OH provision for small employers could help disabled people into work

Occupational health provision needs to be made more accessible to smaller organisations to help increase the employment rate among those with disabilities, delegates at a conference on disability and health were told earlier this month.

According to the Office for National Statistics there are around 3.8 million people with a disability in employment – only 50.7% of the working-age disabled population, compared with 80.1% of the non-disabled population.

While occupational health professionals are best placed to assist organisations in providing the adjustments that workers with physical and mental disabilities need, smaller businesses often do not have the resources to invest in OH provision.

Tabitha Jay, director at the Joint Work and Health Unit at the Department of Health and Social Care and the Department for Work and Pensions, said the unit was trying to determine what were the key barriers stopping employers accessing OH provision.

She told the Westminster Employment Forum conference that half of the UK workforce had no access to OH provision in their workplace. The unit was “working with experts to ensure that employers are buying quality provision they can trust”, she told delegates.

Smaller employers were often able to be more flexible than larger organisations when it came to making adjustments for staff with disabilities, said Sonali Parekh, head of policy at the Federation of Small Businesses.

“It’s a lot easier for a small business to use their experience and judgments in taking somebody on because… they can individualise decisions,” she explained.

One way to improve access to OH for smaller organisations could be if other businesses in their supply chain were willing to share their provision, she suggested.

Pre-employment health screening

Pre-employment health questionnaires could also be overhauled to help those with disabilities into work, argued Sam Murray-Hinde, a partner at law firm Howard Kennedy.

“You can ask questions designed to find out whether they can carry out intrinsic functions for the role, but there’s little guidance on what this means, so in practice employers don’t ask questions because it’s perceived to be too risky,” she said.

“As a result, [where] a health condition that might affect someone’s job, sometimes it comes to light that it’s already had a negative impact [in a previous role].

“Employees can be wary about speaking openly about their conditions through fear of being dismissed.”

Parekh urged employers to think about offering temporary job placements to disabled people to build up their work experience. They could also move away from traditional interviews for those who might find them difficult, such as people with autism.

Better employment support for those with long-term conditions should also be ingrained in the healthcare system, suggested Genevieve Smyth, professional adviser at the Royal College of Occupational Therapists (RCOT).

The RCOT is undertaking a project with Public Health England that is aiming to make it routine for all clinicians to raise work issues with patients, including barriers such as working hours or transport arrangements.

The Health and Work Champions project is seeing 55 “champions” across England deliver training to their colleagues to help improve their knowledge of the effect work can have on health, and vice-versa.

“The aim of the project is to create culture change in healthcare so it’s standard practice for all clinicians to be able to appropriately and sensitively ask work questions to the people they work with,” said Smyth.

“It’s another way of getting GPs to the right level of expertise much earlier [so they can offer earlier advice to] people when they’re struggling to get employment,” she added.

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