If you have seen one of my recent Instagram post on @endobunny, then you’ll know that on Tuesday I attended my occupational health appointment.
Occupational health is the are of medicine that deals with the prevention and management of work-related injuries or illnesses, such as back pain, or health conditions that may effect someones ability to work. It’s separate from occupational therapy, which focuses on specific rehabilitation and home skills to aid a person back to their normal activities and life.
You’ll find that most well-sized companies will either have an occupational health department or a facility they can refer to. Their services are often overlooked, and a lot of the time people view a referral as a negative thing – they are scared that they will be told they are unfit for work, whereas occupational health is about helping employees stay in work by offering adjustments or alternative duties.
Every companies access to occupational health will differ; some will allow you to self-refer whereas others require it to come from your manager. For the times I have been to occupational health, it was sort of a combination of both – it involved me completing a form detailing all of my health conditions, what my symptoms were and what my job role was, as well as having to list my absences and the reasons for them for the last 12 months, and then my manager writing a letter revealing why the referral was needed.
Now, I’ll be honest and say that my experiences of occupational health have been a bit hit and miss. Not only was the clinic a nightmare to get to, but the staff were either really pleasant or really not. The first nurse I saw spent most of my allotted appointment time talking about their health conditions and how it was really that appropriate I had been referred to them, and I had to remind them several times what my symptoms/problems were.
The second time was when I was diagnosed with M.E./CFS and had been signed off work. I was totally expecting to be fobbed off my someone who “didn’t believe in M.E./CFS” and would tell me I was “just lazy”. However, to my surprise the doctor I saw was brilliant and spent a lot of time with me talking through possible adjustments and how it was a really positive thing that I was so keen to get back to work. And the report that they sent back to my employer was so detailed and clear that my manager had no problem sticking to it.
My next encounter with occupational health was via the phone, sort of like an update following my phased return-to-work and because of the few surgeries I had had. Ironically, it was with the same nurse that had been less than interested the first time, and the lack of knowledge they had about my conditions was astounding.
The most recent time, on Tuesday, was thankfully a lot better. I’d been referred as my manager wanted to see if there was anything further they could do to support me whilst my pain was really high and I was due to have further surgeries. My husband and I didn’t know what to expect – without leaving the physiotherapy career, my manager was doing the very best for me, and thankfully my new job meant I would have less days being clinically which was bound to help. The appointment was neither here or there – the doctor I saw was pleasant enough but didn’t like to stray from the very specific questions they had and hadn’t read through all the paperwork that had been sent to them, so it was a bit awkward when I was having to remind them and point out things they had missed.
Less-than-positive experiences aside, occupational health has been a really good form of support for me. It allowed me to get back to working full-time and provided my manager with the right education and information regarding my conditions. I would honestly encourage anyone to utilise this service if they have the opportunity.
So how do you prepare for an occupational health assessment or seek a referral to its service? I’ve prepared a few tips below for you that I hope helps;
- Find out if you have an occupational health facility available at your place of work – they are not always advertised so do some investigating and find out how to access it
- Get your managers support for a referral – I found reasoning to my manager why it would be beneficial made the need for a referral much more clear. This discussion may actually highlight the things your manager might be able to put into place without a referral
- Be honest when detailing your medical history, symptoms and concerns in the referral – the healthcare professional won’t be able to help you if you don’t! You could even include consultant letters or GP notes if it will help
- If you are asked to list your absences over a set period, make sure they are acurate and document the reason for them. This helps your employer and healthcare professional see how much your conditions or symptoms are effecting you, and prove you are not taking the mick
- Write a list of the things that are currently causing a problem or not suitable at work, including a list of adjustments you can think of – this shows you are being reasonable and flexible with any demands. When I went to my appointment, I had short list of adjustments/alternative roles that I had thought of and it helped the doctor see what my job entailed and how best to work around it
- Make sure you ask about any specific duties in your role – such as weekend working, on-call shifts or lone working
- If you feel you’ve been brushed off or are unhappy with the appointment, ask for a second opinion
- You can ask for a copy of your assessment report before it is sent yo your employer, so if you are unhappy with the information within in it or information has been missed, you can get it checked before it is finalised
Remember, the occupational health service is there to help, but if it’s your employer who are suggesting you go, then you do have the right to decline. I have found their suggestions and adjustments really useful and they did help me get back to working full time, so if you’ve got an appointment coming up or are interested in being referred, I hope this helps.