Out-Law News

OSH and HR professionals ‘need to collaborate’ on return to work

Zoe Betts tells HRNews why HR professionals should work closely with their health and safety colleagues


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  • Transcript

    Staff are returning to the workplace in increasing numbers so how effective are your return-to-work systems and processes? Are you managing the risks effectively? How closely do you work with the health and safety professionals in your business, if at all? 

    The Institution of Occupational Safety and Health, IOSH, is a global organisation for health and safety professionals, based in UK., and they have just published a helpful guide on rehabilitation and returning to work. It’s an area where HR professionals would be well served plugging into because there is a lot of common ground when it comes to integrating staff back into work, reducing the risk of absence and, generally, managing the return.

    This is something that IOSH is pushing. Last month they ran a webinar called ‘Covid-19 - the role of the OSH and HR professionals’. It highlighted the factors involved in returning to work without jeopardising productivity or safety and provided an in-depth look at the role of a HR professional specifically in the construction and manufacturing industry with emphasis on transitioning back to the workplace and the new normal. 

    One of the contributors to the webinar was the CIPD’s Director of Membership, David D’Souza. He focused on the practical challenges HR teams are currently facing and emphasised the importance of collaboration. He is quoted saying: “There is an importance on collaboration, because this is a societal issue. If you follow a clear process and use the right expertise and collaborative process most issues are solvable, and you can create an environment in which people do feel safe returning to work. If you don’t connect with your employees well, it will cause complications in that employee-employer trust relationship”.

    We agree and that is a message we are looking to get across to our clients. Zoe Betts is a health and safety specialist and she joined me by video-link to look at why it’s important to have a joined-up approach:

    Zoe Betts: “I think there's a real nexus here between the HR world and the health and safety world because returning to work, and rehabilitation, really sits across those two issues and what we're trying to do here is support the workforce and that's the fundamental goal. We want to retain our talent, we want to keep productivity high, reduce sickness absence, and there is expertise sitting in both the HR team and also the health and safety team and if we pull that together, and we pull those resources, I think what we'll find is real commonality where the health and safety professionals can focus on the risk assessments that need to be done but HR can give so much advice on reasonable adjustments in the workplace, steps that might need to be taken to give people the real practical support they need to return to work and, of course, your HR professionals are the custodians of the return to work policies and they understand all about discrimination and the issues that sit behind that. So, I absolutely believe we need joined-up thinking on this issue.”

    Joe Glavina: “I imagine most of the advice you’re giving to clients relates to Covid-19 in one way or another, Zoe, whether staff are home-working, back in the office or hybrid working? Is that right?”

    Zoe Betts: “I think, like many things, COVID-19 has thrown this issue into sharp relief, and we are, of course, getting questions about an individual's returning to work who may have long COVID or who may have been furloughed and working from home for a considerable period of time, and need some support in returning not just to work but maybe returning to the office or returning to work from illness. So, yes, it is an issue that's come to the fore, I think, if I can put it that way, from COVID-19 but it's far wider than that. Return to work has been an issue for some time and, of course, we have a large proportion of the workforce who are out of work at any one time because they may have had cancer, or some other serious illness. We’ve got a huge problem in our country with muscular-skeletal disorders or bad backs, those sorts of issues. Sounds simple, but they keep people off work for months and months at a time so, actually, it's far wider than COVID-19. Also, we've spoken before about mental health and the debilitating effect that can have on people and the amount of time people can be in and out of work because of anxiety, stress and depression. So yes, it's COVID-19 related, and we'll be having queries about that for some time, but actually, I think, this is a real opportunity to look at this issue afresh and take the boundaries far wider than just Coronavirus and have a look at the general population, who may be out of work, and what can be done to bring them back in.”

    Joe Glavina: “Final question, Zoe. What’s your key message to HR professionals watching this?” 

    Zoe Betts: “If you don't know them already, reach out to your health and safety professionals get to know them. Schedule a meeting, whether it's face-to-face or Teams, and just kick the tyres on this. So, really work out what is it that you can do together to enhance your existing processes. I am sure they exist already, but we all have a habit of working in silos and it may be that the HR team have not, for whatever reason, felt that they've needed to, or that they're unable to, reach out to their health and safety colleagues and yet I think this is the opportunity and there should be real benefits from doing so. I think that joined-up approach within organisations will have real, practical, tangible results and it should mean that you see a real return on the investment. I think there's been some studies out there that for every pound spent on rehabilitation and getting people back to work, there is an average return of about three times that cost. So, this is not to be feared. This is a real opportunity.”

    That guidance published by IOSH is called ‘Workplace Sickness – Rehabilitation and Returning To Work’ and is a useful summary of the key factors to be aware of. We’ve put a link to it in the transcript of this programme. 

    - Link to IOSH website (IOSH magazine May/June)

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