Sickness absence: New plans in older era

If you read nothing else, read this . . .

• Older people tend to take fewer absences but can be off for longer.

• Wellness initiatives may need to be targeted at particular staff segments.

• Employers should ensure their healthcare perks are relevant for an older workforce.

With no default retirement age, workforces are going to get older and employers will have to adapt their sickness absence strategies

After the default retirement age (DRA) was abolished on 1 October this year, employers could find themselves with a new set of challenges managing the sickness absence of an older, more diverse workforce.

Generally, differences do exist between older and younger staff when it comes to taking time off. Dr Chris Sharp, consultant occupational physician and managing director of WorkFit, says: “The trend in absence is very marked through generations. Older people do tend to take less absence, but it is often linked to formal diseases that can take longer to heal and respond to treatment. So you end up with fewer absences, but they tend to be longer.”

Conversely, younger people tend to be absent more often but for shorter periods, and rather than a formal disease, the causes can be psychosocial, says Sharp.

But when managing sickness absence, it is important not to stereotype, says Janine Sparks, reward manager, employee benefits at British Airways. “Some employees will be able to work until they reach 90; others will lose that capability at age 45,” she says. “You have to treat each employee as an individual.”

Having a more diverse workforce will require employers to take a different view on managing absence. Ann Dougan, marketing director at Cigna, says an employer using preventative strategies to foster a healthy workforce may need to adapt these. “It may need to think about differing needs when putting together wellness initiatives, and about how to engage with different audiences.”

Incidental activity

Sarah Perkins, UK healthy living manager at American Express, says: “Employers have to make sure they are encouraging people to take part in incidental activity and not just focus on those that are physically active.”

Removing the DRA will also affect benefits. As people get older, they tend to need more medical treatment, with cancer and heart disease rates increasing, plus the likelihood of needing more orthopaedic surgery.

This could put pressure on private medical insurance (PMI) schemes. Smaller employers, which are charged according to the age profile of their employees, may see this reflected in higher premiums, but large organisations may also need to make changes. Thomas Humphris, head office HR and UK reward director at Informa, is considering moving the firm’s PMI to a trust arrangement. “This will enable us to expand our product offering to ensure we provide a good service to staff that require help. We have had issues where older people have gone for treatment and were told it was capped. By having a trust, we will have flexibility to use it to get people back to work.”

Adam Brooke, employee benefits manager at JP Morgan, is considering working with a provider that would reward staff for wellness and engagement. “We want a healthier workforce, but this would also be reflected in lower premiums,” he says.

Read more from the sickness absence roundtable