The importance of occupational health at work should never be underestimated. By utilising occupational health services, employers can meet their legal obligations to support workforce well-being, while benefiting from increased productivity and reduced sickness-related absenteeism. A proactive approach to employee welfare is shown to support staff retention and a positive employer brand.
In this guide for employers, we look at the role of occupational health within the workplace in complying with your legal duties and nurturing a supportive organisational culture.
What is occupational health?
Occupational health is a specialist branch of medicine that specifically focuses on the physical and mental health, and overall well-being, of your employees in the workplace. An occupational health programme can either be provided in-house by an employer or outsourced to an external occupational health provider.
Typically, the nature and extent of any occupational health provision will depend on the size of the company or organisation. It can be provided by a nurse with occupational health training and a part-time doctor, or through a range of specialists, including physiotherapists, hygienists, psychologists, ergonomic experts, occupational therapists or specialist occupational health personnel.
Many small to medium size enterprises do not have the size of workforce, or sufficient facilities and resources, to sustain a dedicated in-house occupational health team. For these reasons, many smaller employers will use external occupational health providers as and when they need them to support their staff and to carry out medical and other occupational health assessments.
What is an occupational health assessment?
An occupational health assessment is where a medical health professional or specialist practitioner carries out an assessment of an employee in the context of their work and working environment, and reports back to the employer on the employee’s fitness for work or overall physical and mental health.
If an employee has suffered an injury or illness resulting in sickness-related absence, either at work or otherwise, employers will often want a specialist occupational health assessment to assist in their decision-making process as to when an employee can return to work and the extent of their capabilities.
Occupational health assessments can help the employer understand what an employee needs to aid their recovery and return to work, as well as how best to avoid problems that could cause further health or absence issues. An assessment can also be used to identify what reasonable adjustments can be made within the workplace for anyone with a long-term physical or mental health condition.
Equally, an employer can use this type of assessment to establish the fitness of an applicant for a particular job role, especially where an employee requires high levels of physical and mental health to enable them to carry out their role safely.
An existing or prospective employee does not have to agree to undergo an occupational health assessment, but given that any failure to cooperate is likely to lead to questions over the legitimacy of any sickness-related absence or suitability for a role, most employees will be happy to comply. The employee is also likely to benefit, both personally and professionally, from the advice given.
An occupational health assessment can be a useful addition to the fitness for work note provided by an employee’s GP. It will be more focused on how the employee does their job and how this might affect their health, rather than simply assessing the employee’s capabilities to undertake work in general.
Further, unlike a GP’s fit note that primarily relies on the employee’s account of their symptoms, the occupational health assessment provides independent objective advice on what appears best for both parties in the context of the employer’s business needs and each employee’s state of health.
Occupation health: employer duties
All employers are under a duty to ensure the health, safety and well-being of their workforce. Whilst an employer is not responsible for the general health of its employees, it does have a moral and legal responsibility for the occupational health of each member of staff. In practice, this means that employers must ensure that employees are not put at risk of injury or illness at work, and that they are, as far as can be ascertained, medically fit for their job.
Employers are also under a duty to ensure that anyone suffering from a disability is not disadvantaged at work because of this. This means that employers will need to know what reasonable adjustments can be made within the workplace to ensure that disabled employees are able to effectively carry out their job role.
The duty to make reasonable adjustments not only arises directly in response to an employee being on long-term sick leave, but can also arise for any employee, or even job applicant, suffering from a long-term physical or mental health condition. By law, an employer must consider making reasonable adjustments in the workplace in the following circumstances:
- Where the employer knows, or could be expected to know, an employee or job applicant has a disability
- Where an employee or job applicant with a disability asks for adjustments
- Where an employee with a disability is having difficulty with their job
- Where an employee’s absence record, sickness record or delay in returning to work is because of or linked to their disability
An employer is not under a strict duty to provide an occupational health assessment for either sick or disabled employees. However, the opinion of an occupational health specialist can be crucial in determining how to manage a capability issue, providing expert guidance for employers on what adjustments can be made to enable employees to undertake their role safely and effectively.
The provision of an expert opinion from an occupational health specialist can also be key within the context of any employment tribunal claim for either unfair dismissal or unlawful disability discrimination, especially following long-term sickness-related absence that prevents an employee from returning to work.
How to meet your occupational health obligations
In discharging the duty to ensure the health, safety and wellbeing of their workforce many reputable employers will have in place written health and safety policies, together with an absence or occupational health policy.
If not, it is a good idea to design a policy setting out the procedure through which an employee can make the most of available occupational health services. This could be following long-term or recurring short-term sickness leave, or for those employees who remain in work but need adjustments to their working conditions to help them cope with a disability or to avoid injury or illness.
An occupational health specialist can help you to design a suitable workplace policy, together with other health and safety policies, to help discharge your statutory duty to ensure the health and well-being of your workforce.
This will often benefit both your business and your staff, where it is usually in everyone’s interests for either an absent employee to get back to work or a vulnerable employee to avoid sickness-related absenteeism. This is also a good way of promoting how much you value your staff and care about their wellness.
