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27 April 2022

What is Occupational Health and why is it important?

Occupational Health is an interesting and complex area which is concerned with the interaction of health and work. It recognises that there’s a two-way relationship between our work and our health and both can affect the other.

Occupational Health services are there to support people in the workplace, to help ensure that workplaces are safe and healthy and to address health problems when they arise. According to Occupational Health Nurse Deirdre Mckenna from the Specialist Medical Clinic in Gibraltar, all businesses large and small require support with this in one way or other, particularly now, post pandemic. We spoke to her to find out more.

Hi Deidre, can you start off by defining Occupational Health for us? As I don’t think it’s an area of medicine many people are aware of.

The World Health Organisation defines it as ‘the promotion and maintenance of the highest degree of physical, mental, and social well-being of workers in all occupations by preventing departures from health, controlling risks and the adaptation of work to people, and people to their jobs’.

It’s basically about a company taking responsibility for and an active role in keeping their employees healthy during their day-to-day work and minimising long-term and short-term health implications of their jobs.

Why is it important?

Occupational Health services can help employers to minimise the impacts of health risks to the business in a wide range of areas. These include –

  • Complying with equality acts and Health and Safety Legislation
  • Identifying work related diseases at the earliest point to facilitate early intervention and treatment
  • Advising on, preventing and minimizing work related illness
  • Complying with health surveillance and where required, advising on statutory reporting of work-related disease
  • Assessing fitness to work during and after illness
  • Training managers to manage attendance and sickness absence

Are there particular sectors where it is more important than others?

Work places which have potential health hazards intrinsic to the work environment such as noisy factory environments, or construction sites, or places where workers need to handle hazardous substances are obviously going to need more occupational health support than an office-based environment. However, even an office environment prevents challenges for the mental and physical health of employees. As a result of the pandemic there has been a huge upsurge in requirements for occupational health services globally and wellbeing is now a priority for most businesses – large and small.

Many large organisations will have their own Occupational Health service, for example large manufacturing plants, pharmaceutical industries, construction workers and large office-based companies.

Smaller businesses may seek advice on an ad hoc basis from Occupational Health Services like ours.

It is as important now for smaller businesses as it is a larger business to have support in place for employees and their managers. The pandemic has brought to the forefront how important looking after our health is!

What is involved in Occupational Health Services?

An Occupational Health professional is specifically trained to guide employers on workplace health measures and employee health related requirements.

Occupational Health services can guide and support wellbeing programmes specifically in the areas of disease management, health education, screening, health profiling, preventative health measures and health promotion.

The Occupational Health professional is the key driver in workplace wellness programmes and has valuable input in this regard from a medical and clinical viewpoint.

How does it benefit employees?

Occupational Health benefits employees in a myriad of ways, but the bottom line is that it provides employees with a healthy place to work. This is something that is a basic human right and must be upheld.

In addition to that overreaching goal, it also does the following –

  • Protects employees from developing work-related ill health
  • Risk assesses employees and monitors their health if necessary
  • Allows the workplace to make adjustments for people with health problems or a disability
  • Enables employees to carry out their jobs safely and effectively
  • Educates employees on how to work safely
  • Enables support for employees with health-related matters while at work

One aspect of Occupational Health which is growing in popularity is wellness programmes and lifestyle education. This provides support, engages positive habits and boosts employee morale and is a really powerful tool.

How does it benefit the companies themselves?

Companies also see a huge number of benefits including reduced absenteeism and less staff turnover. Essentially these programmes make employees happier at work, which improves morale, loyalty and productivity. This all improves the way the company runs, so it really is a win-win.

Here are some specific benefits which company owners and management teams will appreciate –

  • Lower absenteeism rates
  • Cut business costs for lost time at work
  • Increased staff productivity and performance
  • Reduce workplace risks that might result in accidents or illness at work
  • Improve wellness enabling positive work culture and happier workers
  • Specialist advice on legislative requirements and employers’ duty of care to employees


Examples of Occupational Health in practice

In many cases Occupational Health aims to get people back to work after illness or injury as quickly as possible and in a safe manner, which takes into consideration the health and wellbeing of that employee.

