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Urgent boost needed for UK Occupational Health capability

Terry Woolmer

Annual Work & Health survey shows waiting time for treatment, surgery and tests and stress at work largest causes of long term absence. Britain’s manufacturers are urging the Government to use its review Occupational Health (OH) provision in the UK to ensure all companies have access to an OH service as part of a much wider overarching strategy for tackling more than just work related sickness absence. Contributor Terry Woolmer, Head of Health & Safety Policy – EEF.

The call comes on the back of a major survey of Work and Health by EEF, the manufacturers’ organisation and specialist insurance broker Howden. It shows that whilst the vast majority of employers are providing their employees with access to OH services, many are still not recording work related absence or are unclear about whether their risk control measures and OH management have an impact on the number of cases of work-related ill-health.

The survey also shows that waiting time for medical surgery/investigation, tests and recovery from surgery remains the biggest cause of work-related absence followed by stress. Both of these have been heading higher in EEF’s three previous surveys since 2009 whilst other health conditions such as back problems, heart conditions and cancer have either plateaued or declined.

Commenting, Terry Woolmer, Head of Health & Safety Policy at EEF said: “It has long been recognised that a healthy workforce is a more productive workforce. Investment in the wellbeing of employees by both the employer and Government makes sense not just for good business practice but also the benefits to wider society from reduced benefits and pressure on a stretched NHS system.

“The focus on Occupational Health needs to regain momentum, however, especially given the upward trend of a number of causes of long term absence. This should involve practical short term measures such as a replacement for the ‘Fit for Work’ service, as well as a long term focus on a wider strategy for employee health that goes way beyond just managing absence.”

Glenn Thomas, Managing Director of Employee Benefits for Howden UK added: “In addition to Government provision, manufacturing businesses also have a role to play. It’s encouraging to see that manufacturers are making use of Occupational Health (OH) provisions within the workplace and are adopting a broad range of methods, for instance 38% adopting an employee assistant programme (EAP) to help combat work related stress.

“Whilst employee wellbeing is high on industry agendas it is apparent that businesses need to maximise return on their benefit spend. This is echoed in the report, with many companies not knowing whether the measures they put in place are reducing absences or having a positive impact on employee health and wellbeing. Business leaders need to engage with employees to find out which services are best suited and make sure that employees are using the benefits provided to them.”

According to the survey business is recognising the importance of OH with just over four fifths of companies (81%) having access to OH services. Furthermore almost all companies are implementing measures to help re-integrate employees back into work, the foremost being phased returns to work (89%), reduced or different hours (84%) and time off for medical appointments (70%).

However, the use of early intervention services such as physiotherapy which have the greatest potential to facilitate early return to work has declined. The survey also shows that, in contrast, while employers recognise the importance of OH, many are still not recording either the levels of absence or the impact that their risk assessments are making on ill-health.

While one third of companies identify overall work related sickness absence two fifths do not, whilst a third of companies don’t record long term absence levels. Furthermore, of the three main causes of work related absence – Musculo Skeletal Disorders (MSDs), Occupational Lung Disease (OLD), Stress/Mental Health issues-  approaching a half of companies are unaware whether their risk control measures have an impact on the number of cases of ill health.

Where employers are responding to the health risks associated with these causes they are using a variety of interventions. Work stations/task risk assessment is used by over four fifths of companies (83%) to manage MSDs, hazardous substances training is used by 70% of companies to address OLD, whilst half of companies are adopting flexible working to deal with stress and mental health issues.

The most common cause of long term absence is waiting for medical investigations/tests or recovery from surgery (37%), followed by stress/mental health problems (22%) and MSDs (18%). EEF has been tracking these causes since 2009 and first two causes are on a steadily upwards trend.

For companies up to 250 employees, waiting for surgery or medical investigations is the main cause of long term absence (40%) while for larger companies it is MSDs (44%). Given the biggest cause of long term absence remains waiting for tests, investigations and recovery from surgery, EEF continues to believe that Government should consider fiscal incentives for SMEs in particular. This would incentivise them to pay for medical interventions to enable earlier return to work and help take pressure of the NHS.

Furthermore, as part of a boost to a wider overarching OH strategy EEF has made the following recommendations:

Government must find an urgent replacement for the ‘Fit for Work’ service to manage long term absence. If this is not to involve GPs then Government must facilitate the development of OH networks and/or providers to enable employers to development effective return to work plans.

Involve organisations such as the Health & Safety Executive to help keep up momentum on OH and to help prioritise the treatment of work related ill health

Use HSE to rebuild intelligence on which workplaces are making employees ill and how, re-establishing a similar body to the Employment Medical Advisory Service. This could form part of the OH solution currently being considered by the Department for Work & Pensions.

Encourage HSE to develop key performance indicators with industry sectors to enable companies to assess the impact their controls and interventions are having on reducing workplace ill health and absence.

Ensure the Government review of OH is not just narrowly focused on managing sickness absence and focuses on a wider range of activities such as health surveillance.

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