Sickness absence review: industry reactions

Will the recommendations from the government’s review of sickness absence management help to reduce the problem? Alison Coleman asks key industry figures for their views

With 140 million working days lost in the UK every year, sickness absence is almost a disease in itself and managing it is one of the biggest challenges facing employers.

So when the government ordered a major review of the country’s sickness absence system last year, all eyes were on the findings and recommendations, which were published in November 2011.

The review, presented to the government by Dame Carol Black, national director for Health at Work, and David Frost, former director general of the British Chambers of Commerce, highlighted weak points in the system, including a lack of support both for staff who wanted to return to work, and for employers in making decisions about employee’ capability for work.

Recommendations included setting up an independent assessment service (IAS) to which employers and GPs could refer long-term sickness absence cases for bespoke advice. The report suggests a robust system could save employers as much as £100 million a year in lower sick pay costs.

For long-term absentees who are unable to return to their current employer, the review proposes a job-brokering service that could save taxpayers up to £300 million a year by reducing sickness benefit costs.

According to the review, removing the assessment phase for claimants of employment and support allowance would allow those in need of support to get it quickly and those who are able to work to find a job more quickly, saving the state £100 million a year.

The review was seen by employers and key industry spokespeople as a step in the right direction, but does it go far enough in tackling UK absence and meeting government targets? Will employers see real cost savings, or just another layer of red tape to deal with? Here are some views from the industry.

Dawn Nicholson, partner, HR services practice, PricewaterhouseCoopers:

What worries me is the potential for conflict. In the case of a GP making a referral to the IAS and the IAS making a recommendation and reporting back to the GP, what happens if the GP is not supportive of a return to work and, in effect, gets into conflict with the IAS? Will there be a right of appeal that is employee or GP-led?
Also, while employers are open to making adjustments for staff returning to work after sickness absence, we are asking them to do more in what are extremely challenging times.

One of the underlying causes of the UK’s sickness absence problem is that organisations don’t have a proper handle on measurement and intervention.

The quality of the IAS will need to be outstanding to deliver what is expected of it, but employers will also need to ensure their own sickness absence strategy is proactive and fully cohesive.

Michelle Lynch, group HR director, Motivcom:

One of the biggest challenges facing HR departments and managers is dealing with situations where employees on long-term sick leave make little or no effort to get back to work, which leaves the employer in limbo, particularly when a GP continues to sign the employee off as sick.

What we do is write to their GP for further information to help us understand the case thoroughly. However, GP responses tend to be slow and the report, when it finally arrives, is often not particularly enlightening. This means we have to refer an employee to occupational health, which in our case means outsourcing, which again is slow and costly.

My reaction to the review recommendations was: about time. If a GP can only sign an employee off for four weeks before the case is referred to the IAS, that can only be good. But what concerns me is the time between the GP sign-off and the referral appointment. We would also need a clear understanding of the role of the IAS and the extent of its powers.

I am optimistic that this will give employers better scope to manage the cost of sickness absence, but only time will tell.

Lindsey Joseph, deputy chairman, Association of Medical Insurance Intermediaries:

The recommendations sound excellent, provided they create a real framework to manage long-term absence. Exactly how the IAS will work remains to be seen, but it will be effective only if it is independent and the assessment process is fit for purpose.

Possible alternatives include a number of occupational health service providers and independent healthcare intermediaries that allow employers to access management referral systems on an ad-hoc basis, at a cost, but they are credible, and ensure the individual is treated appropriately and the employer meets its legal responsibilities.

If staff know they will be managed in the appropriate way, there should not be any abuse of the sickness absence system.

Rebecca Driffield, head of HR, Randall and Vickers:

I think the IAS will help to reduce sickness absence, but employers have a much bigger part to play in tackling this issue as well.

Looking after the health and morale of our employees is a priority and, as a result, we have very low absenteeism rates. I see it as a positive step for staff who are away from work through sickness for more than a few days to have that verified by someone other than their friendly GP. However, by the time you have reached that stage, you have already lost a week’s valuable productivity.

Measures such as providing a free exercise class for staff once a week and a regular supply of fresh fruit keep staff morale high, support health and wellbeing and boost motivation. When someone does ring in sick, we know they are genuinely ill.

Katharine Moxham, spokeswoman, Group Risk Development:

It is pleasing to see the review has recognised the role group insurance cover plays and the recommendations are in line with what the cover can provide, including early assessment and intervention.

With group income protection, an employer can carry out an assessment of an employee’s level of incapacity and initiate a return-to-work programme quickly and efficiently, before any assessment for state benefit support is due to commence.

Group income protection enables employers to provide a continuing income for staff affected by long-term health issues that prevent them from working, which reduces reliance on the state. But there are still many people who do not have this benefit.

The report’s emphasis was very much on getting people who are able back into work, especially those who have been absent for a long period.

Mike Tyler, health and productivity managing director, Buck Consultants:

Managing cases of long-term sickness absence through an IAS is likely to divide opinion, but producing a standard of consistency across the board is fundamentally positive.

Getting people back to work or altering their circumstances to improve their quality of life and ability to perform effectively in the workplace is crucial, but people are too often signed off or sent back to work when alternatives might be available. A bespoke service would help to address this, but where will the assessors come from and who will pay for it?

The public sector is a key problem area for costly long-term sickness schemes and a key factor is quality line management.

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