What do you think of when you hear the term “occupational health” (OH)?
Perhaps an ergonomic keyboard? Or a health MOT at work? Or maybe a health and safety risk assessment?
These are all typical answers to this question. But, in some companies, OH has evolved hugely to become an integral part of the wellbeing agenda (see this KP Snacks case study where the former occupational health department has become the employee health and wellbeing department, absorbing the extra holistic wellbeing remit).
Historically, OH has been solely focused on ensuring employees are safe at work and checking that the company is satisfying all its legal requirements on this front. As Dame Carol Black says, in this form, it “is not fit for the health problems that the workforce has today”.
“In its conventional form, OH probably only does about half the job because employees are worried about so many other things now. About flexible working. About their financial wellbeing. About their mental health.”
A unique opportunity for OH
But many believe that the global pandemic demonstrated to companies how important employee wellbeing and OH are, especially as we continue to operate in a very uncertain market politically and financially.
“Covid changed the work health landscape as organisations identified they needed OH support beyond infection and control risks,” says Su Chantry, specialist public health nurse – clinical director, SKC Occupational Health Consultancy. “Post pandemic there’s a unique opportunity for OH, in light of the heightened focus on health in the workplace. The pandemic has shown society that the workplace is an essential setting to promote health.”
As she says, since the pandemic many OH professionals have found their responsibilities have become broader and more multi-faceted, now including mental wellbeing and psychosocial risk factors (these are factors that affect an employee’s psychological and social response to their work and work environment that could including relationships with line managers, workload and autonomy).
“Innovative holistic practice is key to progressive OH,” argues Chantry, who is a nurse by background. She believes that wellbeing is now an essential element of an employer’s duty of care to its staff and that accessing OH is key to being able to deliver strategic health expertise and evidence-based clinical skills.
Lack of understanding around what OH is
“I have a nurse registration and an OH degree,” she says. “We are experts in workplace health, employment and safety law. We can see the medical impact health can have but we advocate how good work can be part of a good healthy outcome.”
However, one thing that is holding OH back in some companies is – she argues – the lack of understanding around what the OH role actually is and does.
“Many see OH as the ‘health police’, a punitive arm of sickness absence management. Or some think OH is a clinician who ‘makes people better’. Very few organisations understand the financial value of investing in health and OH can be perceived as expensive.”
Martin Power, employee health and wellbeing manager at KP Snacks, agrees that perceptions of OH are often outdated, being associated with only the “safety and protection” element rather than “the promoting of good health”.
More than safety and protection
At KP Snacks, Power’s department handles the “reactive” work of absence management and health surveillance, but it also does “the proactive part of promoting wellness, which is integral to driving forward wellbeing”. He’s keen that his department loses the association with being somewhere an employee gets “sent” to have something “done to them”. That was one reason that the department name was changed from occupational health to employee health and wellbeing in 2016.
Another reason there is confusion and a misunderstanding of OH is due to the fact there is little consistency from company to company in where it sits. In some organisations OH is housed under health and safety, in others it’s under HR and others it’s a separate department of its own.
Regardless, there is still a narrow perception across the board about the role of OH. Head of occupational health at Anglian Water Jonathan Hill says that he was even surprised himself at the breadth of the role when he started in the profession, a role he stumbled into from being a physiotherapist for a professional rugby team.
The OH role is “so diverse”
“There’s so much that comes under the OH umbrella. I was surprised at the variety involved, the role is so diverse,” he says. “I was fortunate that my employer supported me through post graduate courses, so I got a really good understanding of the role and how much is involved. Occupational health is a small cog which can have a big impact. OH aims to improve the health of employees, leading to greater workforce productivity and, then, ultimately a stronger economy. To understand this purpose is really empowering.”
The most important message to get across, in Hill’s opinion, is the important role of work in a person’s health and if worklessness was to occur, how quickly a person can fall into poor mental and physical health.
Hill believes that the OH industry needs to raise awareness of the career opportunities, particularly at graduate level, in order to secure the best talent, which will in turn drive the wellbeing agenda forward more effectively. From his experience, OH tends to attract professionals who are unhappy in their current role looking for a job with options of home working and stable hours, rather than people who proactively choose the profession as their first choice. This, he believes, is down to a lack of awareness or understanding of the OH role.
The tide is turning as OH increasingly seen as strategic
While many companies are only really understanding the link between employee health and productivity now, the Arizona-based Institute for Health and Productivity Management has been linking the two for 25 years. According to its co-founder, chairman and CEO, Sean Sullivan, “OH has felt, for a long time, that it doesn’t get a lot of respect from senior management because it’s been seen as more tactical than strategic”. However, he believes the tide is quickly turning.
He says among his client base – which includes the likes of BP and Unilever – there are increasingly strategic leaders spearheading the workplace wellbeing charge who understand that OH is much more than “just a technical job”. These leaders intuitively understand the impactful way that OH can complement an organisation’s wellbeing strategy and don’t “confine” themselves to only workplace inspections but are involved in the “overall assessment of the fitness of the workforce”.
Sullivan agrees that the global pandemic has elevated the status of OH. During this time, OH professionals became critical to, not just the physical safety of employees, but also their psychological safety.
“So it becomes a natural role for those OH leaders who are big thinkers (rather than just measuring workplace hazards) to take a much more strategic role in a company,” he says. “For us, the bottom line is: how well are employees able to function in what they do? So we believe the idea of ‘functional health’ is the concept that links the OH world with the wellbeing world.”
In these examples, where the OH specialist embraces a more progressive remit, there’s no doubt that there is a natural synergy between the OH and the wellbeing missions. According to Sullivan this is “probably not being realised in most organisation”. However he firmly believes that: “the time for occupational health is now”.
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