When referring workers to an Occupational Health service – employers sometimes think that the report received back will give a full and comprehensive assessment of each individual. However, without knowing why the employer has asked for a worker to be seen by Occupational Health, the report may not include the answer required. Below are 6 questions often asked by Employers and where value can be added to an organisation.
So before sending off your poorly worker for a medical opinion – why are you sending them and what do you want to know? Here are some of the top 6 Occupational Health questions to be asked:
1. Can Mr Smith Attend a Disciplinary Hearing?
Often employees claim that they are unable to attend formal meetings e.g. disciplinary, capability, grievance etc because of ill health. The Society of Occupational Medicine recommend that an employee is fit to attend if the following criteria are met:
- Employee has the ability to understand the issue being addressed
- Employee has the ability to distinguish right from wrong
- Employee is able to instruct a representative to represent their interests
- Employee is able to understand and follow the proceedings, if necessary with extra time and written explanation
Occupational Health will follow this guidance for those potentially able to attend, it is in everyone’s best interests to get issues resolved as quickly as possible.
2. How Long is Mr Smith likely to be Off Sick?
The beauty of having access to experienced and competent Occupational Health professionals is that they will know your business very well. They will have looked around the organisation in the first place to identify areas where particular health problems will be difficult to accommodate, for example, heavy lifting jobs will require a robust individual whereas an office worker or call centre operative may not be able to cope with demanding workloads if they are recovering from a mental health issue. This will be significant when predicting a return to work date.
For physical problems (such as a broken leg) occupational health will be able to refer to their experience of the work, individuals and how new treatments and operations will affect their recovery time. For mental health issues this may be more complex but the occupational health professional will give you an indication of when and how the individual can be expected to return to work. The date of return to work will not be set in stone and will be a balance of many issues – any of which can change according to the individuals motivation to return to work and complications of recovery.
For any worker off sick, occupational health will be able to suggest ways of engaging with the absence employee and of getting an employee back to work early by adapting the work to the worker. This advice will come in the form of written recommendations which will have been discussed with the employee before being sent to management. For some health conditions it may be that a return to work is dependant on a waiting list for a procedure, counselling or physiotherapy and some employers offer funding or private health insurance to speed this up and thus return work earlier.
Company’s who do not have occupational health services can also ask the question of employees themselves or receive information via the GP with information on the Fit Note - however, both these of these will have their own reasons for the answers they give and may not understand the options available to return to a different or modified job to aid rehabilitation. It is a well know fact that returning to work early is sometimes the best possible way of avoiding other health problems associated with isolation and lack of money (mental health issues). Occupational health will work with the individual, the company and in the light of current medical guidelines to give a prediction on when and how the employee is able to return.
3. Is Mr Smith Fit for his Current Job?
Many individuals become ill during their working life or change jobs with different physical and mental requirements. Employers who notice that an individual is not performing their job to the standard required have to decide whether the worker Can’t or Won’t do the job. In workplace speak this is about capability……… The employer can refer individuals to see occupational health to assess whether the poor performance is due to a health problem. Mr Smith will be asked a series of questions about his health by occupational health and taken through relevant health checks to make sure that the result is based on scientific fact and expert opinion rather than a Managers idea of why the individual cannot perform adequately.
Following on from the assessment Occupational Health will make recommendations to the employer on the findings and suggest possible ways of dealing with the situation that is fair and lawful.
4. What can we do to help Mr Smith Return to Work?
Many employers want to assist employees/workers to return to work if they can and there may be ways to be able to do this. However, employers are sometimes cautious regarding interfering with medical matters and if things go wrong with the programme feel vulnerable about being blamed for ‘forcing’ the employee back to work too quickly.
By asking the question of Occupational Health professionals, the employer is exercising caution and getting expert advice in this area and should be able to proceed with confidence that the individual is able to work without risks to health or the danger of promoting a relapse in recovery.
5. Does Mr Smith have an underlying Medical Condition to account for his level of absence?
Absence in a company can be very costly – not only for lost productivity but also to replace the missing worker, missed deadlines, poor customer service and increased pressures on those remaining. The question from the employer is trying to decide whether the person has a genuine illness that Occupational Health can help or advise the individual on or whether the individual has other non medical problems eg childcare, domestic issues, not motivated to work which need addressing.
If there is an underlying health issue then the employer will be advised accordingly by Occupational Health and decisions will have to be taken about how to accommodate this and whether the individual is covered under the Equality Act 2010 (see Question 6) to avoid discrimination on health grounds. If no underlying health problem is identified then the employer will be advised, who should discuss attendance levels with the individual and the consequences of not improving attendance eg disciplinary action. See also Using the Bradford Index
6. Is Mr Smith likely to be covered by the terms of the Equality Act 2010?
The Equality Act 2010 brought together lots of discrimination laws into one in 2010. In the case of employees at work and ensuring that their rights are not being breached; the part of the Act is concerned with disability and unfair treatment. Occupational Health professionals will know the terms of the Act well and will usually comment on whether ‘in their opinion’ the terms of the Equality Act will apply. However it should be noted that the final decision regarding this question will ultimately be decided in the courts. Most Occupational Health professionals understand this and tend to err on the side of caution.
So you will get an answer to this question but bear in mind that it may not necessarily be supported by an Employment Tribunal who may use different criteria to consider.
Occupational Health Doctors and Nurses, in order to continue practising, are covered by their own professional codes of confidentiality and guidelines on how to maintain public trust.
Employees and workers will have rights under the Data Protection Act for personal medical information not to be disclosed to the employer without the individuals consent to do this.
Occupational Health can write reports and recommendations but at the end of the day it is the employer who is responsible in law for any final decision that is made (not Occupational Health).
Always discuss the reasons for referral to Occupational Health with the individual and the questions you are asking
Mr Smith will be anxious about Occupational Health if it is seen as a disciplinary tool of the employer. Provide an information sheet and contact number so that fears can be put to rest before the appointment. That way the referral will be useful to both Mr Smith and to the employer.
If you want to watch a video on what Occupational Health does – click here.
April 25th 2013
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