Dr Anne de Bono: Occupational health is key to helping employees return to work

Occupational medicine, the clinical specialty which evaluates the two-way relationship between health and work, is key to support the health and wellbeing of employees.

Historically, occupational doctors focused on diseases caused by work; for example, miners’ lung conditions, and bladder cancer among tyre manufacturers. These problems have dramatically decreased, at least in the western world, following workplace controls, backed by health and safety legislation.

However, work-related ill health still exists in the UK, and should not be forgotten. The Marmot review: 10 years on published in February 2020, has just highlighted the increasing incidence, since 2010, of self-reported stress, anxiety and depression linked to workplace pressures.

Dame Carol Black’s review of the health of Britain’s working age population, Working for a healthier tomorrow, published in March 2008, shifted attention towards the health risks of unemployment. The benefits of good work for the health of individuals and communities are now recognised and emphasised.

Occupational doctors have been central to the drive for adjustments in the workplace, helping employees to return to work after ill-health, or to continue at work despite background long-term health conditions or disabilities.

The Equality Act 2010 has encouraged employers to think constructively about adjustments; better treatment for long-term health conditions has enabled many people to work with them. As an example from my own occupational health service at the University Hospitals of Leicester NHS Trust, Breast cancer and work outcomes in healthcare workers, published in December 2014, showed how, with employers’ support, we achieved a return-to-work rate of 95% for staff with breast cancer, the majority helped by workplace modifications.

The outcome of the government’s 2019 consultation, Health is everyone’s business: Proposals to reduce ill-health related job loss, is still awaited. The Faculty of Occupational Medicine hopes that this will lead to support, financial and otherwise, for wider access to competent occupational health advice, including access to specialists in occupational medicine when appropriate, particularly for those working in small and medium enterprises.

Dr Anne de Bono is president of the Faculty of Occupational Medicine