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The Occupational Health workforce – a crisis of capability?

By Janet O'Neill, Deputy Head of the National School of Occupational Health

Published 3 February 2023

For some years the Occupational Health (OH) Workforce has been slowly dying. Dr Yogarajah published the 2019 SOM report The Future of the OH Workforce,  detailing a reduction in the OH Workforce.  Not very auspicious, considering that 4 years before, in 2016, an All-party parliamentary group paper, called the diminishing  Occupational Medical workforce, “a crisis of capability”, despite OH becoming more multi-disciplinary.

Anecdotally, at a recent training session of 11 NHS senior leaders, the OH workforce crisis dominated the conversation.

A paradox, considering the need for OH services is continually growing!

As far back as the Black Report of 2008, OH has been considered key to the health of the working-age population; a position reiterated a number of times since then, accelerating during the pandemic and culminating in the Response to the Government paper; Health is everyone’s business in 2021.

In today’s UK employment market, significant numbers of people are leaving due to ill health, costing £150 billion and restricting economic growth (Times 2023). Yet, workplaces can influence health positively (CBI Nov 2022). According to the CBI, a new Work-health index (WHI) is being launched which will benchmark UK private sector organisations’ health provision. That health position must include OH. OH is seen as essential in influencing health at work and supporting people back into work (DWP 2021). The Welsh Conservatives recently asked Labour to encourage businesses to engage Occupational Health services to support economic growth and reduce the impact on the NHS.

What are we doing about it?

The NHS are “Growing OH and wellbeing” services as they see a direct benefit, not only to their workforce but to patient care. It is wonderful that so many resources and financial support is being made available for this project.

It is not enough to increase the OH population!

An effective and important solution is for OH to host pre-registration student placements. OH is not part of the curriculum and there is little awareness of OH as a specialism for Doctors, Nurses and Allied Health Professionals. When needing to build the practice nursing population, NHS England published a 10-point plan that identified pre-registration placements as being key; substantiated by the BMC 2019 research project, exploring student views.

This will be a culture change, but the benefits go beyond increasing the workforce. Pre-registration placements support awareness and understanding of the profession; improve the understanding of work as a health outcome and therefore will also be part of the solution in keeping the workforce at work. It is a win-win situation.

Should any OH providers wish to have further information, please contact Janet O’Neill. You may wish to view our YouTube video describing the lived experience of pre-registration placements. A further case study can be found here in this Occupational Medicine Journal article.

Deputy Head NSOH


OH Today Winter 2022/23
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