The relationship between occupational health (OH) professionals and human managers – to whom OH generally report – is crucial to work and health, but traditionally there are areas where conflict can arise. OH advisers sometimes complain that HR rides roughshod over the confidentiality of medical data, and refer staff to OH when the problem is not a health issue, but a ‘management problem’. On the other hand, HR accuse OH of failing to give clear evidence of employees’ fitness to work in their reports.
Communication and confidentiality
A national survey by Occupational Health Recruitment of 240 OH nurses and advisers conducted in November and December 2009 shows that while most HR managers are aware of the OH role, a significant minority are unclear. There is also evidence that more could be done on both sides to improve communication.
The issue of confidentiality remains a key tension between the two groups. The survey reveals that some HR professionals are asking OH practitioners to breach data protection regulations, with 28% of those surveyed saying they had been asked by HR to do something they know is legally wrong, 32% of them saying that HR knew it was wrong to ask. However, none of the OH practitioners involved complied with the request.
Relationships and awareness
Almost all (94%) of respondents work with HR, and 58% of people surveyed would describe their relationship with HR as good. HR professionals do seem to be aware of national policy on health and work, with 42% of those surveyed saying that HR is aware of Dame Carol Black’s review and the changes this may bring to OH, but 40% of respondents don’t know if their HR department is aware.
While 64% of respondents feel that their HR department is very aware of what OH does, 31% feel that it is only slightly aware.
Status and remits
The survey gives insights into how OH nurses view their status within their organisation in relation to HR professionals, with 77% saying their HR contact is their peer, 11% their senior, and 5% their junior.
Respondents were asked what OH tasks could reasonably be undertaken by HR:
First-day absence management = 36.5%
Non-medical display screen equipment assessments = 29.3%
assessments = 22.4%
Health promotion = 8.4%
Other = 3.4%
Despite this, 70% said that HR does not cover any aspect of the OH remit in their place of work. Of the 23% who said that HR did undertake some OH remit, 60% said HR looked after first-day absence management, and 17% said HR looked after health promotion. Seven in 10 (69%) feel that OH and HR share good practice, while 23% think they do not.
Recruitment and medical records
Two in five respondents (39%) said that HR attends interviews when OH professionals are recruited, and 35% said they do not.
In most organisations, line managers undertake back-to-work interviews, with 77% of respondents saying so, while OH and HR undertake 7% and 5% respectively.
OH advisers are clear on the issue of confidentiality, with 95% saying HR does not have access to medical records, and 96% saying they would not allow HR to have access to them if they were asked. Nevertheless, 44% said HR has asked to view medical records.
Twenty-one per cent said HR does have access to non-medical health records (those excluding sensitive health data), while 63% do not allow HR access to these.
Respondents believe that HR wants to see records because they do not trust OH professionals to give them all the information required to make a valid judgement on the employee’s fitness for work.
Meetings and referrals
In most organisations there are regular meetings between the two functions, with 43% having monthly structured meetings, 24% weekly meetings, and 14% quarterly meetings, while 14% have no structured meetings with HR.
On the topic of referrals there is a perception that HR tends to use OH as a dumping ground for management problems, with 43% thinking HR will nearly always send OH any issues they receive from line managers without checking the problem first and trying to resolve it. Fifteen per cent felt that HR checks all issues first before sending them on.
Almost half of OH nurses (48%) will deal with a referral even though they feel that it should have been resolved before it reached the OH department, while 37% will send the referral back to HR.
“In the final section of the report, the majority of people surveyed felt that HR understands and respects what OH does and sees OH as a help and a valuable asset to the workplace,” says Steven Roberts, commercial manager of Occupational Health Recruitment.
“This is very positive, although it could be argued that this is OH professionals giving their view on what others think of them, and that personally we all may have a high opinion of ourselves. To counter this we would argue that the positive thinking behind the answers to these questions would be reflective of the feedback the people surveyed would have received from the work they do with HR.”
Contact Occupational Health Recruitment