If you’ve dealt with an employee who’s been on sickness absence, or one who’s experiencing a long-term disability or medical condition, you may have come across the term “Occupational Health” and know what it means. However, there may be employers who are unfamiliar with the term or what it involves.

What is occupational health?

Occupational health is a specialist branch of medicine, which focusses on the physical and mental wellbeing of employees in the workplace. Its job is to ensure that employees are fit for the type of work they do. Occupational health will assess how work affects someone’s health, whether that’s a sudden injury at work or long-term exposure to hazards such as repetitive strain injury, stress or hazardous substances.

This can be achieved by:

  • encouraging safe working practices;

  • ergonomic studies and assessments;

  • monitoring the health of the workforce; and

  • supporting the management of sickness absence.

An occupational health service can also work with an employer to devise and implement policies and ensure health and safety compliance. It can also carry out either current or pre-employment health assessments and provide employers with advice and guidance around making reasonable adjustments to an employee’s working conditions if they are disabled, which the employer is required to do under the Equality Act 2010.


Why is occupational health important?

There has been a lot of coverage in the past few years, and particularly during and since the pandemic, about the importance of both physical and mental health in the workplace; research shows that 170 million days are lost to sickness absence annually and government figures show that the cost to the economy is somewhere in the region of £100bn each year.

Additionally, it’s been found that the longer an employee is off sick, the less likely their return to work will either be successful or happen at all. After six months absence from work, there is only a 50% chance of someone making a successful return.


How is occupational health provided?

How an organisation provides occupational health will depend on its size. 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 nurses and doctors.

Typically, occupational health services will be provided at an employee’s place of work, but many small to medium size enterprises (SMEs) do not have a large enough workforce or sufficient funds to warrant and sustain an in-house occupational health service. For this reason, many will outsource the provision and this often means using – for the most part – NHS professionals, but also private medical provision.


What does Occupational health cover?

Examples include:


Absence Management

Working with employers to assess and provide impartial and professional advice on any absenteeism as well as supporting employees to get back to work as quickly as possible.

This will help the business to:

  • reduce levels of absence;

  • cut the cost of absence to the employer;

  • increase productivity and reduce the disruption that can result from employees being absent;

  • create a greater sense of engagement and motivation amongst the workforce;

  • help employees to return to work sooner.


It’s estimated that 70% of all sickness absence is due to psychological ill health or musculoskeletal disorders and this means that rehabilitation is a key factor in any return to work plan.

As occupational health teams have access to a team of doctors, nurses, physiotherapists and mental health practitioners, they can provide early advice and guide employees to the best sources of treatment and support.


Risk assessments

One of the key aspects of workplace safety is the risk assessment, which must be carried out when considering hazardous activities or the use of machinery or substances. An occupational health risk assessment carried out by health professionals can help an employer decide what preventative actions need to be taken.

Such an assessment could identify any hazards and any employees who may be affected, evaluate the risk involved and identify appropriate interventions and controls


Health surveillance and prevention

One key aspect of occupational health is carrying out ongoing checks to prevent health problems occurring and ensure that employees are safe and able to work in their roles. This is known as health surveillance.

A targeted health surveillance programme homes in on those employees at risk – those exposed to noise or vibration, ionising radiation, solvents, fumes, dusts, biological agents and other substances hazardous to health. For some of these substances and agents, the employer may have no choice but to arrange for health surveillance as it will be required by law.

Health surveillance covers a wide range of different tests and monitoring and can include:

  • Hearing testing

  • Vision testing

  • Hand and arm vibration

  • Lung function testing

  • Driver medical exam (e.g. HGV, counterbalance and others)

  • Alcohol/drug testing

It is worth noting, as a caveat, that for alcohol and drug testing, there are other legal factors hat must be taken into account by the employer when arranging this.


Workplace Immunisations

As will be familiar to many people, the pandemic threw up the issue of vaccinations; how and when they should be delivered and the legal issues surrounding what would happen to employees who refused to have them. For some jobs, there are recognised threats to employee health from various diseases, for which vaccination is a recognised precaution and the safety aspects of these vaccinations are well established. An occupational health team can identify the vaccinations which are appropriate and provide expert advice and guidance so that employers can comply with the most up-to-date legislation. Having an effective vaccination system also provides reassurance for management if they get a visit from HSE or local government inspectors.

Health promotion and wellbeing

As well as reactive treatment of conditions that have already manifested themselves, occupational health teams can also provide employers with services that create a positive and healthy working environment and promote healthy behaviours amongst staff, including:

  • Improve mental wellbeing

  • Change behaviour – smoking, alcohol and substance misuse

  • Increase physical activity

  • Promote healthy eating

In the medium to long term, this may well reduce the chances of health conditions arising in the first place, preventing the disruption that is caused in the space between an employee going off sick and returning after treatment or recovery.