Do you know how to get the best out of OH? Or is it the missing link in your Wellbeing programme?

Closeup gap between paper human chain to show the missing doll in a role, lost friendship, teamwork or connection concept

As part of the UK government’s drive to tackle in-work sickness and help grow the economy, the Department for Work and Pensions last week launched a taskforce to improve occupational health provision.

The taskforce will be led by the doyenne of employee health and wellbeing, Dame Carol Black. It aims to increase access and uptake of occupational health through:

  • Increasing information and visibility for employers on occupational health and the benefits of quality occupational health provision in retaining employees in the workplace.
  • Empowering employers to play an active role in improving employee health. 
  • Removing barriers by focusing on SMEs with restricted finances and by ensuring that the Framework is applicable across sectors. 
  • Complementing other existing health and disability workplace initiatives, including where occupational health is required in law. 

Following this, and the government’s previous consultation around the role of Occupational Health (OH) at work (see this feature here), those with a workplace wellbeing remit may be wondering how best to integrate OH with their existing approach to support employee health and wellbeing.

Currently, just 28% of employers in Britain provide some form of occupational health, with large employers nearly three times more likely than Small-Medium Enterprises (SMEs) to do so. 

If you boil it down, OH’s purpose is to keep people well, physically and mentally, at work. This, incidentally, was one of the conclusions reached in this article we wrote on OH’s role in November 2022.

Watching out for “worklessness”

Also in this piece we quoted Anglian Water’s Head of Occupational Health Jonathan Hill arguing that the “most important message to get across” is the “important role of work in a person’s health” and the damaging effect of “worklessness”; and how this (being out of work) can quickly negatively impact a person’s mental and physical health, causing them to decline even quicker and, often, be lost to the workforce completely. 

That remains true, and a key message. Particularly when you consider we have a growing aging population and most industries are experiencing a talent shortage.

Shift from reactive to preventative

But, in the 15 months since that quote was published, the Employee Health & Wellbeing industry has increasingly agreed that there needs to be more of a shift from reactive to preventative care and that early intervention is paramount. This has been sharpened into focus as the NHS struggles to manage demand and waiting lists continue to overflow. The need for businesses to step in and take some of the burden, given they have a vested interest in keeping people working – hence the government’s consultations – is now more important than ever. 

The problem with things like government consultations, or anything that puts one discipline in the spotlight over another, is that it can detract from the shared purpose. The reality is, it doesn’t really matter what you call care provision, from OH to medical insurance to EAP, but what matters is that it’s the right care for your particular employees. 

Specialist skills in OH

OH have particular specialist skills that they can bring to bear to this problem.

As the Society of Occupational Medicine’s CEO Nick Pahl often says, OH professionals come from an evidence-based background, meaning they are concerned with effectiveness and whether there’s data to show an intervention has helped in the past. This has been a sore point for Wellbeing, as there’s historically been a lack of measurement and meaningful results, which is gradually changing (see this webinar on why measurement matters).

OH also comes from a clinical background where professionals have studied the human body and disease. That gives them a level of authority, and people are more trusting of their opinion on health matters. This is true whether OH is outsourced or not (see this article on that) but, clearly, if you have an inhouse Chief Medical Officer this lends even more gravitas to the function because it’s more visible.

OH professionals have clinical confidence

This medical background also gives OH professionals more confidence to tell workers they are not as ill as they think they might be (potentially, a hugely powerful message to receive which can improve wellbeing in itself). By contrast, wellbeing professionals are very conscious of not being seen to take wellbeing seriously enough, particularly with hot potato topics that are often in the media, such as mental health and neurodiversity. 

We spoke to a Chief Medical Officer (CMO), a highly experienced doctor, who has worked in the OH industry for over 30 years. With that amount of experience comes confidence in dealing with individuals who are suffering, as well as an ability to trust instinct. He says:

“Companies should be more aware of the fact that you can ‘repair’ people and keep them going. It’s amazing how many people you would think could not work, but actually can. And want to.”

