Occupational Health Benefits
The rewards and risks of workplace health benefits.
The more people are sick, the less they work. When people work less, there is less economic activity and company profits fall. This simple input-output is the reason that the government is reported to be considering giving tax breaks to companies that provide their employees with occupational health benefits. A recent article from The Times states that “One early conclusion from [Mel] Stride’s review is that companies that provide employees with extensive occupational health support have better retention rates because they lose fewer staff to ill health or related problems”. The policy is predicted to be announced as soon as the March budget. So what is occupational health support, and is the government’s scheme good for workers?
Occupational health is a term used to describe healthcare provided by employers that aims to promote employee health and wellbeing. Many employees will have come across the phrase ‘occupational health assessment’ when they have been off sick and return to work. These assessments seek to establish, in the view of the occupational health provider, whether the employee is healthy enough to work. Additionally, the report might recommend adjustments to the employer to make the employee’s ability to work easier or possible. These recommendations are often indicative of what legal obligations the employer is under to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ for any disabilities the employee has as defined under the Equality Act 2010.
However, the scope of occupational health benefits is wider than these reports. It also covers advice to the employer on complying with their health and safety duties, ergonomic workplace design, and employee wellbeing services. In short, occupational health schemes aim to provide a positive function designed to support employees and protect their welfare. The government’s proposal to expand occupational health coverage should, therefore, be broadly welcomed as considerate of employees, even if the motive might primarily be economic. Of course, a productive economy can itself have many positive effects on the lives of workers. Another key benefit would be avoiding long-term sickness which rarely sees a successful return to work with some workers leaving the workforce permanently as we have seen in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.
There are two risks which I would like to highlight and which might reasonably be considered cynical. The first is that increased economic activity due to a healthier workforce does not necessarily equate to higher wages for employees. As we have seen over at least the past couple of decades, wages can remain stagnant while GDP and stock markets rise. If the government’s intention is to improve workers’ lives, it should be looking for ways to ensure that increases in productivity and corporate profits are reflected in higher wages for all employees. Feeling valued is also key to maintaining good mental health and higher wages incentivise workers to stay in work so it’s a win-win.
The second risk is that any broadening of occupational health benefit schemes should not set the stage for occupational health to encroach on treatment for health conditions, or for the promotion of employer-provided health insurance. To do so would amount to stealth privatisation of healthcare. The Times article states “Those involved in the review believe that work can be part of a health treatment plan for people with some mental health conditions”. It is not currently clear what the government’s policy might be. However, one of the key risks of linking private healthcare to people’s employment is that it might then be used as a form of control by the employer. Companies could use the risk of employment-linked healthcare ending through termination of employment to ensure that employees do not speak up or assert their legal rights. The Government must be wary of giving employers a stick to beat workers with. Also the scheme would still have to deal with those who are reluctant to be open about their health at work and invasion of privacy can come into play. For employment law to work at all effectively this situation must be avoided.
This blog was written by Matthew Manso de Zuniga, paralegal at didlaw.