The Work and Health Unit (WHU) is a UK government unit which brings together officials from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) to lead the government’s strategy to support the employment of working-age disabled people, or people with long-term health conditions. The ‘Improving lives: Future of work, health and disability’ paper outlined the role of good quality occupational health (OH) to help disabled people and people with health conditions stay, and thrive, in work, as well as preventing unnecessary sickness absence, presenteeism and health-related job loss.
OH can be defined as advisory and support services which help to maintain and promote employee health and wellbeing by providing direct support to employees and managers, as well as at the organisational level (to improve work environment and cultures). This can cover:
- Preventing work-related illness or injury through encouraging safe working practices;
- Recommending reasonable adjustments (e.g. ensuring the workplace is accessible, making changes to employees’ desks or chairs for more comfortable working, or amending job roles);
- Managing long and short-term sickness absence and employees’ return to work;
- Preventing common health concerns from arising through monitoring the health of the workforce, pre-employment health assessments, or health promotion programmes; and
- Providing advice/counselling to employees around non-health or non-work related problems.
- Employers used OH to consult a qualified expert for situations they felt unable to handle alone, either through lack of expertise or due to a need for an independent third party.
- Employers used OH services for various reasons and services and their understanding of what OH could offer was influenced by how they had used it in the past.
- The nature of the working environment shaped how employers used their OH services; for example, manual environments posed higher health and safety risks.
- Employers’ motivations were their legal responsibilities, costs, and moral obligations towards their employees. Employers primarily used OH in order to retain staff.
- Employers who offered a range of other health and wellbeing initiatives, but not OH, exhibited a range of financial, attitudinal and knowledge barriers to OH provision.
- Employers were largely positive about their OH providers and relied heavily on them to recommend services or treatments.
Ipsos MORI undertook 35 in-depth interviews between October and November 2019, with GB employers who had responsibility for HR or personnel issues. Participants had all taken part in a survey run by Ipsos MORI on behalf of WHU in summer 2018 (‘Sickness absence and health in the workplace: Understanding employer behaviour and practice’, due to be published later in 2019).
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