Healthcare research 2012: Current issues

Healthcare benefits are being used increasingly to help employees cope with stress, while fit notes have had little impact on the workplace so far

The difficult economic climate of the past few years has affected people in numerous ways. For many, a recurring theme has been increased pressure and stress, be it in their working or personal lives.

In the workplace, job uncertainty and redundancies can cause concern among staff. And once a workforce has been reduced in size, the employees that are left behind may experience additional pressure as they take on increased workloads.

Away from the workplace, financial pressures and issues such as debt can be causes of great stress for employees, which may affect their performance and productivity at work. This may be why 31% of respondents have put more emphasis on benefits aimed at tackling stress, such as counselling services or employee assistance programmes. However, work is still needed to reduce the stigma often perceived to be attached to the use of such benefits.

Employee Benefits

The Department for Work and Pensions introduced the fit note in April 2010 as a replacement for doctors’ sick notes. This was the first major change to the sick note system since 1923, and the aim was to switch the focus from what a person cannot do to what they can do.

This was intended to help staff get access to the best possible advice about staying in work and what their employer can do to help them return to work as soon as possible should the employee become absent due to an illness or medical condition.

Last year, the Employee Benefits/Friends Life Group risk research 2011 found that just over half (55%) of respondents felt that fit notes, along with other government initiatives, such as fit-for-work services, would have no impact on the healthcare benefits and services they offered employees.

A year on, nearly all (96%) respondents said these initiatives have not had an impact on their healthcare benefits provision in the past 12 months. Just five respondents said the initiatives had affected them in some way.

It may be that employers had taken measures to accommodate the introduction of fit notes and fit-for-work services during the previous year. Last year, for example, just over a quarter (27%) said they had reviewed their rehabilitation or return-to-work programme in the light of these initiatives, while 16% had offered greater flexibility for staff to return to work and 15% provided access to additional occupational health services.

Alternatively, it may be that the full impact of the fit note has not yet been recognised by both employers and doctors. When the new system was introduced, Dame Carol Black, national director for health at work, who championed the fit note, said it would create gradual change that would be most noticeable after five or six years.

Employee Benefits

A major government review into the UK’s sickness absence system by Dame Carol Black and David Frost, former director general of the British Chambers of Commerce, published last year, made recommendations to tackle issues such as a lack of support for staff wanting to return to work and for employers in making decisions about employees’ capability for work. But just 7% of respondents said the review would probably affect their benefits provision, and 2% said it definitely would. However, 49% said they did not know how it would affect them.

Employee Benefits
Employee Benefits

The default retirement age (DRA) was phased out between April and October last year, which means employers can no longer forcibly retire an employee once they reach the age of 65.

While two-thirds of respondents (66%) say the move has not affected their healthcare benefits, just under a quarter (23%) say the removal of the DRA has had an impact on these. A further 11% still have the issue under review.

Where the removal of the DRA has had an effect on respondents’ healthcare benefits, although the numbers are small, the most common actions employers have taken are a review of their health benefits and wellbeing strategies to ensure older workers remain healthy as they age, and an extension, or planned extension, of private medical insurance cover to those aged over 65.

Employee Benefits

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