Who’s providing your occupational health?
A recent TUC survey showed that 92% of workplaces with union health and safety representatives have some form of occupational health provision. This is well above the national average, where it is estimated that only 38% of the UK workforce has occupational health service coverage. The difference is partly because the areas that are most likely to have union health and safety representatives are those most likely to have an occupational health provider, in particular the public sector and larger private sector employers.
However if you look deeper at the 92% figure it is a bit deceiving. A lot of employers are simply using it to monitor sickness absence and less than half actually provide access to rehabilitation.
What is also interesting is that over the years there has been a clear move away from in-house services to external provision. Now I have seen some dreadful examples of very bad “occupational health” providers. For many employers occupational health means sending someone to a doctor after they have been off sick for a while to find out if they are ready to come back. Often these doctors have no qualifications in occupational medicine. Some years ago I accompanied a worker from a well-known fashion retailer who had been off work for several months with anxiety. The worker said that they wanted to come back as soon as possible. The doctor replied “Well given what is wrong with you they may not want you back”. This doctor was one of hundreds who rented a room in London’s Harley Street and charged employers for a simple medical examination, but had no relevant qualifications beyond a medical degree.
So how can you be sure that what you are being offered is of use? Well firstly ask for details of the contract that the employer has with a provider. Is it just for medical reports if someone is off sick and is referred to them and for disciplinary assessments, because that is not an occupational health service. Instead make sure that it includes health surveillance, access to rehabilitation, a link to prevention, and regular reports which can be shared with the safety committee? If there is any kind of pre-employment screening you should also make sure that it only takes place after a person has been offered a job. Using medical reports as part of the selection process is normally a clear breach of the Equalities Act.
You should also check on who the provider is. A good occupational health service for a large organisation will be a team of doctors, nurses and possibly even physiotherapists, but however big or small they are, if they are providing an occupational health service, they need to be accredited. That means they need to have been assessed. The body that does this is called SEQOHS and you can find out how to tell whether your provider is accredited here.
If you just have a local GP your employer uses then again you should check out that they have a qualification in occupational medicine. There is a TUC guide to how to do that.
Occupational health provision in this country is appalling. Despite the overwhelming evidence that early access to rehabilitation reduces sickness absence considerably, most British employers either provide nothing, or try to get it on the cheap, yet abroad it is often a very different picture. Some EU member states, including Belgium, France, Netherlands, and Finland achieve 90% coverage or greater. Only Greece falls below the UK level.
So, unless you already know, why not ask your employer what level of occupational health they are providing, who they use, and why regular reports are not given to the joint safety committee?