The World of Work by Harry Sherrard

How to get the best advice from an Occupational Health referral

Here at Sherrards as well as the employment law firm we also have a sister occupational health business. That is a unique combination and enables us to deliver a fully joined up service to clients. Typically a matter might begin with a requirement for legal advice out of which comes a recommendation that the individual is sent to occupational health for an assessment and report. Once that report is received by the employer, next steps need to be decided upon, and the interface between the occupational health assessment, management decisions and legal advice can be tricky territory to navigate. Often it can be a case of managing employers’ expectations as to the role of occupational health. They give advice about fitness to work and likely prognosis but are never directive. It is not occupational health’s function to tell employers what to do; that is a management decision.

Many times I have heard employers express disappointment at the outcome of an occupational health report, believing that this should go further and provide advice to the employer as to how a situation should be managed. Complicating the situation further, both employers and employees can have a tendency to “medicalise” a situation which, at its heart, is not really medical at all. For example, an employee clashes with a manager, alleges bullying and goes off sick with stress. The employee is sent to occupational health and the report confirms that the employee is exhibiting stress symptoms and that this is likely to continue as a result of “unresolved workplace issues”. The employer is seeking a way out of the situation through occupational health, and feels that the report fails to give them a solution. But that is to misunderstand the role of occupational health in this type of situation. A medical report can only be confirmatory of symptoms and the situation that led to those symptoms. In other words, the employer needs to tackle the “unresolved workplace issues” by way of mediation or similar intervention rather than hoping or expecting that occupational health will solve the problem for them.

On 4 May 2021 I co-presented with Dr Stewart Tomlinson of Medwyn Occupational Health a webinar on how best to instruct and work with occupational health, and the distinction between medical advice and management decisions. One delegate said: “Having professionals from law and Occ health together gave a unique insight that answered many questions never tackled.“  It was one of our best ever attended webinars and the recording can be viewed free on our YouTube channel. Click here to watch the webinar.

For further information on our sister business, Sherrards Occupational Health, please email

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