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What is an Occupational Health Assessment?

One of the most common questions that we get from our clients on a regular basis is “what is an occupational health assessment?”  An occupational health assessment is generally used as a blanket term, often a vital part in sickness absence management or in situations where an employee’s health is affecting their work or there are concerns that work may be adversely affecting health. We want to clearly elucidate this process for both employers and employees.

What is an Occupational health assessment?

An occupational health assessment (also known as sickness absence referral, management referral or occupational health return to work assessment) is an evaluation that an employee undergoes with a qualified occupational health assessor in order to assess and document specific health concerns, issues and goals for the future. A qualified nurse or doctor who has additional qualifications in occupational health will conduct this appointment at a time that is convenient for both the employee and the employer, and all of the information discussed during this time is kept completely confidential.  The advantage of an assessment via Staywell Occupational Health, is we are completely independent which can be beneficial in ensuring engagement in process and a successful outcome.

An Occupational Health AssessmentAn occupational health assessment is based on the employees’ answers that have been gleaned through consultation with a clinically qualified practitioner who can assess the validity of the information provided. A report is compiled from the information gathered on assessment which can be used to assist the employer in making positive changes within the workplace. These reports are never intended to be medical documents for personalised diagnoses and treatment plans but focus on work factors.  If information arises that concerns the consulting nurse or doctor, they may recommend the individual seeks further medical investigations or treatment via their primary care provider.

Independent and Objective

When employees are told about their upcoming occupational health assessment, they may feel worried or concerned that their personal medical information may be shared with their employer, and that these private details will influence the way that they are treated on the job. This is not the case at all – this assessment is intended to make their lives better at work, not to ferret out personal details that can be used against them. It is imperative that all employees have all of their concerns and worries assuaged; private occupational health assessments are completely confidential, independent and objective in nature.

Sickness absence and The Equality Act 2010

The Equality Act of 2010 dramatically changed the way that employers are permitted to communicate with their employees about illness, absences and disabilities in order to prevent workplace discrimination. It is important to ensure that, as an employer, you do not ask questions about a person’s mental or physical health, unless these questions are directly related to workplace duties, i.e. – “are you able to lift heavy boxes filled with stock,” or, “are you capable of working long hours over the busy holiday season?” Therefore, during and after the occupational health assessment the employer must be careful to avoid asking their staff about the content of any confidential meetings.

Similarly, you as an employer are only permitted to ask your employees about their sickness absences in specific ways – you cannot ask for specific health details or demand to know about their illness or medical conditions. You may ask for a doctor’s “fit note” after seven consecutive workdays, but it is not detail specific about their health.

If you as an employer are concerned about the number of sick absences an employee is taking, the effects of their health condition on work fitness, or the possible effects of medication, you can refer them for an assessment with an occupational health advisor in order to work out a plan for their successful return to work, maintenance of work attendance or a reduction in sickness absence.

What is in an occupational health report?

An occupational health report will be a thorough overview of the employee’s current medical status and their future capacity to return to work in a successful manner or maintain work with consideration of reasonable adjustments. It should only focus on the employees’ fitness to return to work and should not include other performance issues unrelated to their health issues. All matters related to their health situation must be included only with the employees’ written consent. The report should contain all relevant and appropriate medical information about this medical instance and include the interventions that are planned so that the HR and/or management team has a clear picture about the medical situation, and it should be written in easy-to-understand language without technical terms or jargon. Any limitations and disabilities that may affect the employees’ performance should be detailed in full, and it should include a professional opinion about the future of this condition, i.e. is it going to become a permanent disability and is retirement the best solution?

Finally, it should also contain any relevant information about the condition’s connection to the workplace – is this illness as a result of a workplace accident or repetitive stress disorder? Any internal disputes that should also be well documented in case of future litigation.

 Workplace disputes & refusal to attend meetings

Sometimes, due to concerns regarding the outcome and secondary mental health conditions such as anxiety, an employee may attend their General Practitioner (GP) and receive a fitness certificate resulting in absence from work and, in some cases, advising the postponement of investigations or meetings.  Whilst the GP may deem this clinically appropriate and in the best interests of the employee, this is rarely the case.  An occupational health assessment can help enable effective progression, identifying reasonable adjustments which can allow processes to continue.

Of course, an employee always has the right to refuse to attend an occupational health assessment or other health meeting. This refusal may have to do with personal beliefs, fear of sharing medical details or religious reasons, and should be documented clearly. Employers should always do their best to gently encourage their employees to attend any recommended health meeting, but to remember that a staff member does have the right to refuse. That said, if an employee refuses, they should be made aware that management will then have to make any and all decisions about their future employment without any medical information which may be to the employee’s detriment.

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