Back pain can be “imminently fixable”

He takes the common example of someone with lower back pain which he describes as often “imminently fixable”:

“We take this person as quickly as we can get our hands on them and move them into a conditioning or reconditioning programme. We tell them we can fix this and reassure them that just because their back aches a little bit, does not mean that their spine is collapsing. We tell them that if you haven’t been stretching your ligaments, they do hurt a little bit if you do then stretch them but this should not stop you.”

As this CMO says, OH can be a huge force for good in “demystifying”, “demedicalising” and “simplifying” health conditions, especially if it’s able to intervene early. In addition to musculoskeletal health, the other workplace gamechanger on this front is mental health.

Mental health, neurodiversity & OH

He takes a similarly practical, no-nonsense approach to mental health: “We know from the data that the majority of mental health problems that afflict the working population aren’t psychosis or serious mental ill health (that’s only 7%). Most (93%) fall into the category of conditions you can ‘fix’.” 

Neurodiversity, too – currently getting much media attention – can also be massively simplified in the workplace, saving time and money for everyone concerned, the CMO says:

“I don’t think you need a label. If you came to see me about your neurodiversity, I would help you decide whether you should see a neuropsychiatrist, or whether you should just do an assessment and get some fairly easy kit. Instead what’s happened is we’ve suddenly turned it into this great big industry, costing thousands of pounds to get an assessment, when actually you could just sit down with somebody and say: what would you really like to help you?”

But, while OH might be experts in simplifying medical-speak for its patients, what it’s not been historically good at is communicating what it does clearly to people and companies outside its sector. Marketing and communications haven’t typically been a focus and, as a result, the sector needs to educate others about the breadth of what it does, and how it operates (this was also touched on in the article of 22 November 2022).

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Whilst OH undoubtedly has a pivotal role to play, our conversations with employers suggest that it still has an image problem and is seen as “punitive” by some, perhaps a hangover from the days of when employees were primarily sent there as part of disciplinary action. 

‘Education piece’ to be done on OH

Certainly, the language of OH doesn’t help its cause and reflection of how much it has evolved, and is evolving. Think “absence management”, “health surveillance” and “risk assessments”, for starters. 

Julie Hernon of Spire Occupational Health says companies have already recognised the need to address these issues. “There is definitely an education piece to be done on the many strings to OH’s bow. Also how proactive rather than reactive we are, and how we can help companies on their wellbeing strategies, down to delivering seminars on key topics like menopause,” she says.

Stronger Together

Perhaps the answer to the government’s conundrum is for Wellbeing professionals and OH, and everyone else with a stake in helping people to stay healthy in employment, to work better together.


Because their skills are complementary and their objectives are largely shared.

Drop the ego

And perhaps the CMO we spoke to anonymously hits the nail on the head when he implies that what’s necessary more than anything is a shedding of ego on all sides (if you’d like to know more about doing this, see some of our most read articles, which are on ego – here, here and here).

As he says: “I think we [OH] are part of the solution. I don’t feel I have to say somebody is less important than me.” Indeed, he doesn’t even argue that it needs to be a medically trained person that carries out some of this work, which he believes could be so revolutionary for workplace wellbeing: 

“I don’t see what we do as being particularly complicated. You don’t need to be a nurse or a doctor to fix people. If you can’t fix them with the first two or three steps, then you can refer them on.”

In his experience, the most important characteristics are being open to learning, a desire to take early action, a belief in the value of the actions you’re taking and an interest in people. Oh, yes, and that vital dropping of ego in favour of the shared common goal, which he again hints at here:

“I think if we want to do health and wellbeing well, we should be trying to make sure that we do simple things really, really well. And do lots of them. Rather than the big glitzy stuff. Let’s get people moving. Let’s get people talking. Let’s get people fixed quickly.”

We’ll be honing in on this topic at The Watercooler Event during the panel session on 24th April: “Embedding occupational health into your wellbeing programme – the missing link”. This includes input from Rachel Suff, Senior Policy Adviser, CIPD, Nick Pahl, Chief Executive, SOM and occupational health disruptor Abeyna Bubbers-Jones. You can find out more and register to attend here.

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