Sickess absence: Sponsor’s comment: In fitness and in health

There are many ways to improve the wellbeing of a workforce, says Ann Dougan, marketing director at Cigna HealthCare Benefits

We often ask: what is more important to employers healthy employees or employees who are fit for work? Interestingly, it appears many do not make this distinction or recognise that to be work fit, you do not have to be 100% well. When dealing with employee absence, the focus is usually on treating medical conditions rather than capability to work. With an ageing population, which means an increased likelihood of living with a long-term medical condition, isn’t it time to change this focus?

To help us understand the implications, let us revisit the key issues affecting sickness absence in the UK, and the interventions employers are using to address these.

Ask an employer how it manages absence, and it is likely to say it records it in a payroll or similar system, or engages a monitoring service. Recording and monitoring absence is a useful tool and can help keep track of emerging patterns, but in most cases, short-term absences, by their very nature, will self-resolve.

Long-term absence, on the other hand, cannot be managed by monitoring alone. Although early recording will help identify cases with the potential to become long term, the more complex nature of these absences requires expert input. With most complex cases now involving mental health or musculoskeletal problems, employers can benefit from external occupational health case management support, such as that provided by Cigna.

It was really interesting to hear the views at the roundtable on what employers are already doing to address sickness absence. Not surprisingly, private medical plans play an important role for many in terms of avoiding NHS waits and helping with a speedy recovery.

It was also encouraging to hear that good absence monitoring procedures are widely used, with referrals to occupational health the norm for more complex conditions. The government has set out clear expectations that employers will make more use of expert help from Safe Effective Quality Occupational Health Service (SEQOHS)-accredited providers, so it is great to see that many are already aware of the benefits of an occupational health service. Undoubtedly many more could benefit, because the recent attempts at rejuvenating the sick note into a fit note have not had the desired impact. Most employers report that they have seen little benefit from the changes.

What about preventing problems in the first place? The ageing workforce is not something that is going to change, so a certain level of health-related problems is inevitable. However, it is a well-known fact that healthy lifestyle decisions and behaviours can help prevent some problems from developing, and reduce the impact of existing medical conditions on individuals. Introducing a robust approach to improving employee health and wellbeing is well worth serious consideration.

Over time, we may see employers linking membership of medical plans to a commitment from employees to change certain behaviours or improve their overall health and wellbeing. We may also see a closer link between occupational health case management and funding via a medical plan that focuses on conditions that are preventing people from being productive or at work. Either way, employers should continue to engage in regular dialogue with their advisers and providers to ensure the right solutions are developed to meet their business goals and employee health needs.

Read more from the sickness absence roundtable