The Big Question: What impact will the review of sickness absence strategies have?

We ask the experts for their answers… have your say online


Dr Wolfgang Seidl, head of health management consulting, EMEA, at Mercer:

Organisations have cautiously welcomed the [independent review, announced in February, that will look at the sickness absence system in Great Britain]. But we need to be very well prepared for it.

Employers want to look at an integrated health management approach that includes the implementation of early referral pathways to reduce long-term absence and to achieve an early return to work for those who are already absent. If we look at healthcare from an integrated point of view, we make sure we maximise employee health, which can only be a good thing because the employee wants to thrive and be successful in their career, and the organisation wants productive individuals in a happy workplace.

We need to prepare employers for that, because if the name of the game now is to make sure we prevent certain ailments from becoming chronic by intervening early, we need to teach the workplace what to look out for.

We do not want to wait for people to become too sick to work. There is a current school of thought that says, let’s not get to that stage, let’s make sure we do not forget people who are currently healthy, and those who have only a low or medium risk, when creating a culture of health in an organisation. Otherwise they will, very naturally, progress from the healthy group into the low-risk group, into the medium-risk group, then the high-risk group, and ultimately the sick group.

If an organisation wants to do it for its own benefit – to maximise productivity and profits – then it had better look at the whole employee population and create a buzz around wellbeing.

Mark Bradshaw, HR director, reward at Amey:

I do not think anyone can really fault the sentiment of wanting people who are off work due to sickness being able to return to work where possible.

However, it is an interesting time for the government to focus on welfare reform. While commentators might support the need for it, most successful welfare reforms take place during periods of economic prosperity. With over five million people on out-of-work benefits, 2.5 million unemployed and seeking work, it is an interesting challenge.

Whatever the outcome, a focus on where the costs of sickness absence lie – individual, employer or state – can only be helpful if it means more employers pay close attention to the causes of sickness absence and seek to prevent sickness before it occurs, thereby reducing their costs over time. Not just the obvious impact of sick pay, but the sometimes less-easy-to-measure additional costs of temporary resource to cover absence, recruitment costs and the costs of retraining.

More emphasis on early interventions, understanding the causes of absence, and support while absent can reduce the financial impact of sickness absence on an organisation in the longer term, as well as having clear guidance for managers on how to support those who are able to return to work, not necessarily returning to the same role or to full-time work.

So, employers have a duty to take action to prevent sickness absence where possible and to rehabilitate and support employees’ return to work. However, there will always need to be an ongoing state support system, so it will be interesting to see the outcome of Dame Carol Black’s review with regard to the balance of responsibility between the individual, the employer and the state.

Katharine Moxham, spokesperson for Group Risk Development (Grid):

I have said before that employers need to wake up to the changes that are about to take place under the welfare reform agenda. Well, now it is time to smell the coffee.

Welfare reform is proceeding at a pace now. Announcements on universal credit, the work programme, additional funding for fit-for-work services and the occupational health advice lines, to name but a recent few, are coming thick and fast, demonstrating the size and scope of this bold vision in a way we have not seen before.

The call to action for organisations is immediately apparent. The Department of Health paper Healthy lives, healthy people published in November, stated organisations must take more responsibility for the impact of their practices on the health and wellbeing of people and greater responsibility for the health and wellbeing of their staff. The review of the sickness absence system will look at changes to help people stay in work and whether the balance of absence costs are appropriately shared between individuals, employers and the state. There has also been some suggestion that the review could question the role of statutory sick pay, thus necessitating a complete overhaul of employer absence policies.

It is not always wise to second-guess outcomes, but I am convinced we will see the importance of managing absence in the workplace increase significantly as a result. Any business that has already embraced the value of integrated health, wellbeing and absence programmes will feel vindicated; any business that has not already understood the importance of doing so had better watch this space.

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