When the Health and Safety Executive's (HSE) long-term strategy for occupational health (OH), Securing Health Together, was published five years ago, its preface clearly stated that OH professionals working in isolation from other stakeholders were not going to make the necessary difference to workplace health.
The most critical relationship essential to address health in the workplace is probably the partnership between OH and HR, but this relationship does not appear to be working as well as it might. Why is this, and how can the two work together more effectively to secure better workplace health?
In 2005, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development's annual Absence Management Survey of Policy and Practice demonstrated that if workplace health is to be managed effectively, there is a clear need for OH and HR to work together.1
The report identified a number of issues that were critical to the management of absence (see Table 1). It also looked at the improvements that had been made in the management of sickness absence and found that a number of factors were identified as most influential in reducing levels of sickness absence (see Table 2).
Where organisations had access to OH support, most of the referrals were made at the discretion of HR and line managers (61%), while others were automatically triggered from HR absence management information, where there were recurring short-term absences or long-term absences of more than a month.
Given this important employee health and welfare role for HR, OH professionals might be surprised that sickness absence management is not seen as a priority for HR. In a study of more than 1,000 HR professionals,2 absence management was not cited as one of the key priorities.
The focus for HR is on business issues, such as improving employee focus on achieving business goals, increasing employee competencies and retaining key staff. Indeed, in many organisations, the management of employee health and wellbeing has been moved to line managers, with the HR specialist only being available via a remote personnel helpdesk.
In many organisations, sickness absence management has become something of a Cinderella role for the HR function, with high-flying HR professionals being more interested in gaining experience in such areas as recruitment, training and development and organisational development.
The problem with HR...