Will new workplace health and wellbeing alliance bring together service providers and users?

The new Better Health at Work Alliance is marketing itself as an industry-led, one-stop resource for workplace health and wellbeing. But what does the alliance offer that is not available from other associations?

“One of the things that, I think, really sets us apart is that we have a very broad representation – we are for the whole workplace health and wellbeing industry, not just one profession or specialist group,” says Jeremy Smith, clinical director of occupational health consultancy Occupational Health Services (South East).

“For us, it simply seemed like a good idea. There is still a lot of ignorance generally out there, among employers and the general public, about occupational health, how it works and what it can do. By making people more aware of the services organisations such as ours provide, it will help the industry and individuals; it is simply a way for us to increase our visibility and footprint as an industry.”

Smith is talking about his decision to become a member of the newest arrival on the workplace health advocacy landscape, the Better Health at Work Alliance (BHWA).

Smith’s consultancy is one of about 40 organisations that have already signed up to join the new body, which describes itself as an “industry-led, one-stop resource” for workplace health and wellbeing, and which was officially launched in March.

The organisation is led by Charlotte Cross, former manager of the Commercial Occupational Health Providers’ Association and a key member of the working group that established the Council for Work and Health in 2009.

But what is different about this organisation and, most of all – given the level of representation that already exists under the broad banner of “workplace health” – do we even need it?

Connected strands

The alliance comprises a number of discrete, yet connected, strands, explains Cross. First it is a membership body. As well as the 40 or so corporate members, the ­alliance currently has about 100 individuals “pre-registered” to join. The yearly fee is £35 for an individual and from £80 to £475 (all excluding VAT) for an organisation, based on its size.

What members get for their money is a networking and knowledge-sharing forum, and access to an internal marketplace where members can both trade and communicate and an external presence where employers and individuals can source services and guidance. The ambition is for the alliance to run CPD-style training and events as well as, in time, offer a recruitment and jobs’ hub and, more widely, simply bring the ­industry together.

“One of the things that, I think, really sets us apart is that we have a very broad representation – we are for the whole workplace health and wellbeing industry, not just one profession or specialist group. We have people and organisations within mental health, wellbeing, health and safety, ergonomics, physiotherapy, occupational health, the whole range. What is exciting is the sheer variety of different practitioners we can have under the BHWA umbrella,” says Cross.

What others say

  • “Having a vehicle like the BHWA will allow OHAs like myself to properly assess and research what may best suit our specific areas and work. I regularly stumble across research and evidence by others, industry services which I had little knowledge of, and this one-stop resource will, I feel, make my aims of finding out ‘what is out there’ more straightforward.” Helen Jones, occupational health adviser, Fox’s Biscuits
  • “The alliance has huge potential to simplify occupational health for employers and providers alike. We think the BHWA can be a game changer in our industry.” Ross Tomkins, clinical director, Therapy Direct Healthcare
  • “The health of the workforce has never been more important than now, and so an initiative which helps make health and wellbeing services more accessible has got to be good news. We look forward to working with BHWA and promoting these important services to employers.” Paul Guy, key account manager, Payplan
  • “I believe a forward-thinking initiative like this is long overdue in the health and wellbeing at work sector, which is sometimes guilty of being too inert. I am personally a firm believer in collaboration being the key to success – ultimately people learn from people.” Alex Goldsmith, chief executive, Medigold Health
  • “As working environments now demand so much more from us all, it’s excellent to have effective solutions made readily available, providing employers with access to so many ideas to help them thrive and stay competitive.” Mark Braithwaite, managing director, Gipping Occupational Health

“I was clear from the outset it needed to be kept affordable and accessible,” she adds. “That £35 will get you access to a bespoke platform, eligibility to come to events and opportunities to raise your profile within the industry. You will, as a member, also have an internal profile on the website – which is not publicly visible but which other members can see and access,” she adds.

A second strand of activity is to act as an advice portal for employers and interested individuals by providing free news, blogs, guidance and thought leadership. These will include resources such as an “Ask the expert” section, micro “Wiki” sites on various health topics (such as an “A-Z of health at work”) and a “help” centre.