The occupational health policy should set out the following:
- When an occupational health referral or assessment can be made
- How, where and by whom this will be conducted
- What both the employer and employee need to do
- What the next steps within this process will be
Once an occupational health assessment has taken place, both you and the employee should be guided by the advice given as to what steps need to be taken to support their return to work or enable them to remain in work. This could include, for example, a phased return to work, amended duties, reduced working hours or different working arrangements, as well as workplace adaptations.
You will need to put in place an agreed action plan, together with a suitable timeframe, especially where more long-term adjustments are required to facilitate the health and well-being of the employee. You should also regularly review the employee’s progress and make new adjustments if necessary.
Occupation health & companies with limited budgets
Not all employers are able to provide occupational health services. But the duty of care to ensure the health, safety and well-being of the workforce applies to all employers, so steps must still be taken to avoid injury or illness at work, or an exacerbation of any injury or illness due to occupational factors.
For smaller companies or organisations that do not have the funds to put in place an occupational health scheme or provide access to an occupational health provider, the employer should always be guided by the advice of the employee’s GP, as well as the employee, to help them get back to or remain in work.
Managers and HR should be trained to signpost employees to sources of support and information to help with such issues, such as the Fit for Work website.
What if an employer fails in their occupational health obligations?
If an employer fails in discharging their duty to ensure the health, safety and well-being of its workforce, this can lead to various problems including increased sickness-related absenteeism. Every year millions of days are lost to sickness absence across businesses in the UK, with the associated cost of temporary staff cover, and even recruitment where employees are unable to return to work.
Your workforce is one of your major business assets and essential to overall productivity and profitability. By putting in place suitable occupational health services you can keep your staff safe and well, and effectively manage any risks that are likely to give rise to work-related ill health or sickness-related absence.
In this way, you can also minimise any exposure to a claim for unfair dismissal or unlawful discrimination where an employee has been dismissed or suffered a detriment, such as a lack of promotion or training opportunities, due to ill health.
How can occupational health services help your business?
The main aims of occupational health services are broadly twofold: both to help prevent work-related injury and illness, as well as to help those who have suffered injury or illness to return to, or remain in, work.
In either case, occupational health services can be specifically tailored to meet the needs of your business, ensuring that you remove or minimise any health risks arising within the workplace, and helping you to improve and maintain a healthy workforce for the mutual benefit of both you and your staff.
Occupational health services could be used for any or all of the following:
- To encourage safe working practices, eg, by carrying out occupational health risk assessments to identify hazards and high-risk groups at work, helping an employer to implement suitable health and safety policies to prevent the risk of injury or illness within the workplace.
- To advise on work-related accidents or illnesses and help the employer introduce steps to remove or minimise the risk of further incidents and absences, or avoid an exacerbation of symptoms.
- To improve the ways in which employees work, eg, through utilising ergonomics and other ways to prevent work-related injury or illness.
- To promote the overall emotional well-being of employees, eg, by providing advice and counselling around non-health-related problems.
- To support health promotion within the workplace, eg, by providing lifestyle and well-being services, as well as educational programmes, to increase productivity and staff retention.
- To support the management of disability in the workplace, eg, providing the employer with advice and guidance around making reasonable adjustments for interviewing new applicants, or making provision for new recruits and existing employees, suffering from a disability.
- To support the management of sickness absence, eg, providing specialised fitness for work assessments and providing the employer with advice and guidance around what adjustments can be made to an employee’s working conditions following short or long-term injury or illness.
- To provide screening and health surveillance services to monitor the overall health of employees and help prevent injury or illness. This could include vision and hearing testing, musculoskeletal and cardiovascular assessment, lung function testing, and alcohol and drug screening.
- To provide safety critical medicals for businesses where an employee’s job may involve high-risk tasks, such as working at height or working in confined spaces, where the employee would need to be both physically and mentally fit to allow them to safely fulfil their role.
- To provide emergency response and onsite care with the provision and training of first aiders and appropriate equipment.
DavidsonMorris’ specialist HR consultants are experienced in advising employers on all aspects of workforce management, engagement and performance enhancement. This includes strategies and measures to improve productivity and morale while safeguarding employee wellbeing through the use of occupational health and other specialisms. For more information about how we can help your organisation, speak to us.
Occupational health FAQs
What is involved in an occupational health assessment?
An occupational health assessment will involve a detailed medical assessment of an employee by a specialist health practitioner in the context of the employee’s job role and workplace, with recommendations on what adjustments could be made by the employer to ensure a safe and healthy working environment.
How long does occupational health assessment take?
How long an occupational health assessment will take will often depend on whether an employer has a dedicated in-house occupational health team or whether a specialist referral needs to be made to an external provider.
What is an occupational health referral?
An occupational health referral is where an employee is referred by their employer for a specialist medical assessment, either following advice from the employee’s GP due to long-term or recurring short-term sick leave, or due to general concerns about an employee’s health and wellness at work.
Last updated: 2 June 2023