If occupational health practitioners want to achieve better health outcomes in the workplace, especially when it comes to new challenges such as long Covid, they’re going to need to embrace and lead genuinely joined-up partnership working, argues Dr Julie Denning.
I recently set out the case for ‘work-ability’ to become a health outcome in an article for OHW+.
This suggested a framework for support – for Long Covid or any long-term condition or chronic disease – designed around what people can do, when and how.
In principle, this all sounds great. It’s what government wants, it’s what third-party suppliers want (insurers and wellbeing service providers) and it’s arguably what employers and employees want. In practice, however, it’s not quite so simple, thanks to various hurdles.
Unpicking organisational barriers
Perhaps the biggest of those hurdles – and the focus for this article – is the issue of disjoints and turf wars across departments. The bigger and more complex the organisation, the worse it tends to get.
These disconnects are often driven, in no small part, by guidelines from official bodies, which help determine HR policy and procedure.
Take Acas’ return-to-work guidelines, for example. These make it clear that the employer should only talk with the employee about any support they may need “when the employee feels able to return to work”.
Such guidelines have made it very difficult for practitioners to garner support at management level for any kind of structured, consistent programme of assessment and support for employees at an earlier stage, other than simply “making contact”.
This does nothing to help target rehabilitation of a multidisciplinary nature at an early stage to help people improve their work-ability.
As I mentioned in my previous article, long Covid could be the thing that acts as a catalyst for change here, as its very challenging for an individual to assess whether they are ready to return to work when symptoms can and will change daily.
Long Covid, much like most long-term conditions or chronic diseases, is complex and deserves more tailored, early-stage support from a combination of experts.
Five ways to achieve more cohesive support
Long Covid, much like most long-term conditions or chronic diseases, is complex and deserves more tailored, early-stage support from a combination of experts.”
Many employers are probably already well-placed to help. They usually have all the expertise, tools and services they need. They key is to get everyone working together in a more cohesive manner. Here, then, are five few suggestions on how to achieve this:
1) Articulate the business case. In line with the growing urgency from leaders to focus much more clearly on the ‘s’ in ESG (environmental, social and corporate governance, especially in terms of sustainable people, culture and practice), HR, occupational health and vocational rehabilitation (with a little help and support from finance) might want to consider pulling together a business case for a new framework for wellbeing support
This should be one that shifts away from the current silos (wellbeing initiatives over here, benefits and services over there, reactive absence management somewhere else and so on) and instead pulls everything together as part of a cohesive and measurable plan that has business goals in mind.
2) Include health and safety within this too. All too often health and safety is busy risk assessing – including mandatory stress risk assessments – but not necessarily sharing outcomes with HR. Or at least not in a way that allows HR and line managers to then garner support from relevant experts to help tailor interventions, benefits and services to help prevent little issues potentially becoming big problems.
3) Ensure multi-disciplinary expertise is accessible (when needed, if the budget doesn’t run to full time). This could include occupational therapists, cognitive behavioural therapists, physiotherapists, and psychologists, among others.
It is important, too, to tailor support packages to need, at an early stage. This might include tailored education and health coaching, fatigue management, physiotherapy-led activity, emotional support and anxiety management.
Plus, don’t forget signposting to relevant benefits and services to which they might already have access via the workplace. And perhaps social signposting to relevant public sector community services too.
4) Include line managers. On an employer level, the bespoke support should ideally extend to line managers, helping them to help their team members return to work.
This might include line manager training, perhaps focused on: how to have conversations about long Covid; understanding what ‘reasonable adjustments’ are; or how a phased return might work in practice.
5) Think beyond either being absent or at work. Finally, employers need to be encouraged not to fall into the trap of thinking that absence is the only option when their employee is ill.
Employees need to be given options for returning to work. Even if they’re just doing a couple of hours a week, just dipping a toe back into the workplace, it’s better than nothing; it’s giving them structure, social support and some semblance of normality.
In subsequent articles, exclusive to OHW+, Dr Julie Denning will take a look at ‘how’ in terms of long Covid. How, in terms of framework design and implementation, do you make the best use of existing wellbeing and benefit resources?