To help more over 50s remain in employment, there needs to be a shift away from treating people when they become too ill to work to preventing them from getting ill in the first place, a group of MPs have been told by occupational health and occupational hygiene professionals.
In an evidence session before the Work and Pensions Committee this week, which considered how the rising tide of economic inactivity among older workers could be addressed, Professor Kevin Bampton, chief executive at the British Occupational Hygiene Society (BOHS), noted that employers, the NHS and the government were slowly moving away from the reactive approach of waiting for someone to get ill before intervening. However, there is still very little in the way of a preventative strategy to tackle the root causes of work-related illness.
He said: “We gather a lot of data about people [when they engage with GPs or the benefits system], but one thing we don’t ask [about] is why they got ill… we don’t understand the link between work, occupation and how they got ill, and therefore it’s very hard to then track how to get someone back into work.
“There’s a tremendous opportunity. If every 50+ year old who went for a health assessment was asked one question: ‘what are you exposed to at work?’, or ‘are you exposed to dust?’, etc, we could actually change a whole host of things. We ask lots of questions but we don’t necessarily join up the cause and effect.
“If we got that material together, we could [develop] a national strategy, and also personal strategies.”
Professor Bampton suggested that the UK’s biggest employer, the NHS, should set an example by developing a preventative strategy to look after workers’ health.
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Dr Shriti Pattani, president of the Society of Occupational Medicine (SOM), noted that people who are out of work because of illness do not necessarily have access to occupational health support that would recommend how jobs could be adapted to meet their health needs.
She said there are a range of employment support services in job centres that could help jobseekers with health conditions, but many primary care professionals are not aware of them.
“The Society is particularly interested in joining up primary care, occupational health and employment services… [this is] key to supporting those who are over 50 to get back into employment,” she said.
Dr Pattani highlighted a programme in Durham where Department for Work and Pensions work coaches sit alongside GPs in primary care, which has helped people get access to the support they need to join, or stay in, the workplace.
“We’re starting, hopefully by March this year, to actually provide occupational health support. When the work coaches or the GPs are dealing with complex medical conditions and fitness to work, they’ll have a process by which they can refer on to an occupational health clinician who can then provide input into [a] holistic assessment around functionality… and how the employer and the employee [can] work effectively and safely,” she said.
Visibility of occupational health
Dr Pattani said the pandemic had improved the visibility of OH, and the profession had moved from a reactive to a proactive service that businesses were beginning to recognise and understand more.
Hopefully we can understand that if we do not prevent someone from getting ill in the workplace, it can be economically catastrophic – Professor Kevin Bampton, BOHS
“Employers are beginning to recognise that being able to make adjustments [and] adapting the workplace can allow people to work effectively, so there’s been a quite a lot of positive movement [as a result of the pandemic],” she added.
Professor Bampton said the pandemic also highlighted the important work of occupational hygiene professionals in preventing illness. For example, organisations are now much more aware of the importance of good ventilation and effective PPE.
“It’s very clear from Covid that being able to prevent people from getting ill is a lot cheaper and a lot easier than dealing with the impact of illness,” he said.
“The notion of waiting until someone gets ill and then bringing in occupational health – and they’ll either fix them or give you a reason to dismiss them – hopefully we’re moving away from that. Hopefully we can understand that if we do not prevent someone from getting ill in the workplace, it can be economically catastrophic for individual companies and indeed the whole of the UK.
“The occupational hygiene profession, the people who are experts in prevention, were key to getting us back [to work]. Hopefully we can move away from waiting for the worst to happen and [then] trying to quickly come up with a treatment,” Professor Bampton added.