Once the preserve of larger multinational organisations, occupational health is now becoming a key priority for companies of all sizes – and with good reason.
First things first. What exactly is occupational health and why should companies be interested in it?
A quick overview of the key support pillars provided by the occupational health specialist gives us a clear picture:
• Identifying hazards to employees in the workplace and ensuring these are eradicated so that the team can work as safely and efficiently as possible.
• Early detection – and therefore early intervention – of illness, as well as general health and wellness management.
• Providing the necessary work reintegration support for a staff member who is recovering from a serious illness or health concern.
• Controlling and assessing absence management.
• Addressing stress and mental health concerns and seeking out ways to engage with staff for the purpose of increasing productivity.
The approach essentially puts companies in the driver’s seat and in control, shifting away from the reactive and towards the proactive – a philosophy and mindset that we must adopt if we are to responsibly manage not only healthcare costs but healthcare in general.
And no doubt when implemented properly and with an eye on the long term, we can expect significant savings across the board: Reducing or eliminating workplace risks leads to a reduction in accidents and the many costs that follow from such workplace incidents; early detection and intervention of illness can in many cases lead to a far lower spend on overall treatment; and a reduction in staff absenteeism while driving up productivity will no doubt improve the top and bottom line of your company.
In short, a fairly minimal investment in prevention can lead to the implementation of a successful framework that will result in long-term insurance premium reductions and increased overall output from your staff.
And the need is a big one, because the current situation, as all of us in the industry are well aware, is not a good one. In the UK, for example, where the stats are readily available, 1.5 million workers are said to suffer from ill health caused or made worse by work. Meanwhile, 175 million working days are lost every year because of work-related ill health in the country.
So how to drive the effort? Before getting into that, let’s first take a quick look at the background of an occupational health specialist.
A real profession
The profession involves training at undergraduate or postgraduate level and usually at least 1,000 hours on internship placements. Degrees in occupational health, industrial hygiene, health physics, or a major in the physical sciences are most appropriate for those looking to become occupational health specialists.
It is often a vocation that attracts people who are on their second career and are looking to find something more rewarding in their work. Essentially, these individuals are leaders in critical thinking and reasoning – skills needed to carry out audits and to make assessments, as well as put forward recommendations for improvements.
Occupational health specialists will have undergone several years of training beyond their graduation, and sometimes further training still to gain accreditation. All health and safety professionals operating in Abu Dhabi, for example, are required to take the Abu Dhabi Occupational Health and Safety Practitioner Course before commencing work. This sort of requirement is commonplace in the sector across the globe.
So, back to the question of how to carry this out at your company.
Larger corporations will often have in-house teams whose sole responsibility will be to visit the company’s offices, factories, warehouses, worksites, and so on. The advantage here is that they have a greater understanding of the work of the company and the specific needs of its employees.
However, there are an increasing number of specialist consultancies – often part of larger healthcare providers – offering their services to any size of company for days or weeks at a time. And in fact this is by far the more common option among companies looking to roll out such an initiative.
Whether in-house or outsourced, occupational health specialists will inspect and evaluate the workplace and ensure that equipment such as desks, chairs and workbenches, lighting, machinery, etc, comply with relevant safety standards and all government regulations.
In addition to the workplace audit, they’ll carry out absenteeism audits, general health audits, corporate wellbeing program audits (and/or implementation), mental health and stress management audits, disease management audits (with an eye on chronic illness management, early detection, and prevention), and more.
Specialists will observe the staff at work. They will interview them about their levels of physical comfort, take measurements and photographs where necessary, and then talk to the human resources team to develop strategies to address absenteeism, improve overall health management, and address a broad range of related staffing issues.
This is the optimal approach, covering every inch of ground with a precautionary principle – all with an eye on dramatically lowering your health insurance policy costs over the long term.
Taking a closer look at the very important issue of workplace mental health and stress management, we can, among other things, tie the focus on the concept of presenteeism (where employees are at work but not operating at a satisfactory level of productivity).
To put some numbers to it, the UK Centre for Mental Health calculates that presenteeism – where psychological problems exist among individuals – costs the UK economy alone some £15.1bn a year, with it in fact being a far costlier problem than actual absenteeism itself.
Occupational health specialists are well versed in stress and mental health issues and it is a big part of the job they are tasked to manage.
They understand the complex relationship sufferers have with their work environment – and in particular how in today’s world personal and professional struggles are often one and the same. They can oversee the implementation of programs that will address mental health and stress concerns at the broader company level, and set up the infrastructure to provide support at the individual level. All of this can have a significant impact on employee satisfaction, happiness, and productivity levels.
And finally, as I touched on at the outset, developing programmes for reintegrating long-term absent employees back into the workforce following an injury or illness is also a key task that can be undertaken by an occupational health specialist.
While the employee might not be able to perform the job in its entirety for a certain period, the occupational health specialist may be able to identify the ability to undertake modified work functions in the interim period – getting that person back to work in stages where it is safe to do so, rather than extending absence unnecessarily at a potentially significant cost to the company.
Who is in control?
It should be clear to organisations that the cost of not introducing occupational health solutions is far greater than the cost of investing properly in employee wellbeing. This is particularly true in an age where the pressure is on to do more with less, and as a result workers are putting in ever-longer hours.
What companies need to understand is that those longer hours are not translating into more productive ones, and we are in fact becoming less and less productive on the whole. Coupled with a declining societal health brought on almost solely by poor lifestyle, and we end up with ever-increasing health insurance costs and lost opportunity costs.
It is, as I stress time and again, about control. Companies cannot wait for the healthcare system to improve. Rather, they must improve it.
Occupational health initiatives are essentially doing just that – taking a proactive approach that will lead to a healthier staff and a more balanced and productive workforce. If we take time to address our fractured healthcare foundation and strengthen (or rebuild) it, we can then start looking forward to a sustainable ROI.
Mark Adams is the founder and CEO of Anglo Arabian Healthcare