A voluntary minimum framework for occupational health provision will be created by the government, setting out the recommended level of OH services that employers should adopt to keep workers healthy.
In its response to the Occupational health: working better consultation it ran over the summer, the Department for Work and Pensions said it would establish an expert group to support the development of a voluntary minimum framework for OH intervention, which will be tailored to different business sizes.
The expert group will include experts in OH, public health and business, who will work on a framework that complements existing initiatives to support people with disabilities or long-term conditions, such as the DWP’s Disability Confident scheme.
DWP also plans to explore whether to develop workplace health and disability standards for employers to support and retain employees with health conditions, and will consider coupling this with a government-funded support offer which it suggests could incentivise uptake.
Voluntary minimum framework for occupational health
Other plans it intends to take forward include a digital marketplace where SMEs can pool their purchasing power to buy OH services, and further exploration of fit note reform.
It will launch a consultation on proposed fit note reforms in early 2024, including options for improving fit note assessments and integrating quicker access to specialised employment and health support.
It is also considering long-term opportunities to boost capacity in OH and the multidisciplinary work and health workforce, but noted that that any long-term ambitions will need to be aligned with NHS long term workforce planning.
The government will not pursue proposals for an auto-enrolment mechanism to increase OH access, after consultation respondents raised concerns about the resources available to SMEs and how mandatory OH services would be enforced.
The consultation received 182 responses, mostly from the healthcare sector, but also from employers in construction and manufacturing, as well as trade unions, charities and insurers.
Nick Pahl, CEO of SOM, said the proposals were a good first step, with the framework likely to “help business understand what a good OH offer is”.
He said: “SOM is pleased to see a focus on improving fit note use so that the right health professionals can be involved in health and work conversations with effective referral and support including links with Work Well partnerships to help with treatment journeys and wider financial support. We note there is not going to be extension of certification.”
However, he urged the government to suggest that businesses use tax cuts to invest in workforce health.
Autumn statement a missed opportunity
The government’s response was published as the chancellor was criticised for failing to offer more support for workers with health conditions in his Autumn statement, which had been widely anticipated to include an announcement about OH investment.
Jeremy Hunt confirmed the details of the government’s controversial Back to Work plan, including plans to ask people with mobility or mental health conditions to work from home or face losing their benefits.
However, he made no mention of how people with long-term conditions or injuries could be supported back into work, despite government sources previously suggesting that he would announce plans to increase access to occupational health services following the consultations on OH reform plans that ran over the summer.
The government is yet to respond to the second consultation, which concerned tax incentives for occupational health.
We would like to see the government go further and invest in new initiatives designed to increase wellbeing support for employees in the workplace. We ask that this includes clear guidance for employers on how they can support their employees’ physical and mental health, preferably in the form of a legally binding and regulated framework.” – Dave Capper, Westfield Health
By failing to recognise workplace health and wellbeing services in his statement, the chancellor is “ignoring the root cause” of long-term sickness absence, said Dave Capper, CEO at health insurer Westfield Health.
He said: “We would like to see the government go further and invest in new initiatives designed to increase wellbeing support for employees in the workplace. We ask that this includes clear guidance for employers on how they can support their employees’ physical and mental health, preferably in the form of a legally binding and regulated framework, as well as clearer routes to access for employees.”
Jamie Gollings, deputy research director at think-tank the Social Market Foundation, said the threat of having their benefits removed “will send a shiver down the spine” of those off work with mental health issues and disabilities, “causing them anxiety that could set people back in their recoveries and push them even further from the job market”.
“Most of those off work with mental health issues and disabilities want to get back into work, and the investment in such programmes is welcome. Working with employers to build forms of employment that can work around people’s conditions, from remote working to ‘stress-freelancing’, would help to create those routes. Better to do so with a supportive atmosphere that fosters rather than stifles recovery,” said Gollings.
The CIPD’s head of public policy Ben Willmott said measures to incentivise employment must not undermine wellbeing.
“The success of plans for welfare reform to support people with disabilities and long-term health conditions into employment will depend on whether there is enough tailored and bespoke support available,” he said, noting that the creation of more flexible jobs would help.
“Proposals to reform the fit note to focus on supporting treatment rather than time off are positive, but there is also a need to reform and enhance statutory sick pay and improve access to occupational health support for SMEs if we want to prevent more people from falling out of employment.”
Bertrand Stern-Gillet, CEO at EAP provider Health Assured, said the government’s “treatment not time off as the default sounds promising on paper”, but more detail was needed.
“It could be somewhat naïve to look at working from home as a miraculous cure for all those with mental health and mobility conditions. While the benefits of working from home have been heavily touted, the reality is often very different for many,” he said.
“For those already struggling with poor mental health, this plan could have a devastating impact if the correct support mechanisms are not put in place, including an occupational health provision. We’ve all seen the devastating impact that working alone in isolation has had on the mental health of some people in the country. No employer should take a blanket approach to remote working.”