Employers - are you making the most of occupational health?

Employers - are you making the most of occupational health?


Author: Michael Hardiman

Employee health can be a significant source of risk for any business and employers increasingly seek help from medical professionals in managing such risk.

Employee health can be a significant source of risk for any business and employers increasingly seek help from medical professionals in managing such risk.

Occupational health advice may be needed to:

  • assess whether an employee is fit to return to work after long-term absence;
  • consider what reasonable adjustments could be made for a disabled employee in order to comply with the employer's duty under the Equality Act 2010;
  • assist with deciding whether or not an employee can be dismissed fairly on capability grounds;
  • decide if an employee on sick leave is able to participate in a disciplinary or grievance procedure;
  • find out if the employee is suffering from an underlying health condition which may be causing short-term intermittent sickness; and
  • help managers deal with absence management issues in the workplace generally such as stress and minimise work-related illnesses.

Doctors who specialise in workplace health will have had further training in occupational medicine. But, given that help from occupational health practitioners can be costly, employers may be failing to get the most out of their physicians because they do not properly understand the regulatory framework in which doctors are required to operate or, fail to impart the right information to enable meaningful health advice to be given.

The importance of background information

The essential background of the case should be given to the practitioner including, where relevant:

  • the employee's job role, hours, work and particular aspects of the work which may be/are causing the employee a problem. It is always advisable to provide a copy of the employee's job description and to specifically request that the practitioner details those aspects which the employee cannot do or which may need to be modified;
  • the relevant history of absence, the durations, reasons given by the employee and whether any previous reports have been provided. If so, copies of these should be given to the practitioner;
  • details of any adjustments which have already been implemented and whether or not these have proved successful (and if not, why not).

Following this "scene setting", the specific issue(s) on which the employer is seeking advice and the focused questions which the employer needs answering should be clearly set out. For example, given the medical history, how effective is the current treatment likely to be and, in your opinion, is the employee fit to continue working in their current role?

Communication, communication, communication

Ultimately, the better the communication and understanding between the employer and the occupational health physician the more likely they are to be able to give really practical and useful advice. Asking the doctor to visit the relevant workplace and talk to managers about the day to day issues before assessing the employee is likely to be worthwhile.

In complex cases, a phone call may be far more effective in order to relay information and explain the nuances of the situation than thousands of words in writing. Don't forget, if a doctor is examining an individual they will be able to chat to them and ask questions, there is no reason why they should not do the same with the employer.

Professional limitations on occupational health doctors

Employers may not fully appreciate that doctors have strict regulatory standards they must adhere to and this can affect what they are able to do for the employer. For example:

  • the General Medical Council requires all doctors to ensure that an employee consents to any consultation, treatment or disclosure;
  • the confidentiality of any medical information held by the doctor must be maintained. So, while an occupational health physician can advise employers on, for example, an individual's fitness to work, they are not allowed to provide employers with full medical details on the individual without their consent.

In serious cases, failure to comply with these requirements can lead to withdrawal of the right to practise as a doctor and/or civil litigation. Understandably therefore, doctors are likely to be cautious on the issue of confidentiality. If pressed by the employer to provide further medical information on an employee they will want to ensure that the consent obtained is wide enough to meet their professional obligations.


While the management prerogative ultimately rests with employers, it is increasingly the case that decisions about ill or absent employees cannot be taken fairly and without legal risk without first seeking occupational health advice from a medical professional. Employers therefore need to do all they can to ensure they are getting the help they need in the most efficient way possible. Careful drafting of instruction letters and ensuring the correct information is shared, at the right time, is likely to be key.