A healthy workforce is a more productive one, so it makes sense for businesses to do everything possible to give staff the necessary support when they fall ill, writes Sam Barrett

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With the success of most businesses totally dependent on their employees, keeping them healthy, happy and productive is a priority. And, although having access to occupational health support used to be the preserve of the very largest organisations, the value of these services is being appreciated by an increasing number of smaller employers.

The reason for this is a simple matter of economics. Elliott Hurst, director, health consulting at Axa PPP healthcare, says that while large organisations and those with greater risk exposure – such as oil and mining companies – continue to hire their own occupational health resources, outsourcing has transformed it into something that all employers can access.

“Most companies will use independent third parties to provide their occupational health services. This is more cost effective for smaller companies and also means they benefit from their independence as well as their expertise,” he explains.

In addition, the launch of the government’s Fit for Work Service is likely to drive take up. The service, which provides free work-related health advice where an employee has been, or is likely to be, off work for at least four weeks, will also raise the profile of the subject.

Benefits of occupational health

With a greater number of organisations able to access occupational health services, more can enjoy the benefits they bring. These services can be used to keep employees healthy, everything from health assessments and screenings to ensure employees are fit for their role, to absence management and return-to-work advice to help those who might have a problem.

These interventions can help reduce absence costs and improve productivity, both of which are good news for a company’s bottom line.

“The value of healthy, engaged employees is huge,” adds Kim Strugnell, director of healthcare at Xafinity. “Think about the cost to the business of a staff member being off sick for three months. It can affect the business substantially, with everything from morale to customer satisfaction potentially suffering.”

Employers can also use occupational health services to help reduce risk and ensure compliance with some of their health and safety requirements.

For example, some firms will have statutory health surveillance requirements around areas such as noise, vibration and respiratory hazards. But, even those that don’t have these requirements will be able to monitor workforce health to ensure they don’t expose personnel to undue harm.

On top of this, having access to specialist advice can also ensure an employer doesn’t inadvertently breach its legal responsibilities.

Paul Avis, marketing director at Canada Life Group Insurance, explains: “If an employee is absent from work due to illness or injury, the employer may have responsibilities under the Equality Act, for example making reasonable adjustments to enable them to continue working. Having advice in this area can save a legal nightmare.”

There are also specific benefits for smaller companies. Although firms of all sizes are as lean as possible when it comes to headcount, small and medium-sized enterprises – SMEs – tend to struggle more if someone is off work sick.

The right strategies can help prevent this becoming a long-term issue, as Beate O’Neil, head of wellness consulting at Punter Southall Health & Protection Consulting, explains. “The sooner an employer refers someone to occupational health when they’re absent the greater the chances of them coming back to work quickly,” she says. “It’s about looking after your key resource – your employees.”

Picking a provider

Choosing the right occupational health services provider is key. However, the market is very fragmented, with providers ranging from large national firms such as Axa PPP healthcare, Bupa and Health Management Ltd through to small local providers, including some GPs, so making the selection takes more than a quick internet search.

O’Neil recommends thinking carefully about your requirements before selecting. “If you only have one office you could use a local provider, but if you have several throughout the country, a national provider may be more suitable. Similarly, consider whether you have any specific health risks that might influence your choice of provider,” she says.

Another factor you may want to weigh up is the way in which the services are provided. These can be delivered by occupational health nurses or doctors, by telephone or face to face. O’Neil recommends choosing a service that offers the option of face-to-face assessments.

“A provider will gain a much better idea of how someone is, especially in terms of mental health, if they can see them,” she says. “This will really help the assessment they make and may save you time, too, if you don’t need a second opinion.”

Consider a test case

Given the importance of picking a provider that suits your organisation, it may be worth devising a test case to get a sense of the type of service and advice you’d receive.

Carl Chapman, head of workplace health at Barnett Waddingham, points out: “Quality varies hugely between providers so make sure the one you select is comfortable providing guidance on the action you need to take. Unfortunately, some will sit on the fence, which can reduce the benefit that they’ll bring to your organisation.”

However you decide to make your selection, Xafinity’s Strugnell recommends that you find a suitable provider yourself rather than waiting until you find that you need their services.

She explains: “Most companies will have a case where they need to access occupational health expertise and they’re forced to take whatever service they can find. It’s much better to avoid this panic by finding a suitable service when there isn’t a pressing need.”

Price of advice

The variety of providers in the market also means there are several different ways to pay for services. While it’s possible to pay on an ad hoc basis, opting for an annual retainer is another option and many providers are happy to be flexible with their charging structure.

What’s right will depend on your needs, but Strugnell believes that for most companies a retainer works best. She explains: “It’s worth having a retainer as it can encourage you to expand the scope of the service you use so you’ll get more value. If you pay as you go, the fees will be higher and this can stop you using the service.”

In addition, by having an ongoing relationship with your provider, they will gain a better understanding of your business and be able to provide advice that is more tailored to your requirements.

You may also be able to cut the cost of your provider. Over the past few years, the emergence of free added-value services on other health and group risk benefits means that many organisations have access to some occupational health support already.

A good example of this is group income protection, where some of the providers offer business support and absence management services alongside their core product.

Avis adds: “Group income protection gives employers access to early intervention and case management services where someone is off work. This means an employer could have a smaller and more targeted occupational health spend, focusing on areas they require, such as post-offer assessments, health surveillance and more preventative support.”

Occupational health integration

To reap the maximum benefit from your occupational health provider it may also be necessary to make some adjustments within the workplace.

Chapman explains: “You may need to adjust some of your internal processes to be sure the right triggers are in place for referral to occupational health. Preventing someone going long-term sick requires rapid intervention so, if you’re not referring your absence as early as possible, you might as well not bother having the service.”

It’s also essential to promote the service within the workplace.

Hurst says that often employers miss out on opportunities to help a staff member back into work quickly because they simply don’t know they have access to support.

“You need to continually promote your occupational health services to employees, and especially line managers,” he adds. “By making sure they know when it’s appropriate to use these services, you’ll get the best value from them.”

Occupational health can even enable other benefits to be used more effectively. By giving your provider information about any other healthcare benefits you have, they can recommend that an employee uses these to access treatment and further support.

As an example, if a staff member is absent due to stress, the occupational health provider could recommend they contact the company’s employee assistance programme for counselling. If this is unable to help them return to work, they could then refer them to the medical insurance or group income protection for further support.

Similarly, with a musculoskeletal problem, the employee could be referred to the physiotherapy benefit on a cash plan or medical insurance to enable them to get fast access to treatment. This could prevent the problem getting worse and reduce the risk of long-term absence.

Improving workplace health

It can also be beneficial to look beyond the intervention-type support and work in a more strategic way with your occupational health provider to improve the overall wellbeing of employees.

Many can help with screenings, which can include quick checks on areas such as blood pressure, diabetes and cholesterol, as well as more comprehensive programmes. Coupled with an education programme, these types of tests can encourage people to take steps to improve their health status.

In addition, some providers will be able to supply management information on the health of an organisation. This can highlight problems and enable the employer to introduce much more targeted health and wellbeing initiatives.

“Use occupational health proactively rather than just for interventions,” says Strugnell. “Whether you’re looking to change the culture of your workplace or implement a wellness strategy, your provider can help you find ways to improve the health of your employees and your business.”