The third and final strand is for the alliance to engage in general PR, advocacy and raising awareness of workplace health and wellbeing, for example recently commenting on the Health and Safety Executive’s 2016 strategy document and the Council for Work & Health’s latest report on workforce planning within the profession.

“The reception so far has been awesome, if anything it’s been a case of trying to keep up with the demand of what people want it to be. I think over time the CPD and networking potential of the BHWA, as well as the Wiki-based information and news, is going to become very valuable, to members, to the wider industry and to the general public,” says Cross.

“The vision is about creating a platform, an identity, for the whole industry – somewhere professionals, employers and the public can all come. It’s about having a one-stop-shop where people can go for information on health and wellbeing without having to trawl around a load of different organisations or websites. Employers will be able to use us to find services and contact experts as well as just get advice, guidance and pick up the latest insight,” she adds.

Multidisciplinary approach to workplace health and wellbeing

“Its aims, around supporting and promoting the whole multidisciplinary industry, chimed with me because, of course, OH practitioners are increasingly taking a multidisciplinary approach anyway,” agrees Occupational Health Services (South East)’s Smith, who is also a former president of the Association of Occupational Health Nurse Practitioners (AOHNP).

“As an independent consultant, it will be, I think, very handy to have an outlet like this where it is possible to get a wide range of different messages out and which is working to raise awareness of workplace health and wellbeing with the wider population.

“A lot of our industry still works in silos. There are a lot of different disciplines, and being able to tap into resources that can suggest ‘how about going to this organisation or these people?’ I think could work, rather than having to do a broad-brush internet search.

“I certainly don’t think it’s going to be stepping on any toes. I do think it is important to be raising awareness of health and wellbeing and the breadth of services that are now out there, how occupational health can support employers and the workforce,” he adds.

Smith’s comments touch on an important aspect of this alliance, begging the question of whether we really need it given the fact the various disciplines of the profession are already well represented individually.

It is, of course, early days. The BHWA is a new organisation and how this new alliance is received and accepted by the profession, employers and individuals alike is yet to be seen.

In many respects, however, the question of “is it needed?” is answered in the paragraph above, by the line “the various disciplines of the profession are already well-represented individually”. But the BHWA’s point of difference, emphasises Cross, is that it aims to represent the whole spectrum of the health and wellbeing industry, ranging from physicians working in occupational medicine through to OH nurses, ergonomists, physiotherapists and other allied health professionals.

Moreover, Cross is adamant the new body does not pose – and should not be seen as posing – a threat to the existing professional or industry bodies.

“I want us to complement what is already out there. We’re not going to be doing accreditation or clinical referrals, for example. We’re also very definitely not trying to take on any of the existing bodies,” she says.

“Organisations such as the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health, the Commercial Occupational Health Providers’ ­Association, the AOHNP, the Faculty and Society of Occupational Medicine, the Council for Work and Health all do a fantastic job for their members, for their specific areas. We don’t for one second want to challenge any of that; the BHWA is simply about ­engaging with, bringing together and communicating health and wellbeing across the board,” she adds.

The alliance’s emphasis on creating connections and disseminating information through a digital platform should also not be underestimated.

It has long been recognised that, for many employers, simply understanding workplace and occupational health is a challenge, let alone the myriad disciplines and/or solutions that can potentially be brought to bear. At the same time, it is probably fair to say, the digital profile of many organisations within the health and wellbeing space is not that innovative or intuitive.

If this new alliance therefore can square the circle of offering accessible, practical solutions, whether basic information, more thoughtful insight or advocacy or access to actual interventions or services, via an accessible and practical digital hub, then that could be a compelling “sell” for many time-poor employers looking for health and wellbeing answers or, conversely, time-poor providers looking for an easy way to market their services.

As Cross concludes: “Traditionally, membership organisations have often tended to be inward facing or drill down to become very exclusive specialist interest groups, which is fine as far as it goes and undoubtedly serves the needs of those specific members well. But in our emerging market, what we actually need is an industry body that is able to act as a gateway, to pull it all together and quickly ease practical hurdles such as access, recruitment and more, within an affordable modern membership product. And that is what the BHWA offers.”

Only time will tell. But, for now, there’s a new kid on the workplace health block that it could well be worth employers and providers checking out.

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