Adrian Mercer, Managing Director - FOHCUS

Published on 19-02-2018 12:30PM

Adrian Mercer, Managing Director - FOHCUS

We know you from Joints & Points. What was the progression to FOHCUS and how does the business differ from Joints & Points?

Joints & Points was established 25 years ago and in early 2000 we were being asked to do work with companies and factories looking at workspace injuries, manual handling and ergonomics. They wanted us to help people get back to work after episodes of back pain and illness. So we started evolving into occupational health as employers saw we could get their employees back to work quickly.

This service grew into offering a full occupational health service (JPOH) and two years ago we separated and rebranded our OH service to become FOHCUS. This enabled us to offer a dedicated B2B company whilst maintaining our therapy led Joints & Points services.

One of the more striking elements was that as we talked to employers it was obvious that many were rather disillusioned by occupational health. They stated they often found it to be slow, out dated and often failed to give them the information they required. We frequently heard the comments “I could have written this report myself” and “not worth the paper it was written on”

So we worked on what employers and employees needed and expected from Occupational Health and set out a plan of how to deliver this as best practice.

Our USP’s became:

Fast response: time is crucial and waiting for information on an employee’s health condition doesn’t help anyone.

Be available for advice: being able to talk to us over the phone helps make the right decisions early.

Be fair and robust: this culminated from us talking to employers. They need to know what to do, when and how. Our job is to provide clear answers to questions and not to sit on the fence.

Be open: OH is always a 3 way process between us, the employer and the employee. Our role is to educate and enhance everyone’s understanding of health and the workplace.

So it’s not only about getting the person back to work sooner but showing employees that their illness is taken seriously and that their employer wants the best for them?

Employers don't always think about that side of things but it is a real benefit when staff feel valued. They will take less time off work in the first place and they are appreciative when their employer says “There's a physiotherapist down the road. I'll pay for you to see them so we can get you back to work”. It’s the mark of an employer who can make a good choice when it comes to staff wellbeing.

So is it up to the manager to refer people or do you have people going into the business?

We keep the referral process simple. Our goal is to take the problem off your desk and replace it with a solution.

Referrals can be made directly through our website but it is often more helpful to give us a call and have a chat. This way we get to understand what it is you are looking for and how we can help.

We always have experienced OH practitioners who can advise you at an early stage.

Ideally we want to ensure that staff are helped at the first opportunity and problems are resolved. No one really wants to end up fighting their corners in tribunals or having to defend injury claims.

Your service has a number of positive impacts on a business regarding productivity and profitability. Can you tell me more about that?

When people look at wellbeing it can appear to be just an HR box ticking exercise. However when you look at this from a productivity and profit point of view the evidence is much more compelling. It is important that your staff should be in work. No employer really wants to pay employees not to come to work.

We undertake plenty of work within the education sector. So for example if you lose a mathematics teacher and pupils underperform then the impact can be huge as this can have an effect on league tables, Ofsted reports and pupil numbers over the years to come. If staff are healthy, happy and engaged then they are better equipped to deal with the inevitable stresses, changes and challenges in their workplace.

Another area of our work is health surveillance such as hearing and eyesight checks. It is important the every new employee coming into the workplace has some basic health markers and these can then be checked annually. This protects the business from unwarranted claims and it also gives a greater insight as to what health issues can be predicted and avoided. All of these vary depending on the type of work involved but can range from simple tracking of blood pressure and lung function through to full health surveillance.

A growing area is testing for drugs and alcohol. We work with HR to help them develop good policies for their staff and ensure that staff understand their role in ensuring their own health and safety, their colleagues and members of the public.

I suppose that removes some of the pressure of the manager?

Yes, but we want to ensure that the processes are fair and robust - or put simply to treat everyone the same. This way we move away from personalities ensuring that the employer is clear in what they want to achieve.

This helps when you look at disability and how we manage topics like the Equality Act. There can be a lot of confusion over this Act and managers can be apprehensive if an employee is disabled. We can give the employer clear guidance so if an employee is struggling with their job it gives managers some clarity to understand how they can move forward.

