The management of occupational health referrals can be a complex and sensitive task.
Having worked closely with a number of providers – both good and bad – I’ve found that the below tips generally get me as close as I need to be in order to move forward with an absence management process.
1. Be discerning
Don’t undertake referrals as ‘standard’, especially in cases of short-term absence. Discuss with your employee whether a referral will be of real benefit. If the employee doesn’t indicate that there’s an underlying problem, and says their absence record is simply a matter of unfortunate timing or circumstance, there’s little point in referring at the first opportunity. You can always reconsider a referral at a later stage.
2. Be precise
On the referral form, stick with factual statements to ensure you’ve not written anything that could be construed as discriminatory. Use of subjective language may change the tone of the referral and unwittingly undermine what’s supposed to be a supportive process. Provide as much information as you can in relation to the role the employee undertakes, along with a copy of the current job description. This context is essential for occupational health to provide you with the best advice that they can.
3. Ask additional questions
Most services use template referral forms, but there will usually be a box for adding further questions you’d like to have answered. If not already covered elsewhere on the form, these might include the following:
- What’s the likelihood of a return to work?
- What should the return to work Look like, in terms of possible duties and facilitation?
- What reasonable adjustments, if any, should you be considering as an employer both pre- and post- return?
- Is the employee’s condition likely to affect their future attendance or performance?
- Is a further assessment needed or recommended?
4. Be realistic
As an employer you’re obliged to act reasonably, but also have a duty to balance what’s right for the employee with what’s right for the organisation. The recommendations of a report will often become a starting point for discussion and negotiation. You’re not obliged to follow the advice of occupational health, but should you choose not to, you must be clear as to your reasons why. Ensure you’ve considered local policy and precedent, as you’ll be expected to justify your decision to the employee, their representative and quite possibly a tribunal.
5. Occupational health is no ‘hall of prophecies’
Occupational health can provide you with an informed medical opinion, but they can’t predict the future with any more certainty than you. What you need from the report is assistance in determining what’s reasonable for you to do, and to expect in relation to the employee and their condition. The report will ideally allow you to set both realistic and reasonable targets, and determine ways in which you can move forward in all scenarios – whether that be a return to work, or progression to the next stage of the process.
Laura Williams is a former MAT chief operations officer and school business manager, and the founder of LJ Business Consultancy.