Wrightway Health

Occupational Health Referrals: When & Why?

When does a manager decide to make a referral to Occupational health? Does this reflect as much upon the manager, as it does on the employee they want to refer?

In medicine we sometimes analyse referral rates – from GPs to specialist’s – to compare doctors. However, this process can have significant limitations. A low referral rate could mean two things; that a GP is missing lots of conditions, or that they are experienced and able to effectively deal with problems themselves. Conversely, a high referral rate could mean that the GP is inexperienced and has to get reassurance, or that they are very experienced and acknowledge what the specialists can offer to improve a patient’s quality of life.

Management referral rates seem no different to this; we can see a spike of referrals following the arrival of a new line manager. Employees may think this is an attempt to clear the decks, but it more likely represents the actions of an experienced manager looking to establish and follow best practice and policy. The referral generates a report that can be used to maximise employee’s productivity and minimise the risks of unhappiness, that may consequently lead to reports of ‘work place stress’.

The referrals success can hinge on the explanation of why it is being requested and what it is hoped it will achieve. If the employee is not involved and there is no clear purpose to the referral there is less chance of a successful outcome. This can result from the “scattergun” approach – using the Occupational health referral as a threat or as part of a reaction to a short term sickness absence – that could equally have been dealt with by a management interview.

In cases where there have been multiple referrals from one department a useful discriminator is to undertake a stress audit. The Health and Safety Executive Management Standards for Work Related Stress have an associated HSE Management Standards Indicator Tool, which can be used to see if there is any underlying issue driving the referrals.

It makes sense to make an early decision to refer for an Occupational health report instead of awaiting the arrival of the end of a lengthy sickness absence. Occupational health input is proven to be more beneficial in the early stages of a problem arising, after an informed discussion with the employee and before entrenched views from both sides are established.


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