Occupational health managers’ sickness absence reports sometimes fail to provide HR with the information it needs to make a decision on long-term absence. As a result, barriers emerge between HR and OH. Coral Carr, senior HR resolution manager at DHL People Services, explains how her organisation tackled the problem.
HR and OH share the collective aim of keeping employees in the workplace, but problems frequently arise because of the differing remits of the two groups. Many factors can cause these difficulties, both internal and external, but the key to improving communications is to ensure that the right questions are asked when an employee is referred to OH.
However, the questions in an OH report must not compromise the employee’s right to privacy and confidentiality in relation to health data.
Sickness absence resources
Often, a “poor” OH report is a consequence of managers asking inappropriate questions, or failing to provide key information to the OH practitioner.
Sometimes a line manager will ask an OH adviser questions that have no relevance to the employee’s ability to fulfil their role, or ask about issues that focus on medical detail rather than information relevant to work functionality. Questions about health can raise concerns about confidentiality for OH advisers and delay the progress of a case. One way to reduce the potential for poor OH reports is to develop a template giving OH advisers a selection of questions to choose from, depending on their relevance to a particular individual’s situation.
Such a template could cover various reasons for sickness absence, including psychological health, ongoing medical conditions or fitness for administrative action. The following questions are examples of those that might be used by an OH provider when writing a report on an employee’s fitness to return to work after long-term sickness:
- Can you summarise the individual’s condition, possible treatment required and likely recovery time?
- Is the individual’s current inability to undertake workplace activity likely to significantly improve in the foreseeable future?
- To enable long-term planning, can you give an indication of the type of roles the individual would be able to consider as part of any future return-to-work programme, and roles they will be unable to undertake?
- Is the individual likely to be able to undertake all the functions of their role when they return to work?
- Will the individual be able to consider a phased return to work in the foreseeable future, and can you suggest an approximate timescale?
- Are there any additional actions that the employer or manager could consider to support the individual in their recovery and return to work?
- What barriers are preventing the individual in returning to the workplace?
- Is the Equality Act applicable in this case?
Case study: DHL
DHL’s people performance management (PPM) team provides the company’s managers with advice and support about a broad range of issues including: disciplinary action; employee grievances; long term absence; and performance management.
The HR manager’s role is to ensure that line managers follow DHL policies, procedures and “how to” guides, as well as using the tools available on DHL’s web portal.
DHL supports employees with a large number and variety of OH providers throughout the operation, both in-house and externally. As a result, the organisation has taken a variety of approaches when managing the health cycle and absence of its employees.
OH reports ranged from comprehensive to lacking background information, clarity and detail, which ultimately affected the manager’s ability to decide on an appropriate course of action.
OH practitioner Sarah Jane Mogford says: “Analysis of a selection of ‘poor’ OH reports established that, in many cases, the report was a consequence of the wrong questions being asked. Another problem was that key information was not provided to the OH practitioner, resulting in inappropriate advice being issued.
“The analysis also identified that the questioning of the OH provider focused on the individual’s medical detail in isolation, rather than its relevance to the employee’s role at work. This often raised difficulties for OH providers in terms of confidentiality and caused delays in the process, meaning the individual’s case could not progress.”
In 2013, an internal project was established to develop a consistent approach to managing these OH issues. One of the key objectives of the project was to establish a consistent process and tools to manage the health cycle and the absence of employees. This included sample questions to ask OH practitioners when referring employees, to ensure relevant advice was provided, while avoiding unnecessary medical detail.
This was supported by training on disability in the workforce, taking into account the Equality Act 2010. The PPM team members on the course participated in case study role plays and reviewed recent cases relating to disability.
The project group implemented a best-practice template with sections covering different scenarios including: psychological health; ongoing medical conditions; and fitness levels.
The emphasis shifted from asking specific health or diagnostic details, to posing questions pertinent to the employee’s role and how to overcome any barriers to work caused by the health problem.
Using the referral template now requires each manager to have knowledge of, and insight into, the individual employee’s case, in order to ask the “smart” questions to manage the case effectively, with advice provided by OH. This process provides advice for managers on how to manage referrals to OH, including the need to give the OH professional as much supporting information as possible.
The project has proved that effective and appropriate communication facilitates a collaborative approach to managing health in the workplace. Understanding the professional roles of HR, OH and line managers and respecting confidentiality are key to obtaining the best outcome for individual employees, the business and the professionals involved.