The role of occupational health in a holistic wellbeing strategy

Need to know: 

  • Occupational health services support the physical and mental health of employees, and provide organisations with insight into and methods of reducing sickness absence.
  • The services work well alongside initiatives such as vocational rehabilitation and employee assistance programmes (EAPs).
  • While the world is shifting towards holistic wellness, organisations should keep occupational health at the core, and use its lessons around auditing and measurement to influence other strategies.

Employers are taking an increasingly proactive approach to the health and wellbeing of staff; according to a straw poll of Employee Benefits readers, published in January 2019, three in 10 (30%) cite employee wellbeing as the key driver for their organisation’s benefits strategy in 2019.

The role of occupational health is to keep employees well at work, both physically and mentally. Occupational health services encompass the prevention of ill-health, managing and promoting employee wellbeing, and ensuring that work practices and environments are modified to the needs of individual employees.

With an increased awareness of issues around mental health, and the interplay between this and physical wellness, influencing the employee benefits industry as a whole, occupational health should be a key part of any wellbeing strategy.

Holistic wellbeing approach

According to Aon’s Benefits and trends survey, published in January 2019, a quarter (26%) of employers still do not provide occupational health services in any form, while a third (33%) only access support from an external provider on an ‘as required’ basis.

This raises the question of where traditional occupational health benefits sit as part of a holistic approach to wellbeing. According to Simon Ball, head of international risk and healthcare at Fidelity Benefits Consulting, multi-national organisations can incorporate their occupational health strategy within a global wellness offering when aiming for an integrated approach.

The methods of dealing with occupational health differ by organisation. Those that perceive a higher risk might focus on these initiatives on a standalone basis, while others embrace technology and integrate occupational health into a wellbeing strategy, placing all elements onto a wellness platform.

“Currently, there are a larger number of employers for whom occupational health is supported as a standalone offering; however, we are beginning to see a trend of inclusion in wellness and integration into the global health and wellbeing strategy,” says Ball.

Absence management

November 2018’s policy paper from the Department of Health and Social Care, Prevention is better than cure: Our vision to help you live well for longer, the Department for Work and Pensions’ November 2017 Improving lives roadmap, and the Stevenson-Farmer Thriving at work report, published in October 2017, all show a government trend towards expecting employers to do more.

These reports also recognise that the workplace is an integral space for disseminating messages, and that employers are well placed to make changes that will help improve the lives, health and happiness of their people. This, in turn, has positive effects on both an organisation’s workforce and its bottom line.

Dr Zofia Bajorek, research fellow at the Institute for Employment Studies (IES) says: “We know that sickness absence is costly for both the organisation and the individual. As part of a wellbeing strategy, occupational health provides insight into why sickness absence is occurring, what interventions can be made to improve the workforce, and how best organisations can improve sustained return to work from sickness absence.”

Complementary initiatives

Katharine Moxham, spokesperson at Group Risk Development (Grid), points out that, while occupational health has a key part to play, it is important that organisations do not expect it to deliver everything.

She says: “Employers have many more options to draw on from their kit bag, including vocational rehabilitation, mental health support, employee assistance programmes, and financial guidance. to name but a few.

“It’s crucial to understand what each element can deliver and how to dovetail them together to form a cohesive programme that works.”

Kate Cook, wellness speaker and director at The Nutrition Coach, has seen the workplace wellness conversation progress in the last five years, with mental health and general staff wellbeing becoming increasingly prominent items on the agenda.

When considering this shift towards holistic wellness, there are lessons to be learned from the occupational health history that came before. Namely, the importance of measurement and auditing.

She says: “[Employers] that make occupational health the lead on employee wellbeing tend to be more strategic, looking at [it] as a responsibility of the [organisation].

“Wellbeing needs to be properly audited to ensure resources are being allocated to make a measurable difference. Occupational health ‘philosophy’ is [about] measurable outcomes, and wellbeing needs to mirror this.”

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