Group risk roundtable: Sponsor’s comment: Intervention is the key

Group income protection can play a vital role in reducing sickness absence, says Steve Bridger, head of group risk at Aviva UK Health

Growing interest by the government in addressing the problems of sickness absence in the UK – as evidenced by the sickness absence review (SAR) – creates a unique opportunity for the group risk industry to push the importance of its products into the consciousness of key decision-makers.

Stemming from the government’s need to address a number of key concerns, the SAR made 13 recommendations.

These focus mainly on supporting employees at work and improving the benefits system. Group risk, particularly group income protection (GIP) – with its abilities to draw on a range of rehabilitation support to help people back into the workplace – has a key role to play in helping the government meet its objectives. We fundamentally believe in people helping people get back to, and stay in, work.

GIP, in particular, has the potential to be a real game-changer through proactive intervention. The leading group risk providers now offer counselling services and rehabilitation expertise as part of their GIP product. This is particularly important when you consider that two of the leading causes of absence (and GIP claims), are mental health and musculoskeletal problems, both of which have clear evidence to show that the speed of recovery and return-to-work rate for people improves if they are treated early.

Recent studies have highlighted the increase in incidence of mental health problems, including stress. In 2010, 24% of Aviva’s GIP claims were psychiatric-based and we do not expect to see this reduce. We believe counselling services, which can be accessed by employees even before they have been absent, can make a real difference in managing stress and keeping staff in work.

The launch of the SAR last year was a timely reminder of the scale of the UK’s sickness absenceproblem. The number of people who fall out of work each year due to long-term illness and end up on state benefits is staggering – and unsustainable.

It was encouraging to see the government recognise the role group risk providers can play in tackling this issue and we were pleased to share with the review team our knowledge in managing GIP claims. Emphasis was placed on the factors that can help people back into work after absence: intervening quickly, having access to the right treatment and receiving the right support.

Although the review team’s recommendations did not go as far as we had hoped, in some respects the industry can be heartened by its findings. There was recognition of the value of early intervention and rehabilitation, but the review also uncovered some misconceptions about GIP that, as an industry, we need to address.

For example, there were concerns that GIP is only suitable for high earners, senior managers and large corporates. We strongly feel this is not the case. On average, the cost of covering staff is £289 a head and this can be reduced further by altering the benefit design. It is well worth noting that no matter the size of an individual’s benefits package, they have the same access to quality support and rehabilitation.

We are also developing a dialogue with GPs who have expressed concern that little of their training involves occupational medicine. It is essential we work on highlighting the importance of return-to-work strategies and how, on occasions, signing individuals off sick is actually a regressive step in their recovery.

The SAR has been a positive start, but we urge the government to continue working with industry body Group Risk Development (Grid) to fully understand and appreciate the societal value of group risk benefits.

Read more from the Group risk roundtable