How to measure the value of occupational health initiatives

Need to know:

  • In addition to reducing absence and meeting legal requirements, occupational health interventions can benefit many things, including turnover, productivity and employers’ liability insurance.
  • Using data from a wide range of sources, organisations can map positive changes that show the value of their occupational health programme.
  • Hidden factors should also be taken into account, some of which are difficult to show with data alone.
  • Occupational health can help employers measure and tackle problem areas elsewhere in their approach to wellbeing.

Occupational health initiatives can deliver significant benefits when it comes to the wellbeing of both an organisation and its employees. For example, alongside overseeing mandatory health surveillance, an occupational health physician can provide advice to ensure compliance with the Equality Act 2010.

An occupational health programme also provides important support for line managers and HR professionals, explains Chris Bailey, head of corporate consulting at Mercer: “It can be difficult and time-consuming to deal with an ill employee, especially when they’ve been off long-term and have more complex issues. Having occupational support to deal with these cases enables [managers] to focus on their job.”

In addition, as with many elements of employee wellbeing, occupational health has evolved over time to become more holistic, and its value therefore reaches beyond its core uses.

Charles Alberts, head of health management at Aon, says: “Occupational health is at the heart of an organisation’s healthcare. Traditionally, [it] gets involved when something has gone wrong, where it can explore ways to help an employee come back to work, but it can also be used to prevent health issues in the first place.”

Given these benefits, being able to measure the value occupational health brings to an organisation is important. As well as helping to secure funding, this can also ensure that the support provided to employees is targeted as effectively as possible.

Data driven

Employers can glean information from a wide variety of sources, including absence data, usage information from employee assistance programmes (EAPs), and medical insurance claims statistics, among others.

“Data is more plentiful than ever,” says Bailey. “An employer can build a really rich picture of the health of the workforce by pulling together different data sets from across the business. By monitoring changes, an employer can show how occupational health initiatives are benefiting the business.”

As well as health-related data sets, employers should consider broader records. Among the areas that can be influenced by occupational health interventions are staff turnover, productivity, employment tribunals and employers’ liability insurance.

Deciding which pieces of data are most relevant to a specific organisation will depend on the drivers behind purchasing occupational health, says Dr Mark Simpson, chief medical officer at Health Management.

“If an employer buys in services for compliance purposes, they might only be interested in knowing that everyone at risk has been seen,” he explains. “Being able to demonstrate a robust approach to health and safety could potentially lead to a reduction in employers’ liability premiums.”

Hidden costs

While it may be relatively straightforward to track improvements to absence and sickness statistics, or to calculate the reduction in medical or employers’ liability premiums, other metrics can be more difficult to turn into monetary figures. This can mean a certain amount of estimation and guesswork.

This issue, for example, arises when considering employees that have been successfully returned to work earlier than expected as a result of an occupational health intervention. There are some basic factors that are easy to quantify, such as the money saved in terms of their pay, but there are also numerous other elements that feed into the overall value of the occupational health initiative.

“As well as the saving on their salary, it’s also important to factor in the hidden costs of absence,” Alberts explains. “These can include temporary cover, recruitment and training, lost expertise and line manager time. It’s impossible to tell what the outcome would have been if occupational health hadn’t been used. You can’t have a control group, so some assumptions will need to be made.”

Informing health and wellbeing

Itself a rich source of data, the information gathered by occupational health providers can be used to inform wider health and wellbeing programmes. Any improvements derived from these changes to other strategies can then be factored in to an employer’s estimation of the value of occupational health.

Brian Hall, chief commercial officer at BHSF Group, says: “Data from occupational health initiatives can show an organisation where there are potential health issues in the workplace. Employees will often speak to occupational health about things they’d never consider telling their employer.”

To this end, a provider might run an onsite health check, encouraging employees to check simple metrics such as blood pressure, cholesterol and BMI. The anonymised results could then be supplied to the employer; if cholesterol levels are generally high, the organisation could focus on incorporating support and advice on healthy eating and exercise into its wellbeing strategy.

Some occupational health services provide further support in this area, by supplying benchmarking information. Employers can therefore see how they align with their competitors, and identify problem areas that need to be resolved.

Warning signs

In addition to improving employee wellness directly, data from occupational health initiatives can also highlight systemic issues such as presenteeism in the workplace.

Carl Laidler, director of screening programmes at Health Shield, points to the example of a drilling firm. Despite the rules around how long drills can be used before an employee must take a break, it saw an increase in the number of people reporting symptoms of Hand-Arm Vibration Syndrome (HAVS).

“Employees were ignoring the rules, as they wanted to finish work early,” he explains. “Understanding this meant they introduced more training to ensure employees understood the potential health implications of ignoring the rules.”

Whether occupational health initiatives are used for compliance purposes or to help improve the overall health and wellbeing of employees, a key element of their value is the information and understanding they generate. Combining this with other data sets, such as absence statistics and employee health measurements, can supercharge the value of these programmes and ensure a comprehensive service that benefits the organisation and its employees.

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