One of the biggest challenges to all employers in the coming years will be how to manage an ageing workforce. It is becoming more common for us to help manage an employee who has 3 or more long term health conditions (all covered under the Equality Act) and these need careful and sensible processes to ensure both employer and employee are supported.

Is there a typical client for FOHCUS?

I suppose at the moment it is someone who reports stress at work. The problem can be is that they will not necessarily have talked to anyone about it and the first thing you know is they have spoken to their GP who has provided a 3 month sick note.

We can often help these employees through a combination of medical help and talking therapy once we have completed a thorough assessment. These employees often return to work with more mental resilience than before. However the process can be prolonged and expensive for the employer. Employees often feel isolated and abandoned during this time and there is often much bridge building to be done on both sides to regain trust.

We do encourage employers to engage with their staff on a much more regular basis and to ask the right questions. There are some great questionnaires that can track an employee’s emotional wellbeing over time allowing both employees and employers to seek help at the best time and before absence occurs.

There's been a lot of publicity recently and the stigma around mental health is starting to lift. Are you finding it more common now?

The publicity across all forms of media is extremely useful. We can now talk more about mental health. The barriers are lifting and people are not just saying “oh I'm stressed”; they are prepared to look for a reason for that stress. We want to know if they have a genuine mental health disorder such as anxiety or depression. If so, we can do something about it.

If you're stressed because you can’t get on with your work colleagues or are out of your depth in your job role then that's a different matter. We do a lot of work on developing mental resilience, coping with conflicts at work and getting people to make healthy choices for themselves. Helping people to understand what is the best choice for them is vital. Although we always want to help employees stay in their job sometimes the healthy choice may be to move on and find a role that helps them thrive.

It’s not just labeling you with stress and saying help yourself. You are actually drilling down to find out what's wrong and showing that you care and you're then likely to find a solution.

We do find that when people are challenged over their performance at work there is a tendency to blame stress but that’s often not a good reason. Employers are expected to challenge employee performance and we can help employees get through it.

The employee may have a sick note which means they can't come to work but it doesn't mean they can't be involved in a meeting. So the performance process can carry on and reach a conclusion that is good for all parties. We are always willing to work with Unions to ensure that we achieve good outcomes that are based on best practice.

So if you were to give me one single piece of advice to keep myself fit for work then what would you tell me?

A good indication of things going wrong is poor sleep. Humans are natural born worriers and disturbed sleep is the biggest giveaway. It doesn’t take many broken nights sleep to get you at the end of your tether (ask any new parent!).

As an employee wouldn’t it be great to be able to have a quiet word with your employer to say you are struggling – and know that this will be taken seriously with complete confidence and without any judgments being made?

As an employer are you in a position to do this and say “go and have a chat with occupational health’. An opportunity to explain what the problem is to someone who is independent. Asking for some help is not a sign of weakness but one of strength.

You are a strategic partner with Wirral Chamber. So we see that as demonstrating your support for your local business community. How do you view that partnership?

I have lived and worked in Merseyside since graduating from Liverpool University in 1992. I love to see local companies thrive and prosper and the more they can use other local companies to help them do this then it is better for all of us who see this area as home.

It is also important for me that I have met the people we work for and understand their needs. This includes everything from who they employ to the environment they work in (this is also the same environment we need to understand in order to help people get back to work).

Our staff are local and understand how local people respond. This does vary across the country and knowing how to approach mental health problems with staff who may have never have spoken about their concerns is a real skill. Talking their language is hugely important.

You have an event arranged in March. Can you tell me about it?

Our event is at The Hillbark Hotel and it is an introduction for people who are unsure about what occupation health does or how it could work for them. It will cover areas such as how to make a referral; the practicalities of our service and the benefits, which will be covered by our health practitioners. We've also got a psychotherapist who's going to explain what talking therapy does and how it works. He’ll explain that it's not a magic wand but it does provide tools to help you cope better.

