Long Term Sickness Absence Why should businesses be concerned?

In July the Department of Work and Pensions and the Department of Health and Social Care jointly published a consultation paper seeking views from occupational health professionals and employers on measures to reduce ill-health related job losses by placing greater responsibilities on employers.  In addition to this, a recent paper by the Society of Occupational Medicine suggested that the HSE has adjusted its focus from safety to health; expecting businesses to move beyond compliance with health and safety regulations, to continually improve all aspects of the working environment, ensuring that the workforce is “happy, healthy and here”.

Currently, long term sickness absence costs to private sector businesses in the UK amounts to £4.17 billion per year and it has been projected that it will rise to £4.81 billion by 2030.  It is estimated to account for three quarters of total absence costs and, as such, is a tremendous burden on society, employers and individuals.

In the UK, 12.7 million working age people with long term health conditions, including 7.6 million disabled people, whose condition affects their ability to carry out day-to-day activities.  Mental health and musculo-skeletal conditions remaining the most common causes of absence for the disabled and those on long term sickness absence.

There is documented evidence that looking after the health and well-being of employees not only has a beneficial effect on the employee but also on their family and on the wider society.  The costs of poor health to the individual includes loss of income and potential job loss with the subsequent psychological effects, additional medicinal costs and a collateral effect on their family.  The direct costs to the employer are a reduction in productivity and an increased cost of sick pay, whilst the indirect costs include the cost of agency cover, the provision of training and the potential for low morale as employees cope with an additional workload.  The Government and taxpayer are also affected by the payment of state benefits and the cost to the NHS and social services.

How investing in Occupational Health can make a difference

When considering long-term sickness absence Occupational Health (OH) professionals can use their combined medical knowledge and understanding of the work environment, its culture, values and the hazards involved, and their potential impact on health, to work collaboratively with Managers and HR to: 

-  identify factors which may lead to absence becoming long term, including the belief that conditions are caused by work, poor communication during periods of absence, lack of support when asking for help or adjustments to remain at work and the belief that continued pain prevents a return to work;

-  identify workplace facilitators that can speed up a return to work, including: the need for positive contact between employee and manager during absence; the availability of OH; the need for positive contact between employee and manager during absence; timely resolution of disciplinary issues; and the need for line manager training on sickness absence;

-  undertake an occupational health needs assessment to review data and policies relating to absence, review risk assessments and to work with HR and managers on health related questionnaires.  An assessment enables the business to understand the health of its workforce and permits the provision of advice on beneficial initiatives that could improve the health and wellbeing of employees, significantly improving the strength of the organisation; and

- target the major, preventable causes of absence.

With the right support many employees with long-term health conditions and/or disabilities can either remain in work or return to work at a much earlier date, a benefit for employee, employer and the wider society.  Early intervention is essential in achieving this and occupational health has a significant role to play.  OH advisers can assist in ensuring safe and successful outcomes by applying their combined medical knowledge and understanding of the work environment, its culture, its values and the hazards involved, and their impact on health, to case management.

Pippa James, Occupational Health Adviser