Imogen Cardwell | Operations Director at PAM Group
How to create an Occupational Health strategy fit for 2022
From epigenetics and preventative healthcare to improving healthcare equality, there are four key trends set to shape Occupational Health strategies in 2022.
With the pandemic continuing to disrupt the delivery of healthcare, including the diagnosis of disease, employers are becoming increasingly aware of the need to prevent their employees from becoming sick in the first place. This means new innovations, such as Epigenetics, are set to become a key feature of occupational health strategies in 2022.
At the same time, more focus on reducing lifestyle risks is expected to prevent illness and improve health outcomes. The role of Occupational Health itself is also set to evolve to do more to help reduce healthcare inequalities.
Read on for more insights and tips on how to use these trends to update your Occupational Health strategy in readiness for 2022, whatever that may bring.
Four trends shaping Occupational Health strategies in 2022
1. Preventative Healthcare
Epigenetics, the study of how your behaviours can cause changes that affect how your genes work, is set to revolutionise Occupational Health over the coming year. It can be used to help employees understand how eating behaviours, for example, can actually change how their body works in a way that puts them at greater risk of Type 2 Diabetes.
This, alongside other DNA and blood testing, will transform occupational health. In the past, employees typically had to become diagnosed with disease, be it heart disease, type 2 diabetes or cancer, to become fully motivated to make the lifestyle changes needed to reduce their health risks once more. But by allowing employees to understand their personal predisposition towards disease before they go down that path, Epigenetics will empower Occupational Health professionals to help employees make positive, pre-emptive lifestyle changes much earlier on.
2. Deeper risk assessments
There is now a much greater understanding of the need to reduce all the risks that could potentially prevent the employee from attending or performing at work, including the lifestyle risks that could make them sick in future. For many employers, statutory Health surveillance and fitness for work are core elements of an OH service and for some sectors, this may be the only interaction with a health professional, outside of ill health events, each year. This makes it a key opportunity to open a dialogue about wider health risks. For this reason, ‘health promotion’ has always been an informal element of these assessments.
In response to the focus on preventative health and wellbeing, more employers are now extending these assessments to formally include an element of lifestyle risk assessment. This involves getting the OH clinician to spend more time with the employee. To help them consider their health outside of work, and their responsibility for this. They can be advised on how they might be putting their health at risk and given support and guidance regarding additional adjustments they can make. Or measures they can take, to mitigate this and boost their health overall.
3. Better data analysis
Another big trend for 2022, driven by the ‘great resignation’, which is seeing employees resign in record numbers, is better analysis of data to understand the full impact of poor health. For example, instead of just measuring the cost of poor health in terms of sickness absence, employers are now putting metrics in place to measure this in terms of reduced productivity, reduced employee retention and increased recruitment and training costs. These measures also highlight the underlying issues causing employees to become sick or dissatisfied with their employer.
This is important, because some employers might mistakenly assume that they don’t need to provide occupational health services, because they don’t pay for sick leave. Yet our Health at Work Report shows one in two (51%) employees who were given help to stay healthy were less likely to want to work elsewhere, compared to just one in twenty (6%) of those employees given little or no support. The business case for good Occupational Health now far transcends simply reducing sickness absence and has an important role to play when it comes to retaining employees.
4. Improving health equality
We know that healthcare inequality exists for many individuals, with our Health at Work Report showing that frontline workers, who faced greater risks over the past year, had the least access to healthcare benefits, including occupational health. Young workers were the most affected by long Covid, while men became three times more drug-dependent than women (12% compared to 4%). However, women were more likely than men to have been diagnosed with clinical anxiety or depression (28% compared to 21%). All of which highlights the need to treat employees as individuals and introduce a more diverse range of services to meet everyone’s needs.
With employees increasingly keen to help themselves and have information tailored to their needs, a digital wellbeing app can be a highly cost-effective way of connecting employees to a wide range of self-help tools and resources, based on their unique needs. Another way of increasing health equality is to extend the remit of Occupational Health to act as ‘link professionals’ who can case-manage broader issues impacting on the employees’ health, such as their access to housing or debt support, instead of throwing these over the wall for social services to deal with. As experienced case managers, Occupational Health professionals can look at all issues impacting on an individual’s health and, where this might be putting them at risk of worklessness, escalate their case to restore their health and keep them in work.