I'll tell you something: It’s taken a pandemic to show why HR and OH need to work together

The two professions have historically misunderstood each other, says Eleck Dodson, but now is the time to futureproof the relationship

On the face of it, occupational health (OH) and HR may seem a natural pairing. After all, they both support employers and employees. But many people fail to understand the role of OH. 

For starters, when the NHS was formed in 1948, it was decided workplace healthcare should be provided by employers and not funded by the NHS, so OH has always sat on the outskirts of mainstream healthcare with no direct funding. And although there are health and safety laws all companies must adhere to – which have been thrust into the spotlight in recent months thanks to Covid-19 – they aren’t legally required to have an OH service.

OH is often the department that no one really sees, except when they have to complete copious paperwork for a new role, or if they’re sent there because they’ve had too much sickness absence. This model often leaves both employer and employee unsure as to what OH does. Because of this lack of understanding, employees often expect to leave an OH appointment treated, bumped up a hospital waiting list or offered counselling sessions. Likewise, the employer can become frustrated that OH doesn’t force everyone to return to work under any circumstances. It can often be seen as obstinate, unnecessarily stopping people from working, or providing unhelpful reports. 

To make the relationship work, HR needs to understand who OH professionals are and what they do. This doesn’t happen often enough – I’ve lost count of the number of people who have almost fallen off their chair when they learn I am a qualified nurse. OH is a specialist branch of medicine and nursing, and OH clinicians specialise in workplace healthcare. They train for between three and five years to become generalists, and another two to four years to specialise in OH.

But it’s not just qualifications – the way clinicians think is different too. They undertake assessments using empirically tested models and theories as the basis for much of their decision-making and, within the context of advising on fitness to work, must consider the complexities of any health and safety requirements as well as the impact of disease and ill-health. 

In its most simplistic form, OH is a workplace health advisory service. And so while the need for improved workplace wellbeing is widening its portfolio, it’s also increasing expectations. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but the relationship could continue to be rocky with ever-increasing demands. 

The coronavirus pandemic has shown workplace health to be a priority once more, but risks further overwhelming OH departments. As well as the raft of additional measures like temperature checks and virus testing, which will inevitably land in OH’s in-tray as employees begin returning to offices, there’s also the psychological fallout as months of uncertainty, isolation and anxiety take their toll on the workforce. 

To make sure this doesn’t overwhelm businesses as normality hopefully resumes, and to ensure the relationship between HR and OH continues to be fruitful, OH needs to be around the table with other decision-makers and sit within HR, not under it. OH has a wealth of knowledge to offer, if only it were given a voice, investment and recognition. HR needs to be more inclusive and understand OH professionals, their thinking and what they can and can’t offer, and should avoid writing the department off as just an extra level of bureaucracy. Otherwise, as with all relationships, the partnership will eventually break down.