Home Insights & Advice Why occupational health services are vital in the fight against COVID-19

Why occupational health services are vital in the fight against COVID-19

by John Saunders
7th Dec 21 5:12 pm

We spend a huge part of our lives at work, so it is only right that our health, wellbeing and safety are looked after whilst we are working. Occupational health is an area of medicine that focuses on preventing and treating injuries and illnesses that happen at work, that are caused by work or that are likely to affect your work. Over 170 million sick days are taken each year in the UK, which has a detrimental impact on the economy, so occupational health services exist to help minimise these sick days and work with employers to support them in getting employees back into work after illness or injury.

Their services are very important and yet are still being underutilised by many businesses. You might have previously thought that occupational health wasn’t required in your organisation, but since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, all businesses are now affected by health issues and thus knowing what these services are and how they can help you could be vital to your business’s survival.

There is no doubt that the UK is in the midst of a health crisis. In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, many other countries will be in a similar, if not worse, situation, as the world deals with the threat of a mutating virus and the economic impact of company closures, logistic

delays and forced periods of isolation. We’re faced with a two pronged approach to occupational health – firstly to look after the health and safety of people at work during the COVID-19 pandemic and secondly to deal with the longer term health impact caused by economic recession as the world recovers from the initial shock of the virus and long covid – the debilitating condition that many sufferers are left experiencing.

How occupational health services can support businesses through COVID-19

It is clear that when the pandemic struck, many businesses were ill equipped to deal with large numbers of staff being off sick or isolating and it really highlighted the weak spots in organisations’ occupational health provision. Over 18 months on since the coronavirus was first detected here in the UK and businesses have come a long way in terms of changing their working practices, with many still implementing some form of working from home to mitigate the spread of the virus. As the official government advice continues to change, due to the detection of new COVID-19 variants, it is clear that we cannot take the current situation for granted and must be prepared for further restrictions or a return to working from home for all but non-essential workers.

With this in mind, let’s look at how occupational health services can support your business as you continue to deal with the impact of COVID-19:

  • Helping you to conduct return to work risk assessments – this will be to determine when and how people can return to the workplace after a national or local lockdown, after they have had COVID-19 themselves or if they are considered vulnerable.
  • Helping you to understand the impact of presenteeism (i.e. turning up to work when you are unwell) to your organisation and how to reduce it as it may lead to longer recovery times, future health problems or illness of co-workers.
  • Creating a good workplace to improve employee health and wellbeing, increase motivation, grow productivity and reduce absenteeism.
  • Helping you to manage stress, burnout and fatigue – this is particularly important in healthcare and social settings and other industries with essential workers who have had extra pressure and workload during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Supporting mental health and wellbeing – this is more important than ever now as it is generally reported that employee health and wellbeing has deteriorated during the pandemic as people worry about returning to the workplace, catching the virus at work and spreading it to family members or the possibility of being made redundant.
  • Helping you and your employees to adapt to change – whether this be restructuring your business, implementing working from home or hybrid working policies, or making redundancies – all can have an impact on wellbeing.

How occupational health services can support organisations with the long-term effects of COVID-19

Following a recession in the latter part of 2020 as the UK recovered from the initial impact of the virus, we have enjoyed a period of rapid growth which has been fantastic news for the economy, however we are not out of the woods yet. Ongoing public health concerns, supply chain issues and loss of income for many will no doubt slow down this growth as the winter continues to take its toll. Combine that with the increased cost of living that we are now witnessing and it is not difficult to imagine that we may well be headed for another recession in 2022.

Negative economic growth can also have an impact on people’s health and wellbeing, so if the economy is heading in this direction, organisations will need the support of occupational health professionals to ensure they are ready for what’s to come. These problems might include:

  • Reduction in income and increased unemployment causing anxiety and stress which can manifest in mental or physical symptoms.
  • Disproportionate impact on young workers, low income families and women.
  • Increased prevalence of chronic illness, particularly mental illness.

Occupational health services can implement strategies and processes and deliver advice and services to help businesses deal with the impact of recession, this might include:

  • Supporting businesses to implement work sharing, reduced hours or restructuring to save jobs and thus minimise the impact that this might have otherwise had on health and wellbeing.
  • Providing screening services to ensure that employees continue to remain fit for the roles they are filling, given that they may be under additional stress.
  • Helping businesses to manage the stress, anxiety and depression that may occur as a result of being in a recession where the worry of job losses, income reduction and inability to access paid healthcare may be impacting employees.
  • Delivering mental health and wellbeing support to reassure employees and help retain and improve morale and motivation.

Recession and economic downturn are not the only long-term worries associated with COVID-19, there is also the risk of employees developing Long Covid as a result of being infected with the virus. Whereas most Covid infections resolve in the first 4 weeks and most people are fully recovered within 12 weeks, some may develop Long Covid. This is where sufferers experience symptoms such as chest pain or tightness, coughing, breathlessness, fatigue, headache, cognitive impairment, joint pains, digestive problems, earache or sore throat.

Recent figures have suggested that 5% of people with Long Covid have been forced out of their jobs and as only half the UK workforce currently has access to occupational health support, we can assume this figure will rise over the coming months and years. What then can you do to stop Long Covid negatively impacting your business?

By accessing occupational health services you can:

  • Get help in enabling those suffering from Long Covid to return to work by understanding and meeting the challenges this condition presents.
  • Get the medical assessments you need to ensure that employees affected by Long Covid are fit to do their job, particularly if they work in certain industries where medical standards are expected.
  • Put plans for a phased return to work in place where applicable to ensure key employees can continue to do their job, even in a limited capacity in the short term, to ensure that businesses do not suffer from skills shortages.

How your business could benefit from an occupational health professional

Occupational health services have been proven to increase productivity, improve morale and reduce staff illness, thus saving businesses money in the long run and ensuring they keep hold of key members of staff whose knowledge, skills and expertise may be difficult to replace. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, with the added threats of a mutating virus, Long Covid and a future economic downturn to deal with, their services have never been more vital. With every business affected by the pandemic, and no sign of it going anywhere, now is the time to invest in occupational health to protect the health and wellbeing of your workforce and ensure you can continue to operate safely, productively and supportively however the virus develops. Making these plans now, will set your business apart and keep your employees motivated through these challenging times.

Heathrow Medical Services is a leading provider of professional Occupational Health Services and Specialist Medicals based next to Heathrow Airport in London. Please click here to find out more about their occupational health services or call their clinic on 020 8528 2633.

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