Chancellor backs occupational health to reduce sickness absence
The government has placed unprecedented focus on the role of occupational health services for reducing economic inactivity, allocating £400m in funding.
During his budget, Chancellor Jeremy Hunt recognised the value of occupational health services for keeping people in work.
He announced £400m in funding to increase take up of Occupational Health to stop people with MSK and mental health issues from becoming economically inactive.
A key part of this focus will be the roll out of a subsidised occupational health scheme we helped to develop. Here’s everything you need to know.
1. Push to increase occupational health coverage
The government is keen to improve the availability and take-up of occupational health services. Just one in two UK employees currently have access to occupational health, compared to 90% of workers in Germany and France.
Measure to achieve this, such as regulations requiring employers to provide OH service, are to be considered during two new consultations.
2. Subsidised occupational health pilot to be rolled out
A pilot scheme PAM OH helped to develop is also to be rolled out. This will enable small and medium business to provide employees with an OH assessment for a fraction of the price. The supplier will reclaim the rest.
Unfortunately, this does not yet include budget for any onward treatment provision, so it is most suited to identifying reasonable adjustments to help keep people in work. There is value to this as our own research into the benefits of early intervention shows 64% of absences can be prevented if people are referred into occupational health while they’re still in work.
3. Focus on mental health and MSK
Mental health and MSK issues were recognised as the leading causes of sickness absence. The chancellor announced in the budget that he wants to help people with these conditions before they become too sick to work and become economically inactive.
As well as rolling out subsidised access to occupational health, tailored employment support is to be embedded within mental health and MSK services in England. This will also include scaling up MSK hubs in the community and ensuring NHS resources include apps for managing mental health and MSK conditions.
4. Integration of employment and health support
There will be a new focus on integrating work and health support. A new ‘WorkWell’ programme is to be piloted to better integrate employment and health support. While more emphasis on using OH professionals will close the loop between employer, employee and healthcare professional.
This is to be welcomed as GPs alone cannot be expected to understand what someone’s workplace is like enough to say what they can still do. This means a third of ‘fit notes’ end up signing people off for four weeks or more, by which time 20% never return.
5. Health and disability white paper
The DWP will also publish a health and disability whitepaper, which will set out reforms to make sure people with disabilities have the right support, opportunities and incentives to move into and remain in work.
This is important because the number of people living with health conditions is increasing. Employees with cancer and heart disease are protected under the equality act, yet one in two people with cancer feel like they have been forced to change jobs.
Does the budget go far enough?
Recognition of the valuable role that occupational health and employers have to play in enabling people to stay in work is to be welcomed. Previous attempts at reducing absence haven’t worked because they kept the employer out of the loop.
However, although the budget has been billed as a ‘Back to Work’ budget, the lack of any funding for onward treatment (at a time when over 7 million people are waiting for NHS treatment) won’t help those already off sick.
Individuals waiting for hip or knee operations, for example, will be living with pain and need help to manage the psychological and social consequences of that. While those struggling with anxiety, burnout or depression may need counselling and other therapies to recover.
Employers would therefore do well to continue to invest in occupational health services that enable them to rehabilitate and return people to work. As well as reduce the risk of employees becoming sick in the first place.