Lovewell’s logic: Tackling sickness absence moves up the agenda

Debbie Lovewell-Tuck

Tackling pay disparity within the workforce has been a hot topic in recent years, with many organisations now going beyond gender pay gap reporting obligations to also analyse areas such as ethnicity pay gaps. Yet, alongside these oft-discussed areas of disparity, there is also currently a marked difference in how employees are paid while on sick leave, specifically relating to eligibility for statutory sick pay.

This week, the government took steps to tackle this, with the launch of the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department of Health and Social Care’s consultation, Health is everyone’s business: Proposals to reduce ill-health related job loss. The consultation includes a range of proposals aimed at helping employees return to work following a period of sick leave and providing support for employers.

Among these proposals, the government set out its plans to reform the system of statutory sick pay (SSP), with particular emphasis on extending eligibility to those on the lowest incomes (and arguably among those who may need SSP the most), strengthening the compliance of SSP to ensure employees are paid what they are due and amending the rules of SSP to enable employees to undertake a phased return to work following a period of absence.

In recognition of the logistical issues such proposals could create for organisations, particularly small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), the report also considers the support employers might require to meet their legal obligations, such as a rebate of SSP for small businesses and possible ways in which it might work with these organisations to co-fund the provision of occupational health services.

But the consultation goes much further than simply focusing on reforming the system for SSP. Among its wide-ranging proposals, one that stood out to me is the possibility of employers automatically reporting sickness absence through their payroll system, as a way of providing government with the data to be able to supply targeted guidance on how to manage sickness absence.

On one hand, making it mandatory to report such data will inevitably increase accountability to manage sickness absence effectively. After all, research has shown time and time again that supporting employee health and wellbeing can lead to improvements in areas such as productivity and retention, while the earlier an employee is able to access support during a period of absence, the more likely they are to return to work.

On the other hand, however, mandatory absence reporting will inevitably also attract questions as to whether this is moving too close to an Orwellian style of State surveillance.

Whatever views individual proposals garner, if it is to achieve its aims of working with industry to provide support in managing sickness absence effectively, the government will need to secure support. Only by fully engaging will organisations effect the cultural change needed to embed such changes fully.

Debbie Lovewell-Tuck
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