The challenge ahead for occupational health: Green Paper due out

A significant “Green Paper” is expected shortly reflecting recent joint working between the Department of Health and the Department of Work & Pensions to address the needs of the working age population. The last ten years has seen a series of formal reviews highlighting the high cost of ill health amongst those of working age (estimated as the equivalent of running a second NHS, over £100bn a year) and the tragedy of 300,000 people a year falling out of employment due to ill health and becoming dependent on benefits.

The numbers are eye watering and additional costs arise as being workless increases risk of further ill health (with the increased risk being equivalent to smoking ten packets of cigarettes each day!).

One issue that is likely to be highlighted in the paper is the availability and quality of occupational health provision in the UK. Occupational health is the medical speciality that deals with work and health – looking to help those with health issues remain in work and helping employers to ensure that work does not adversely impact on health. However Occupational Health has never been part of mainstream NHS care and whilst some employers such as Royal Mail have provided this support to employees for over 150 years, provision in the UK is inconsistent and probably covers only some 15% of working adults – mainly in large private or public employers.

Recent work undertaken by the Council for Work and Health has highlighted the challenge of meeting wider workforce needs – providing occupational health accessible to all of working age would require literally thousands more trained occupational health professionals (not just doctors: – nurses, physios, occupational therapists, ergonomists, psychologists and others). How-ever it is clear that reducing sickness absence and improving work retention is important to business success and to the future economy.

Working for a technology company the solution is obvious to me! Much occupational health is simply about helping employees and managers identify safe and suitable work options – matching an employee’s health to the work tasks needed and providing creative adjustments to improve the fit. At the heart of the Empactis platform we have an Organisation tool that enables us to understand what an individual is doing within their employment and who their manager is (which sounds very simple but from experience is often not!). Empactis has developed its Health Manager capability to help support better work placement decisions and to improve the way in which scarce resources such as occupational health or other health suppliers are used.

Enabling faster and improved access to assist managers in understanding employee health needs is key to reducing absence, enhancing business productivity and efficiency. The evidence is that far from being harmful, good work can assist recovery and reduce the likelihood of future disability or recurrent illness. So it makes good sense for employers to use technology to help their staff.

Whilst the “Green Paper” will I am sure highlight the challenges we have in the UK in providing universal Occupational Health Services; I see this as an exciting opportunity for technology to support the provision of significant improvement to enhance existing NHS services.