Working together – OH & OT agree better access for SMEs to assessment and rehabilitation services is required.

By Anna Harrington, WHIB

Published 10 October 2023

Old black and white photograph of coal miners down a mine

Having worked in Occupational Health (OH) for over 20 years, I have had the opportunity to see and experience change. Change to the professionals within the occupational health field, in our practice and with the models used to assess employees’ work abilities.

Added to this professional longevity is a unique young person’s experience of occupational therapy. My mum was an Occupational Therapist (OT) who worked in the coal mines assessing miners and enabling work. My work experience was in her local hospital OT department, which led me to always value a multi-disciplinary approach. It is exciting to see occupational health widening from being Dr and nurse dominant to involving OTs, physiotherapists, vocational rehabilitation, and specialist disability workplace assessors. With this background, it was interesting to read the OH Today article about the incorporation of OT and vocational Rehabilitation (VR) into OH.

I have my own business and most of my clients are in the small sector i.e. less than 49 employees, which represents 48% of private businesses in the UK in 2020 (Department of Business). These businesses have limited resources compared to larger businesses, whether that be financial, access to expertise, or capacity to fill gaps. The businesses will still encounter employee functional capacity limitations linked to health & ill health, which would benefit from the ongoing vocational rehabilitation approach and/or an in-depth functional assessment often provided by occupational therapists. Having said that, most referrals I receive do not require a full functional assessment or vocational rehabilitation approach. When either of these approaches would be more appropriate than my offering, I have directed support to VR/OT services. Disappointingly cost is a barrier to businesses proceeding with this advice.

We all know that access to any occupational health let alone a multidisciplinary team for Small to Medium Enterprises (SMEs) is challenging. My suggestion to the OT, VR & OH community (our community) is that we take a “tackle it together” approach.

Firstly, clearly define the “traditional OH services” delivered by providers of different sizes (a large OH provider delivers a different service to a small or single provider), explore the value and limitations of the service delivery differences, examine in what circumstances a VR model or full functional assessment enables a good return on investment.  This needs to be done to bring a cohesive front, giving value to the diversity of delivery within occupational health.

Then lobby the Government to expand, for instance, the Access to Work programme. Whilst writing this I am listening to the online Diversity & Inclusion Disability at Work Summit. I noticed this conference represented big business only, with no representation from the biggest business sector (based on size) i.e. SMEs. I suggest we engage with local government agencies representing local SMEs such as the local enterprise partnerships (SEMLEP, and Buckingham Business First as examples). These organisations are central and local government vehicles to enable sustainable economic growth by addressing barriers affecting this.

Headshot of Anna Harrington
Anna Harrington | LinkedIn

Anna  is an experienced Occupational Health clinician who runs her own business, WHIB, working with SMEs.

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