A Little Bit of Everything HR Leaders Need to Know about Occupational Health

Sandra and Jörg

What is occupational health? Do you have to have an occupational health program? What is an Occupational health assessment? How can companies help improve employees’ occupational health and what role does technology play in helping with this? This blog post answers these key questions and provides the main facts HR leaders need to know about occupational health.

What is Occupational Health?

Occupational health is defined as, “the branch of medicine dealing with the prevention and treatment of job-related injuries and illnesses”. Historically focused on protecting employee from illness or injuries at work, the definition of occupational health has now shifted to be about keeping people well at work – both physically and mentally.

While the NHS Health at Work Network says that it is the role of occupational health services to “keep your employees healthy and safe whilst in work and manage any risks in the workplace that are likely to give rise to work-related ill health.” The World Health Organisation (WHO)’s definition focuses more on “disease from major occupational risks, such as injuries, airborne exposures, carcinogens, ergonomic stressors, noise and other specific risks”.

According to the WHO, “It is estimated that 2.1% of all deaths and 2.7% of the disease burden worldwide can be attributed to quantified occupational risks”. In European countries, however, we are much more fortunate. Yes, over 170 million days are lost to sickness absence every year with an estimated cost to the economy of £100bn, according to NHS Health at Work, but citizens in developed nations are far less likely to suffer from the dangers and diseases that plague workers in other countries.

Does that mean occupational health should be taken less seriously in the UK and Europe than elsewhere, though? Absolutely not.

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Is It Necessary to Have an Occupational Health Program?

According to the HSE, “As an employer, you’re required by law to protect your employees, and others, from harm.” This is often referred to as ‘health and safety’ in the UK, although other countries may use the term occupational health. To manage health and safety effectively you need to look after your organization, your workers and your workplace. The HSE continues to say that “Managing health and safety is an integral part of managing your business”.

Worksmart says that employers do not have to provide an occupational health service as it’s up to you what health services you offer your staff and how. In fact, less than 1/7 small or medium-sized companies provide occupational health facilities – but the NHS Health at Work service is there to help everyone.

So, while you don’t have to have a specific ‘occupational health program’ in your business in the UK, there are certain guidelines you do have to follow.

Do You Have to Look After Your Employees’ Occupational Health?

You aren’t legally required, as an employer, to provide occupational health services to your employees in the UK. But you do have to look after your employees’ health at work. It’s the law. Here’s what the HSE says on their ‘planning for health and safety’ web page.

The law

Under the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 (the HSW Act), you have to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable , the health and safety of yourself and others who may be affected by what you do or do not do. It applies to all work activities and premises and everyone at work has responsibilities under it, including the self-employed.

Employees must take care of their own health and safety and that of others who may be affected by their actions at work. They must also co-operate with employers and co-workers to help everyone meet their legal requirements.

The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 also apply to every work activity and workplace and require all risks to be assessed and, where necessary, controlled.

Some companies do choose to have a workplace occupational health service which lets employers visit a company doctor and/or nurse with specialist training on-site. This is not mandatory and depends on your company’s size, the needs of your workers, the affordability of employing someone to do this role and your attitude to employee health. According to WorkSmart, companies may choose to provide these services and/or healthcare plans and/or employee assistance programs (EAP). They also state that proximately two million workers in Britain have access to an EAP which includes a telephone helpline, access to counselling and advice on personal and work-related issues.

Why are Occupational Health Services Important?

Occupational health services, like those provided by the NHS can help with health promotion and wellbeing, workplace immunizations, health surveillance and prevention, risk assessments, rehabilitation and absence management – to name a few.

It’s important that employers take these seriously because good occupational has a number of benefits, including:

  • Lower levels of absenteeism
  • Improved staff morale and motivation
  • Increased productivity and
  • Fewer injuries.

Research has even found a link between stock market price growth and having a great employee wellness program.

What Is an Occupational Health Assessment?

Used primarily to prevent work-related injuries, an occupational health assessment is carried out by an occupational health professional. It’s a medical assessment that looks at an employees’ physical and mental health and makes a list of recommendations to their employer with instructions on how to make the workplace a safe place for that employee. A number of different types of occupational health assessments exist including:

  • pre-employment health assessments
  • fitness for work assessments
  • job-specific assessments and
  • mental health assessments

How Can Companies Help Improve Employees’ Occupational Health?

In today’s knowledge-based economy many workers are predominantly office-based or desk-bound. As we covered in the blog post on work-life balance, keeping people healthy, productive and motivated means requiring them to take care of themselves, as well as helping them balance their work.

Some ways in which companies can encourage to improve office workers’ occupational health include very basic activities like:

  • Sitting properly at a comfortable desk that is adapted for their physiology
  • Taking regular breaks, including micro-breaks and stretching their muscles
  • Getting outside, into the fresh air, and doing exercise every day.

For instance, below is a poster produced by the Chartered Society for Physiotherapy (CSP) that you could display in the office to help remind employees about their posture and how to improve their muscular health at work. You might also find this pamphlet about exercises for people who sit at a desk all day helpful to share with employees.

Poster Chartered Society for Physiotherapy (CSP)

Source: Chartered Society for Physiotherapy (CSP)

The Role that Technology Plays in Employee’s Occupational Health

Technology can help companies improve their employees’ occupational health too: from offering EAPs and telemedicine to funding fitness trackers or even using technology to help them do their jobs better.

For example, while telemedicine is not yet commonplace in Europe or the UK, Forbes reports that digital technologies like fitness trackers have been shown to improve individuals’ health and their productivity, due to a decreased rate of workplace absences. Today many employee assistance programs are being offered remotely as well – through phone calls and over the internet.

Other technology can make employees’ lives easier – whether that is by making their jobs less frustrating or by helping them do more value-added tasks. For example, the use of HR technology reduces manual data input and frustrating admin activities related to recruiting, hiring, documenting and retaining employees. As a result, it gives HR people more time to do the jobs they love: helping people get more out of their work.

Conclusion

In challenging times, we know that ‘normal’ is relative. However, as employees adjust to a new normal, ensuring employees’ occupational health is looked after shouldn’t just fall to HR leaders. Senior management has a responsibility to take care of employees’ physical and mental health and so do employees themselves!

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