· 2 min read · Features

Should you outsource occupational health to the Health and Work Service?


The government’s free Health and Work Service is due to rollout in December 2014, but few organisations have a true understanding of what it is, and even fewer have started to develop an integration strategy.

In a nutshell, the Health and Work Service will provide access to occupational health assessments and general health and work advice to employees, employers and GPs with the aim of helping individuals with a health condition to either stay in or return to work. It has two elements:

  • Assessment service: Once the employee has reached or is expected to reach four weeks of sickness absence, their GP will refer them to the Health and Work service for an assessment by an occupational health professional. The assessment will identify issues preventing the employee from returning to work and provide recommendations for treatment and advice on graduated return to work programmes.
  • Advice service: Employers, employees and GPs will be able to access advice via a phone line and website. 

These services will be of particular value to SME employers who do not regularly use occupational health services and need general guidance on how to manage absence cases as well as accommodate workplace adjustments.

Larger employers, or those with workers that require annual health screenings, are unlikely to rely on the service. Employers who proactively manage their absence cases are likely to put triggers in place to refer employees to occupational health long before the four-week mark, thus bypassing the government scheme.

All employers, from the smallest to the largest, will still have to consider how they will manage cases that are not deemed to fit the referral criteria. These include employees who:> 

  • Have already been seen by the Health and Work Service within the past 12 months;
  • Have made a partial return to work; and,
  • Have been absent from work for several months but are ready to return. 

Employers will need to carefully consider the advantages and limitations of this service to properly plan for how they will utilise it. For example, what will you do if one of your employees is referred to the service without your knowledge and the employee shows up to work unexpectedly with a graduated return to work plan? 

While the government’s new scheme is a significant initiative, which all UK companies are eligible to use free of charge, the service has some shortcomings. As well as those I’ve already mentioned, perhaps one of the most important is the lack of upfront employer involvement. In addition, the scheme does not link with wider employee benefits such as private medical insurance and income protection to provide a holistic employee healthcare solution. 

The key point that employers need to take away is that above all they need a clear and robust process in place before the Health and Work Service comes into effect. Whether they choose to use their own occupational health service, or a mix of their own providers and the Health and Work service, all employers need to have a clear understanding of how they will work with the government’s scheme to ensure that employees are fully supported.

Beate O’Neil is head of wellness consulting, Punter Southall Health & Protection Consulting