For example, we helped one employee get back to work after cancer by adjusting a number of aspects of how she worked. There was increased flexibility to work from home, a reduction in working hours, a disabled car parking space allocated to reduce the distance to walk and moving her workstation to be closer to washroom facilities. Regular Occupational Health appointments allowed us to review her progress and advise her Manager on any further requirements to improve her working conditions.  Referral to a counsellor allowed for her to have her mental health needs met when transitioning back to the workplace.

In another case, we were able to provide a review of an employee after extensive surgery on their back to ascertain his fitness to work and what he needed to be able to return. With specialist support and ergonomic review, a specialist sit-stand desk was fitted, enabling him to work safely and allowed a swift return to work.

Other applications of Occupational Health include health surveillance programmes in companies with particular risk areas. For example, hearing monitoring in a loud work environment. We assess hearing at the point of joining, after 12 months and after 3 years to monitor whether hearing is being affected by loud environments, to allow the company to take steps to protect hearing. This monitoring and control process also involved giving advice on reducing noise in the workplace, provision of hearing protection and ensuring there was adequate training and information available to employees.

I have run similar such surveillance drives in areas such as eye screening and lung function testing where there were specific risks such as working with visual display units (VDU) and respiratory irritants.

Tell us about the Occupational Health Service at the Specialist Medical Clinic

We’ve been supporting companies with Occupational Health in Gibraltar for 10 years, but it was a more reactive service based on ad hoc referrals. We’ve stepped up and formalised this service to meet growing business demand and needs for these services to support all aspects of workplace health and wellbeing.

At the Specialist Medical Clinic, we are passionate about workplace health. Now it is more important than ever for businesses to have specialist Occupational Health advice and support available for employers and employees, along with health and wellbeing programmes to ensure a supported, happy and healthy workforce.

Our integrated wellbeing solutions offer a range of targeted programmes to improve workplace wellness, and these can be tailored to suit business needs and requirements. We provide health profiling, screening, health talks, group consultations, wellbeing workshops and targeted lifestyle programmes. We also provide a consultation service for businesses needing support on rolling out a successful workplace wellness programme.

Businesses in Gibraltar trust the Specialist Medical Clinic because all programmes are delivered by trained health professionals and we are unique in this field, as we have the support of clinical professionals for specialist referral when required. We have access to physiotherapy support, nutritionists, mental health practitioners and specialist equipment.

The Specialist Medical Clinic offers a comprehensive Occupational Health service with just one point of contact, quick turnaround times and prompt clear reporting. We are clinical professionals with extensive experience in workplace health and workplace wellness facilitation and rollout of programmes. We’re very proud of the Occupational Health services we provide and look forward to helping more businesses and people working in Gibraltar.

How can people find out more?

They can visit the Occupational Health section of the Specialist Medical Clinic’s website, email, or call the clinic on + 350 200 49999 to find out more or make an appointment with myself or Dr Nerney.

Meet our Expert

We were talking to Dierdre Mckenna, an Occupational Health Nurse at the Specialist Medical Clinic in Gibraltar.

Originally from Cork in Ireland, Dierdre is an Experienced Workplace Wellness Facilitator, Occupational Health Nurse, Health and Safety Analyst and Advanced Yoga teacher. She is the Designer, Creator & Owner of Living in Flow and offers a wide range of corporate programmes. She works with passion to bring workplace wellness to an exceptional high standard from Strategy to execution. In her role as Occupational Health Nurse Specialist and Health & Wellness Facilitator at DELL EMC 2015- 2020, she was a key driver for the wellness committee supporting employee wellbeing programmes in Cork to ensure health and wellbeing for all employees. She ensured the wellness programmes (body, mind, wealth & flexibility) aligned with Dell’s people philosophy and strategy to deliver the best employee experience.

She is currently the Occupational Health Nurse, workplace wellness facilitator and advanced yoga teacher at Specialist Medical Clinic. She provides a complete Occupational Health Service for businesses in Gibraltar alongside GP and Occupational Health Physician Dr Patrick Nerney and the Mental Health Team.