Why Occupational Health must innovate to meet new workplace health and wellbeing challenges

Dr Kevin Bailey, Director of Occupational Health, Health Management

The Society of Occupational Medicine (SOM) Occupational Health Awareness Week comes at an important time for occupational health (OH).

Whilst awareness around the issue of work and health continues to grow, along with greater acceptance that good work is good for health, there remains a long way to go. According to the SOM’s 2019 report The Future of the Occupational Health Workforce, just 45% of the UK workforce have access to occupational health advice and facilities, although there is reason to believe that workforce access may be even more limited. A YouGov poll, carried out in May this year, found that 20% of respondents had never heard of occupational health.

While these figures show a marked lack of access and awareness regarding occupational health, they do not reflect a lack of need – around 140 million working days are lost annually to sickness absence, costing the UK economy approximately £22 billion per year.

The government has taken note and proposed a number of measures to assist people with long-term health conditions and disabilities to enter and stay in work, as part of their response to the Health is Everyone’s Business consultation in 2019.

Further insight has come from SOM’s Occupational Health: The Value Proposition, published in March 2022, which discusses the various factors which motivate employers to provide access to occupational health services, along with the benefits that OH can bring for employees, employers, and the economy.

This insight is indispensable in the new OH landscape. No longer simply a matter of preventing accidents and occupational illnesses, workplace health has now expanded to encompass a broader definition of workplace wellness, in which the outcome is not merely the absence of disease, but a balanced state of physical and mental harmony.

Awareness of mental health has increased exponentially since the start of the pandemic, with a growing appreciation of the cumulative mental health burden of factors including long COVID, longer working hours, isolation due to home working, and the blurring of work-life balance. More individuals require support to adapt to new work environments or return to work, while the pressure on the NHS has made it more difficult to access support services.

All these factors point to a likely rise in demand for OH services. The challenge for the OH community is to meet this increased demand with a corresponding increase in capacity, despite the ongoing difficulty in recruiting OH nurses and doctors.

This can be achieved through innovative solutions and new service models, increased use of multidisciplinary teams, and the upskilling of allied health professionals. Technology and automation will also play a part in both delivery of services and in demonstrating performance and returns on investment in occupational health services.

Health Management are meeting these challenges head on - through the recruitment of qualified OH clinicians and through the use of in-house clinical training programmes to enhance our existing team of occupational health professionals.

This equips our clinicians to deliver a wider range of high-quality OH services within a robust internal clinical governance framework. While we understand and embrace technological solutions, we also appreciate the value of human-to-human contact, whether through face-to-face support or via other means, such as video conferencing or telephone consultations.

Our clients range from large multinationals with bespoke on-site provision, to small and medium-sized businesses accessing ad-hoc support through our pay-as-you-go service.