The NHS could be a standard setter in healthy workplaces, says Julian Topping, and the new edition of the NHS Employers handbook will be invaluable

Occupational health services are often a misunderstood part of the NHS. Staff see them as being the tool of management, while some managers perceive them as being there to help staff get out of work.

Neither view is correct if you look at them in terms of the World Health Organisation's definition of occupational health, which is to 'promote and maintain the physical, mental and social well-being of all staff'.

The quality of occupational health services in the NHS is probably best described as patchy, but there are some truly excellent examples of the added value a well-managed and funded service can bring to an organisation.

Involvement in assessing and managing risk, reducing levels of sickness absence and long-term absence, and managing rehabilitation and retention of staff who might otherwise be lost to the service are all roles undertaken by occupational health professionals. Research has also shown that a good occupational health service, coupled with good human resources management and health and safety, has a measurable effect on improving patient morbidity rates.

Future strategies

Where we often fail in the service is in harnessing the talents of our occupational health professionals to the wider healthy workplace and ensuring they work with colleagues in clinical risk, health and safety, health promotion and human resources to develop a workplace-wide strategy for 'promoting and maintaining the physical, mental and social well-being of all staff'.

The demographic time bomb is set to confront us, with fewer people available to train for the service over the next few years and increasing demands to provide an improving and expanding service. The time is right for us to invest more in improving our occupational health and health and safety services so they can make a positive contribution.

None of this is easy, especially if, as an organisation, you are starting from a position of minimal provision. NHS Employers aims to help in this area with this month's publication of The Healthy Workplaces Handbook (formerly known by occupational health and health and safety professionals as the 'Blue Book').

It sets out advice on healthy workplaces, occupational health, health and safety and issues such as bullying and stress in the context of the wider government strategy on healthy workplaces and improving the health and well-being of working-age people.

In a constantly changing NHS, our services to staff need to change constantly and adjust to new circumstances. We believe The Healthy Workplaces Handbook provides employers with everything they need to keep up with change.