The role of occupational health

Occupational health advisers are health professionals who specialise in workplace health issues. They have medical expertise and an understanding of the requirements of a role. They can act as consultants and advise companies on:

  • reasonable workplace adjustments
  • recruitment
  • return-to-work
  • ongoing employment
  • release of company benefits such as pensions.

If your employee has cancer, they and your company may benefit from the counsel of an occupational adviser. They could help assess whether the work of your employee is appropriate to their condition. They can also advise on issues such as considering an employee’s fitness for return-to-work after a sickness absence.

Some companies have their own in-house occupational health advisers. Other organisations contract them. This service is free (over the phone) to employees and their employers who work in a small business.

Occupational health advice

Your employee and your organisation may benefit from the help of an occupational health adviser. This is a health professional, such as a nurse or doctor, who specialises in workplace health issues.

Occupational health advisers offer advice based on their clinical knowledge and an awareness of the duties and demands of the employee’s role. You may consider consulting an occupational health adviser at an early stage, before going ahead with important changes or decisions affecting policies or individuals.

How they can help

Occupational health advisers can help you understand your responsibilities under employment and health and safety law. They can also help with business decisions about:

  • reasonable workplace adjustments
  • recruitment
  • return-to-work plans
  • ongoing employment
  • release of company benefits, such as pensions.

They can also help managers do risk assessments for employees with cancer or other chronic health problems. This is to ensure that, from a health and safety perspective, the work the employee returns to is appropriate.

When you might need workplace occupational health advice

When someone has cancer, occupational health advisers are most often used when:

  • considering whether a job applicant is fit for employment
  • supporting an employee after their diagnosis
  • there is a management concern about the health and safety or performance of an employee who has been sick.
  • considering whether someone is fit enough to return to work after being off sick.

If you don’t have a workplace occupational health service

There is a government-sponsored service providing occupational health advice to working people, called Fit for Work. It was introduced in 2015 in England, Wales and Scotland. It is free and confidential.

Fit for Work provides the services of occupational health professionals to working people if they:

  • have been off work for four weeks or more
  • are likely to be off work for four weeks or more.

The service is available to everyone. It is particularly suitable for people whose employers don’t have their own occupational health services. You can refer your employee directly to the service.

In England and Wales, call 0800 032 6235 or visit fitforwork.org/employer

In Scotland, call 0800 019 2211 or visit fitforworkscotland.scot/employers

The Fit for Work service is not available in Northern Ireland. If you live in Northern Ireland, you should contact your workplace occupational health service, if you have one. 

Many commercial companies offer occupational health consultancy to businesses. Or you can use NHS Health at Work. This is an occupational health service for small and medium-sized businesses. It charges fees. Visit nhshealthatwork.co.uk for more information.

Some employees and employers can get free occupational health advice over the phone if they work in a small business. This is only available in some areas of the UK. Call 0800 077 8844 in England, 0800 019 2211 in Scotland or 0800 107 0900 in Wales.

Macmillan has e-learning for occupational health advisers. Working with cancer: the occupational impact of cancer is a two-hour module about the occupational impact of a cancer diagnosis on working-age adults.


Where to find occupational health services

Occupational health services are not provided free under the NHS and are offered at the discretion of employers. Some large organisations have occupational health expertise in-house. Medium-sized and smaller organisations often access this expertise through external contracts, although some haven’t instituted any occupational health arrangements.

Many commercial companies offer occupational health consultancy or you can opt for NHS Plus, an occupational health service (that charges fees) for small and medium-sized businesses. The NHS Plus website is nhsplus.nhs.uk

Free occupational health advice is available to employees and their employers over the phone, if they work in a small business. In England, call 0800 032 6235, in Scotland, call 0800 019 2211, and in Wales, call 0845 609 6006.

In Northern Ireland, you can contact the Workplace Health Advisors at Health and Safety Executive Northern Ireland (HSENI) by calling 0800 0320 121. They provide guidance on workplace health and well-being promotion and their services are available to businesses for a fee.

Macmillan has a work and cancer e-learning module for occupational health advisers. Working with cancer: the occupational impact of cancer is a two hour module designed to refresh existing knowledge and provide new information about the occupational impact of a cancer diagnosis on working age adults. Visit macmillan.org.uk/learnzone, look under 'Health and social care professionals', then 'e-Programmes and videos'.

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Policies and resources

If one of your employees has cancer or is caring for someone affected by cancer, we have information to help you support them.

Managing cancer in the workplace

In the UK, over 700,000 people of working age are living with cancer. Managers play a fundamental role in supporting employees affected by cancer.

How cancer affects people

Your employee’s ability to work may change after a cancer diagnosis. To support them, it’s helpful to understand how treatment may affect them.

How to talk about cancer at work

Although it may be difficult for your employee to discuss their cancer diagnosis, open communication may enable you to support them.

Time off for your employee

Some people with cancer will be able to continue to work, others will need time off. There are different options to manage absences.

Supporting carers

Carers who need to look after a dependant are allowed to take emergency time off. They may also wish to request flexible working.

Legislation about work and cancer

In the UK, there are laws that protect employees with cancer from being treated unfairly in the workplace. This includes discrimination, harassment and victimisation.

Bereavement

Although many people survive cancer, your employee or the person they are caring for may die from their illness.