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Top 10 tips for an effective occupational health referral

Updated: Oct 14, 2021

There are times when every business may need to initiate an occupational health referral. When you have an employee who is off sick with more than just flu, or whose performance is being affected by their health, or perhaps is due to have an operation, it is helpful to get advice from a medical professional who specialises in the effects of health on work and work on health.

This usually involves submitting a referral to occupational health who will make an appointment to see the employee and provide a report detailing advice to the referring manager about how to manage that employee with regard to their current or long term health status.

Two business women sit opposite each other a small table next to a window with a blurred cityscape in the background
Health issues at work add an extra layer of complexity to people management

But how do you make sure you get the most value from your referral, and not just a description of the medical condition? Here, we have outlined our top 10 tips for an effective occupational health referral to make sure you get the advice you really want and need:

1. Provide a job description. Some job titles seem obvious, but the finer details can vary massively between companies. An office manager at one organisation might be reasonably sedentary in a corporate office building in the middle of London, whereas another organisation might see their office manager based in a mobile office in the corner of a noisy factory, often carrying heavy packages from the delivery entrance to their office. The more we know about what a job entails, the better placed we are to comment on an employee's fitness for that role. 2. Give as much relevant background information as possible. When did the issue start? Has it happened before? Is it suspected as being work related? Have you attached their sickness absence record? Has anything changed within your organisation that might be having an impact? The more we know before we start a consultation, the more time we can spend exploring possible ways forward with the employee, instead of just getting this information from them. The quality of the referral will often dictate the quality of the report. 3. Give details of any existing or possible adjustments. You might have already tried putting something in place to help the employee, be it reduced hours or light duties, or you might have already decided that these are things you could do if it is appropriate. By telling us beforehand what is achievable for you, we can make our recommendations with this in mind rather than making suggestions which don't suit your business. (You're not obliged to take our advice however - see Point 10 for more on this.)

4. Ask specific questions. Ask 'when can he return to work' and we will give you our best estimate given the circumstances, but if you wanted to know if he can return sooner on light duties - ask about it! Although we always aim to be thorough, we don't know what you're thinking, or what factors could have a bearing on decisions you make, so ask us everything you want to know upfront to avoid being disappointed with a report that doesn't have all the details you're after.

A doctor giving a consultation.
Check it's definitely a medical issue and not a management one.

5. Ask the right questions. Further to the previous point, there are some things you need to know, and some things you don't. It's unlikely you need to know exactly what type of medication your employee is on or a full list of possible side effects, but it might be appropriate to ask if there are any side effects which might affect their ability or safety to carry out their role. Some employees are more willing to open up than others, so it might be that you won't find out exactly what is going on at home that's causing them anxiety, but what's important for you to know is the impact of their health on their work and what you can do about it.

6. Check it's definitely a medical issue and not a management one. Occasionally we see referrals come through that don't really need our input, but perhaps the situation has got a bit complicated or hit a dead end so OH has been called to step in. The role of OH is “to consider whether there is any medical reason why this person cannot fulfil their contractual role” and advise about possible adjustments that may be feasible to enable the person to continue to work. We can't advise about anything that isn't related to the person's health. For example, if an employee says they cannot get to work on time but there is no evidence of a medical condition likely to cause this, then we are unlikely to be able to offer much helpful advice. We can, however, often help to rule out medical reasons which can be useful information to have.

7. Show the referral to the employee beforehand & discuss it with them. This is good practice, and we will always ask you to confirm you've done this. Being open about your reason for referring an individual reduces the risk of hostility related to the consultation, and helps ensure it goes ahead. The employee feels part of the process rather than being manhandled by it, and is more likely to cooperate. We are obliged to show the referral document to the individual at the start of a consultation and get their informed consent to go ahead. There is no value in paying for a consultation that doesn't go ahead because the employee is 'outraged' at the content of the referral and storms out (it does happen).

The quality of the referral will often dictate the quality of the report.

8. Understand how long it will take to get the report back from the OH Specialist. At AHM, we aim to turn our reports around within 2 days (although they're often released the same day), but different OH providers have different SLAs. If you need your report in a hurry, let your provider know so they can prioritise it. Reports can sometimes be delayed if an employee exercises their right to see it before you do, as we need to allow them sufficient time to see it. We will always let you know straight away if this is the case, and when you can expect to receive the report. Again, different providers will have different policies on this so check to make sure you understand when to expect the report so you're not twiddling your thumbs waiting.

9. Query anything you're not sure of. OH Specialists are there to help you manage the employee. If the report isn't clear, or you're not sure what to do with the information, speak to your OH provider. We want our clients to be happy and receive a worthwhile service, so are more than happy to address any queries you may have in relation to the report. At AHM, we include remote support for management queries relating to the same case free of charge, so you know there is further help available if required.

10. Understand your obligations following receipt of a report. You are not legally obliged to take the advice we offer, but should make your decisions having considered the advice and be able to evidence the fact that you have considered it, and dismissed it, for good reason. But you do have to do all that is reasonably practicable to support an employee to safeguard their job. This doesn't have to (and shouldn't) be at the expense of other employees, the company's financial stability or operations. Share the video here By following these guidelines, you will ensure the report you receive is both helpful and complete, leaving you in a much better position to understand, help and manage your employee. AHM offers occupational health referrals (also known as management referrals) at our clinics in Canterbury, East London, Brentford and Bexhill, as well as on site and via telephone or video where appropriate. We have a nationwide network of specialists and can facilitate referrals all over the UK. If you would like to refer an employee, or for advice about whether a referral is required, we are always happy to help. Contact us now.

Video: Top 10 tips for an effective management referral




Please note the date of last review or update on all articles. No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician.

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