Majority of UK workers don’t have access to occupational health

Just 45 per cent of employees can access advice or services at work, prompting calls for an overhaul of the system

The majority of UK workers do not have access to occupational health (OH) services, a report has found, prompting calls for more investment into healthcare in the workplace.

The report, published by the Society of Occupational Medicine (SOM), found just 45 per cent of UK workers have access to OH advice and facilities, a statistic made worse by a lack of investment in the training of doctors and nurses specialising in OH.

SOM said the shortfall in OH services was happening at a time when 1.4 million workers suffering from work-related conditions, with common issues including mental ill-health, musculoskeletal conditions, skin or respiratory problems and cancer.

SOM included a number of recommendations in its report, including greater support for businesses in evaluating the economic benefit of OH interventions, the creation of a centralised body to guide research in OH and better dissemination of new and best practice to employers.

The report also called for more investment from government, employers and industry into OH. 

Professor Ewan Macdonald, who led the University of Glasgow team that prepared the report, said a lack of investment in training meant the situation was “getting worse”, with a large portion of the workforce retiring early “because they and their employers were not getting the skilled support and advice which could help people to work safely and longer”.

The proposals were welcomed by Ben Willmott, head of public policy at the CIPD, who told People Management they were a step towards filling the gap left by the government's Fit for Work programme.

But he added it was well known that smaller business were far less likely to provide OH services to their employees, and called for specialised support to be given to SMEs.

“The issue with Fit for Work was the lack of support, and one of the recommendations in this report is that advice should be available to all with a national support strategy,” said Wilmott.

“[But] we know small employers don’t often provide access to OH services. What is needed is more bespoke support for small firms, and that’s an area that needs more attention in terms of how the gap is filled.” 

The Fit for Work scheme was a government initiative that was meant to revolutionise occupational health in the UK by enabling businesses to make referrals to GPs when employees experienced long-term sickness, but was widely criticised for its poor uptake by both employers and the healthcare sector. It ended its operations in 2018 and now exists only as a website.