Occupational health can play a much greater role in supporting the government in its ambition to get the millions who have fallen out of the workplace since the pandemic because of ill health back into work, SOM (the Society of Occupational Medicine) has said.
An event at the House of Lords last week heard calls for the government to recognise the under-used potential of OH to keep people of all ages in work.
SOM is urging the government to do more to ‘join up’ OH, primary care, Department for Work and Pensions’ employment advisers, and work coaches to reduce worklessness because of ill health.
The event, which was hosted by Lord Blunkett and Baroness Finlay of Llandaff, brought together representatives from the royal colleges, business, the government, the NHS and academia to consider the issue of rising worklessness because of ill health.
The Office for National Statistics, among others, has found that the pandemic, long Covid and long NHS waiting lists have led to a surge in people aged over 50 dropping out of the workforce because of physical or mental ill health.
This exodus is an issue of growing concern for ministers, with prime minister Rishi Sunak set to offer over-50s a ‘midlife MOT’ to get them back into work, among other incentives.
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The government is also piloting a scheme whereby 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.
SOM, however, is arguing that making better use of OH could also help. Better connection between OH, health, and employment services would, “optimise use of the Fit Note to keep people in work when they are living through a period of ill health”, it has said.
“A leadership role across government is also necessary for drive and attention. Government should also encourage businesses to play a greater role in protecting the mental and physical health of employees.
“Public messaging needs to highlight the advantages of individuals staying in the workforce, including that work is generally good for our health,” SOM added.
The push aligns with SOM’s long-stated ambition to widen access to occupational health generally, ideally by making access to OH universal.
As it said at the event: “SOM is calling for universal access to OH to be a manifesto pledge, which could include an NHS offer for employees in smaller businesses or those seeking work.”
SOM chief executive Nick Pahl, told OHW+ that there had “clearly” been interest from government in the idea of occupational health playing a greater role in assisting people back into work.
“The work coaches initiative is part of that, but maybe government could go further in terms of better use of occupational health with Fit Notes, with discharge from hospital, increasing capacity in terms of training people as part of the NHS workforce plan, investing in a Centre for Work and Health, and so on,” Pahl said.
“Occupational health has a key role to help with this job market problem at the moment; this issue of people who are not in work because of ill health. I think the government is looking at ‘quick wins’; it is talking about scooping up over-50s and getting them back in the workforce through things like work coach access or encouraging them to come back to the workplace.
“But this goes right the way through the workforce and I think occupational health has a role to support people from joining the workforce through to mental health and MSKs, all the things that we know about. So, for us, it needs to be about more than just quick wins and more a comprehensive strategic approach involving occupational health,” Pahl added.