Sickness absences cost the economy around £15bn a year. For employers, the financial costs of sick pay and other indirect costs of managing absence are estimated at £9bn per year.
It was to address these statistics that prime minister David Cameron announced an independent review of sickness absence – sponsored by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), and led by Carol Black and David Frost.
The review found that every year 140m working days are lost to sickness absence. However, a significant number of absences last longer than they need to, and each year over 300,000 people fall out of work onto health-related state benefits.
There were also barriers to work for people with long-term health problems. Their 59 per cent employment rate compared with 77 per cent for those without a health condition – with the rate for those with mental health conditions being between 20 per cent and 35 per cent.
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“Clearly, there is still a huge challenge in making work the norm for people with relatively mild long-term conditions,” the report claimed. This is something that needs to be addressed, it said, given that there is evidence to suggest that the health of the population – and thus the workforce – will deteriorate in the coming decades.
Levels of disease in the workforce will increase, due partly to lifestyle, it claimed. Coupled with an ageing workforce this represents a major challenge for the economy. It will become increasingly important to emphasise that work is compatible with less than perfect health.
Furthermore, it was a particular problem faced by those working in SMEs.
As a way to help fix the gap in provision, the government has launched a Fit for Work (FfW) health service.
Frost said: “Employers have asked for a service that will provide rapid access for their employees to get practical advice on the support they need to make a return to work. The evidence is clear – the longer a person is out of work the harder it becomes to make a successful return to their job.
“Now FfW has launched, all employees and employers across the country have access to free occupational health advice and support for the very first time. The service will provide much needed support, particularly to small businesses.”
Within two working days of a referral to FfW, the employee will receive an in-depth consultation with an occupational health professional who will explore all the issues that might be preventing a return to work.
The service aims to help the 70 per cent of employees who don’t currently have access to occupational health services. The government stressed its importance by suggesting that 74 per cent of employers in England and Wales feel that if they had more external support, employees would be able to return to work earlier following long term sickness absence. More than half of employers worry about contacting their sick employees in case they feel pressurised.
At the same time, 63 per cent of employees who have been off work for four weeks or more in England and Wales feel that with more external help they could have returned to work earlier following a prolonged period of sick leave.
By Shané Schutte
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