Is social prescribing the answer to keeping employees healthy?

Employees with health issues could soon find themselves being ‘prescribed’ membership to a club rather than a pill – but this shouldn’t come as a surprise, says Claire Glynn

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Employees expecting to be prescribed anti-inflammatories for back pain might be surprised to find themselves being sent to a gardening or walking club. But non-medical referrals to support in the community – known as ‘social prescribing’ – is growing in popularity.

The idea is that many health and wellbeing issues can be improved with social, rather than medical, interventions. For example, for low mood due to spending too much time isolated from others, or back pain due to lack of movement, issuing a ‘prescription’ to join a baking, gardening, walking, football or crafting volunteer group can be an effective alternative to pills.

The approach has been quietly gathering success within the NHS and is now gaining in popularity with employers. Not least as a way of reducing further skills shortages due to preventable sickness absence.

Some employers are even going so far as to set up their own social prescribing initiatives. But what does the approach involve and how can you not only use social prescribing to reduce absence and improve wellbeing, but also to boost your ESG credentials? 

Here are six pointers to bear in mind:

  1. Think about what your people need. As with any workplace health and wellbeing initiative, look at what your people need. What health issues are causing them to go off sick or hindering their ability to perform at work? What underlying health issues are they prone to? Are they feeling fatigued, suffering from burnout or struggling with neck and back pain? Would they benefit from doing something relaxing and soulful, or becoming more active?

  2. Identify appropriate community groups. Once you’ve established what your people need, consider what sort of activities they might want to engage with, bearing in mind where they’re based. Local councils will probably have a social prescribing page if you search the internet for this. If they aren’t offering much, consider supporting a local charity or setting up your own group. For example, a workplace walking group or inter-company football club. Or, if your workplace has a garden, perhaps an allotment club.

  3. Consider health risks. There are no formal qualifications required to do social prescribing, However, a medical professional is often still required if there are any recognised medical health conditions being experienced by the individual, to make sure recommended activities don’t put them at risk. The medical professional can be an occupational health specialist or workplace GP, so make sure you have someone qualified you can bring on board to do the prescribing when needed.

  4. Refer employees who would benefit. Social prescribing is designed to support people sooner rather than later, before an initial problem – such as a back twinge or low mood – has time to spiral into something worse. Encourage social prescribing pathways at the first sign of ill-health, instead of waiting for people to become ill. You can also use social prescribing to help people stay in work by getting managers to refer team members they think might benefit.

  5. Share success stories. Capture testimonials from people who have been helped to recover. Include any data about positive outcome measures to demonstrate the effectiveness of the approach. Be this clinical data on improvement in symptoms or a patient reported outcome measures (PROM) survey. Share these stories with other employees to inspire them to also come forward for support. Plus calculate any absence or cost savings, compared to waiting for an NHS GP referral or making a health insurance claim, to make the case for the approach to the business.

  6. Be flexible. Make sure people stick to their social prescription by treating it like any other medical appointment and giving them time off to attend. Make it clear they’re expected to make time for this and not to schedule meetings or set deadlines that would prevent them from attending. This will help to avoid them being made to feel awkward about attending something that will help keep them healthy and in work, saving more time in the long run.

Claire Glynn is head of musculoskeletal services at PAM Group