We've got talks from an employment lawyer to cover what they look for with occupational health and the sort of detail they need from us. We also have a speaker from health and safety who will share her experience of work with us over the last few years.

The event will allow people to ask questions, see some case studies and find out when they should use OH and what they should expect from it. One of the big reminders we set out on events like this is don’t forget that the best question to ask an employee is “how are you?” It can get forgotten amongst a barrage of policies and paperwork.

On a practical level then just about how your service works. Do you charge a retainer or is it a pay as you go arrangement?

Our belief is ensuring we deliver good value. This is different to being cheap. We tend to avoid retained services and simply charge for what you need. I think this develops a greater level of trust and when we come back to you and recommend a new service we hope that this is taken in good faith and that we have the interests of your business at heart.

I think we have all in the past signed up to a service only to discover you can’t get out of it for 3 years. Our reputation is everything and if you don’t like what we do and we haven’t delivered then I think you should be able to freely choose where you put your business.

So you started as a physiotherapist. Is that correct? What is your role in the company now?

Yes I qualified in 1992 and I still do physio work for Liverpool theatres and sports people. I still enjoy the on call aspect of physio especially when you get a call to see someone and you don’t know anything about them. This has led to some good physio sessions with the likes of Kim Cattrall, Peter Capaldi, Natalie Imbruglia, Tim Minchin and AP McCoy. The rest of the time I am the managing director of FOHCUS and Joints & Points and look after the business side of things while our clinical side is run by my senior clinicians.

And what is a typical working day for Adrian Mercer?

Generally first thing is going through email, social media all the usual accounts. See what everyone's up to and then responding to queries, checking reports and making sure everyone is happy. The rest of the day I'm usually at meetings with employers or schools. So it's quite varied and I tend to meet with anyone and everyone. A lot of my work is just explaining what we do or responding to initial rescue management issues where we need a face to assess the situation and get a plan in place. Otherwise I'll be in various clinics in the North West.

What would you say are the best and worst aspects of your job?

The great bit is when we get someone who's come in, in a really poor place and genuinely mentally ill and absolutely struggling with despair. Once they come they've come through occupational management and counseling and you see them again in eight weeks’ time they look completely different. They look well, they look happy. The best thing is they can't believe how well they feel and they can't understand how they've got there because they know it’s all been achieved just by asking for help and by talking.

That's the biggest difference. Six weeks of talking therapy and just working through their problems and making it feel like it's not the end of the world. I think the employer often just thinks it’s good they're back to work but the biggest thing is the employee’s health because they're the ones who feel the most benefit and we’ve made that difference.

I actually quite like solving problems so it's quite hard to find a worst aspect of my job but I suppose it's the conflict we sometimes encounter, where we have people who actually just don't want to be at work or we have an employer acting like a bully as if that is going to be the answer. But it's about getting an outcome ultimately and once we get an outcome then the conflict resolves itself and everyone is moves on.

What do you do to relax away from work?

I try to practice what I preach and stay healthy, physically and mentally. So I'm in a running club and do local 10k and half marathons. I go on lots of dog walks and spend as much time as I can with my family. I also coach an under 10's football team - not that they listen to me but it's good fun and we win more than we lose. Kids are great to learn from – even when we are on the end of drubbing, 5 minutes later they are off mucking about and having fun. Other than that it’s a simple family life. We try and get lots of holidays, eat good food, see new places and read lots of books.

What ambitions do you have for yourself and the business going forward?

I suppose for myself it is just to maintain the quality of life I currently enjoy. I am always surprised when people say they work 18 hours a day. I always think the point of running your own business is so that you can choose your own hours. Business wise we definitely want to grow FOHCUS and in two or three years’ time have lots more staff and service a lot more companies. I am sure it will happen because I believe in the service we deliver. I actually like employing people and providing them with good opportunities and conditions and at the end of the month it's very satisfying when it comes to paying everyone. We do expect a good day's work from our people but we like to think they are enjoying themselves as well.