Occupational health provision and support for exhausted healthcare workers needs to be at the heart of any NHS post-Covid recovery plan, the Society of Occupational Medicine (SOM) has said.
The call follows the warning last week by the House of Commons Health and Social Care Committee that the Department of Health and Social Care and NHS England must develop a ‘national health and care recovery plan’ by April to tackle the massive elective care backlog caused by the pandemic.
SOM highlighted that one of the key pressures over the winter affecting employers across the board, but the NHS in particular, has been record levels of sickness absence as workers have to self-isolate, something where occupational health can play a key support role.
OH practitioners had the skills, expertise and leadership to equip employers and employees with the knowledge, tools, and confidence to return to work quickly, maintain physical and mental health, and reduce presenteeism and staff turnover, SOM pointed out.
In particular, OH potentially could play a critical part in helping to stop exhausted health professionals burning out and leaving the profession earlier than planned.
Any future NHS recovery plans therefore needed to include OH, with the profession supporting emergency care, mental health, GPs, community care and social care, the society added.
SOM president Dr Jayne Moore said: “Within business the individual worker is an important asset and attending to employee health and wellbeing is paramount. This has been brought into focus during the pandemic.
“Occupational health can help to reduce levels of sickness absence and increase workforce productivity by developing individual plans to assist in return to work and support in individuals when at work,” she added.
Good mental health was also central to ‘building back better’ when it came to health and wellbeing, SOM said.
It was therefore imperative managers worked to stay connected with employees, in particular if they are self-isolating or working at home, it added.
Finally, it was important all employers, working with OH professionals, reviewed the controls they have place to minimise the impact of Covid-19 on their workplaces, SOM recommended. This needed to include:
- Following rules on social distancing and mask wearing
- Implementing appropriate workplace testing programmes
- Looking at improving air quality and ventilation in the workplace
- Encouraging vaccination and boosters
- Following government guidance to work from home
- Conducting risk assessments for vulnerable workers.
Reduction of transmission also needed to consider the ‘Swiss cheese model’, or the recognition that no one layer of protection or mitigation is perfect.
Each has holes, but several layers combined – for example, social distancing, masks, handwashing, testing and tracing, ventilation, and vaccination – all add yet another protective layer, SOM added.