid-19 has absolutely upended the world of work, normalising remote working, accelerating automation and ultimately raising questions over the role of the office. Recent weeks have seen a number of high profile firms, such as British Airways, Google, HSBC and Nationwide, release details on their working practice roadmaps. There are many drivers to these new flexible and hybrid models: financial necessity, mitigating working from home fatigue, sustainability through commuting cut backs or just to instil better work/life balance.

Accelerated change for healthcare

Technology-driven change has, of course, been front of mind across healthcare. The focus of advanced research across medicine and vaccines saw a significant gear change to tackle the ongoing crisis. Great strides have also been made across IT and data sharing, the role of medical devices, as well as direct patient monitoring. The likes of AI, VR, data sharing, genomics, wearable devices, hygiene tech and robotics, have all advanced in response to healthcare scenarios requiring greater social distancing, more efficiency and autonomy, plus of course stringent sanitisation requirements.

As our experience has powerfully demonstrated, the key area where an accelerated pace of innovation has been seen is in the delivery of remote services. Globally, the number of virtual healthcare visits skyrocketed during the pandemic and analysts at Forbes predict that during 2021 one third of global virtual care appointments will be related to mental health issues.

In April, we at BHSF received our SEQOHS quality accreditation – an occupational health industry standard that we are proud to receive every year, but especially in 2021, given that it recognises the care excellence we have delivered within such a challenging occupational health service landscape.

BHSF OH provides a range of occupational health support services including new-starter health screenings, role specific medicals, immunisations and vaccinations, health surveillance and sickness absence referrals. It also offers additional services, including ergonomic, physiotherapy and mental health support.

Business continuity against adversity

This time round, the SEQOHS assessor noted our willingness to learn from customer feedback and how BHSF OH changed practices in response to the ‘adverse’ macro environment.

Adverse events have of course been a firm fixture for every workplace since March 2020. In a typical year, our team of practitioners are out on the road delivering health assessments and screening across a variety of workplace settings. Instead, the BHSF occupational health team has delivered more than 4,000 return-to-work medicals over the last year and remotely undertaken over 50,000 consultations ranging from statutory medicals through to sickness absence referrals, across under-strain sectors including logistics, manufacturing and engineering.

The remote services we’ve developed have helped ensure continuity for businesses at a time when so much has been uncertain. Significantly they have also enhanced the overall speed and quality of the support that we’ve been able to offer.

The benefits of ensuring that an individual dealing with intense anxiety can be assessed and managed quickly are clear. Thanks to our evolved remote services, we can often do this in the space of just a few days, releasing a higher quality report the day after the appointment. And these enhancements continue to evolve: earlier this year, we invested in new video calling software to improve the overall functionality and connectivity of our remote clinics.

“Attend Anywhere” helps an employee to build a rapport with clinician as the appointment feels like it is face to face. The model focuses on people and processes, with options such as professional interpreter services, while also delivering technological reliability. This helps to make the overall experience less awkward for both clinician and customer, removing troublesome interruptions as a result of glitches which can disrupt momentum during a sensitive call.

Evolution and early intervention

Some assessments can of course only be done in person and now that the Health and Safety Executive has provided fresh guidance to enable the provision of face to face assessments, subject to a Covid-secure environment, we are able to get back out on site.

Early intervention into absence management to tackle physical and mental health issues employees may be facing early on can have a significant impact on the emotional and financial cost of workplace absenteeism. For an organisation with 700 employees, the cost of absence may be £9,000-£10,000 per day assuming absence costs £141-£168 per employee, per day and a 12% absence rate.

Evolution in this sense has been about balancing the need to protect the health, safety and welfare of our practitioners, with the specific needs of employees as a result of, and within, the current constraints of the pandemic.

For example, we have evolved an existing customer relationship to provide over 800 DSE (display screen equipment) assessments for their homeworkers. We identified further potential remote working risks and were additionally able to provide ergonomic assessments to prevent musculoskeletal issues developing in the future.

Early intervention into absence management to tackle physical and mental health issues employees may be facing early on can have a significant impact on the emotional and financial cost of workplace absenteeism. For an organisation with 700 employees, the cost of absence may be £9,000-£10,000 per day assuming absence costs £141-£168 per employee, per day and a 12% absence rate.

Additionally stark is the reality that 40% of workplace absence is because of mental health issues and this is projected to be in the region of 70% by 2023.

‘Health is wealth’ is here to stay

Against this reality, relying on accredited occupational health services to instil ‘health is wealth’ values across all business sectors will be key to support the psychological and physical wellbeing of employees through the recovery years to follow.

The Covid-19 crisis created an imperative for us all to reconfigure operations, but significantly an opportunity to transform them. The changes we have made to date will better equip BHSF OH to face new challenges, using technology to deliver specialist care with greater productivity as the ‘next normal’ continues to play out.

Fiona McGill

About Fiona McGill

Fiona McGill is clinical lead at BHSF
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