The Society of Occupational Medicine (SOM) has published its response to the government’s consultation on improving health at work, noting that there is a strong evidence base to show occupational health’s value in helping people with long-term conditions back into work – but that OH provision needs to increase.
The Health is everyone’s business: proposals to reduce ill health-related job loss consultation, which was published by the Department of Health and Social Care and the Department for Work and Pensions in July, unveiled a raft of proposals to improve the level of occupational health provision – especially among smaller employers – and to reform statutory sick pay.
Health at work consultation
Government plans to widen statutory sick pay and improve workplace health
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Publishing its response to the consultation shortly after the consultation closed on 7 October, SOM said it hoped the proposals would build capacity and provide rapid access to modern occupational health advice, particularly via doctors and nurses.
It said: “We welcome the recognition that occupational health professionals are uniquely placed to enhance the productivity of the nation while keeping workers healthy and safe. We are pleased that the consultation recognises the lack of access to occupational health services, which are currently provided only to around half of all employees.”
SOM said it supported the government’s exploration of whether small employers should get financial support, such as vouchers or subsidies, to purchase occupational health services, but noted the government also needed to encourage an increase in OH specialists to increase provision.
“There is a serious shortage of specialists in occupational medicine; in the NHS alone, numbers of consultants have declined from 80 to 60 over the past two years,” it said.
“Training remains a real issue in the provision of occupational health services. This is not just about resources but the training process including applying for a trainee is extremely bureaucratic and is very difficult to undertake for a provider other than those who are quite large or who have within their consultant ranks previous experience of training. That is to say the barrier to entry to be a trainer remains high.
“SOM welcomes investment in occupational health for small businesses and we urge the government to invest in occupational health professionals to allow this scale up to occur.”
Turning to the government’s proposal for a statutory sick pay (SSP) rebate for small firms to incentivise greater action by employers to help staff return to work, SOM said any such rebate would need to be carefully designed.
“Any rebate must not be conditional on the employee returning to work, as this will put high and undue pressure on individuals. It is not constructive to simply require employers to get someone back to work. It is important that an employer supports them in a way that works for the employee,” SOM said.
“Whilst a rebate of SSP could help to allay business concerns about hiring people who an employer assumes may need time off sick, any rebate must not be just for disabled people. This would be incredibly stigmatising and ignores the value disabled people bring to the workplace.”
SOM said it supported the proposals on phased return to work and removing the qualifying days for SSP as these would simplify the process for employers .However, it noted that creating a “multilevel system” including a right to reasonable adjustments (for people with disability), a right to request flexible working (for all), and a right to request workplace modifications (for people with long-term conditions, would increase complexity.