Independent allies

first_imgRelated posts:No related photos. Mostoccupational health departments shrugged off their old image of tea, sympathyand sticking plasters a long time ago. Nowadays, they can have a significantrole to play working with HR across the business. Nic Paton reportsOccupational health (OH) and HR departments should have a symbioticrelationship. Theoretically independent of each other, they are oftenphysically located in the same place, with OH commonly reporting to HR. Butwhile working to the same end – the well-being of their workers – they can oftenfind themselves at loggerheads. HR needs to know what is going on when it comesto employees, but the OH nurse is bound by strict rules of patientconfidentiality. Most occupational health departments shrugged off their old image of tea,sympathy and sticking plasters a long time ago. Nowadays, they play a key rolein risk assessment, health promotion, workplace health and safety, absencemanagement, employee rehabilitation, medical referrals, the organising ofcounselling and, increasingly, stress management. The lines between HR and OH (and training & development) are becomingincreasingly blurred. At London Underground, for instance, the combined50-strong team, which covers medical advice, trauma counselling and a drug and alcoholservice, is beginning to play a significant role at an organisational level –for example, it ensures that health messages are included at inductiontraining. “The perception has definitely moved away from a treatment service to acase management service,” says Dr Jenny Leeser, clinical director foroccupational health at Bupa Wellness. “But it depends on what theagreement is with the organisation and how much OH is involved in drawing uppolicies. If you are just doing half a day and you have 10 patients to see,there is a limit to what you can do.” Even locating OH within HR can sometimes cause problems, because a workermay feel reluctant to confide in OH if they have to walk through the massedranks of the HR department to get there, Leeser suggests. Now that the Health & Safety Executive has put stress high up on thebusiness health and safety agenda, HR professionals can no longer affordconfrontation with their OH colleagues. The OH department will normally have a pretty good view of the culture of anorganisation; it will know the absence levels of each department, will be ableto spot any ‘clusters’ and will know how to go about educating staff on stress.Take Aegon UK, the British subsidiary of the Netherlands-based insurancefirm, and the name behind Scottish Equitable. Last November, its OH department,under occupational health and safety adviser Angela Dunlop, was the only OHteam to be shortlisted for the Managing Health at Work category in the 2002Personnel Today awards last November. Located within and reporting to the HR department, but contracted in ratherthan employed directly by Aegon, Dunlop and her team have brought ininitiatives such as a monthly health promotion topic and staff needs survey.Therapists offer osteopathy, reflexology and aromatherapy, and an alcohol andsubstance misuse policy has been put in place. Rehabilitation and absence are key issues, and since 1998, 76 employers haveused the firm’s rehabilitation programme. Now, there is a long-term absencerate of just 0.67 per cent, and the team is in the process of developing acompany-wide stress leaflet for staff. “OH staff need to explain why they want to do something,” saysDunlop. “I need to be able to justify it. But it’s also up to HR tochallenge me, to ask the right questions. “It’s not just a case of me giving information to HR, they also give mea lot of information. I learn a lot from my HR colleagues.” Independence is what gives OH nurses their authority, she argues. “IfHR tries to start to exert pressure, it’s not going to work. I offerindependent advice and, if necessary, I have to be able to justify it incourt.” The relationship between the two functions can be difficult, concedesDunlop’s boss, group HR manager Gareth Humphreys. “Very often, HR people will want to know a bit more and OH people willbe reluctant to provide anything – most often quite rightly,” he explains.”OH plays a wide role because it can be a tool to manage long-termabsence and the return to work, and because it can be an outlet for people whofeel they have health issues. But you have to respect the patientconfidentiality that often comes with that,” he adds. The relationship must be built on communication and trust, and will oftenonly work over time and through continual effort, he warns. Dunlop adds: “If there is a separate function championing OH and HR,the business can be very difficult to control. But it is not an easy one. Itcan be a difficult relationship to manage sometimes.” – There is no central register of OH nurses, but most company GPs willknow of local OH providers. Alternatively, the Association of OccupationalHealth Nurse Practitioners (0116 281 3720) keeps a voluntary register, as doesthe Royal College of Nursing (020 7409 333OH factfileThere are around 6,000 OH nurses currently working within theUK, compared with around 118,000 HR practitioners who are members of theChartered Institute of Personnel Development. Before someone can call themselves an occupational healthnurse, they have to qualify as a specialist practitioner. When hiring an OHprofessional, therefore, HR practitioners need to look at what level of personthey want and what the organisation wants from them. Specialist practitioners will normally lead a team of nursesand some organisations may prefer to rely more heavily on their HR departmentcomplemented by lower-level (and cheaper) OH practitioners.Many organisations have in-house OH departments, but equallyothers contract in services, either on an annual fee or on a per-item basis. Previous Article Next Article Comments are closed. Independent alliesOn 21 Oct 2003 in Personnel Todaylast_img read more