Five strategies to reduce long term sickness at work

SME Publications/ SME XPO 2024

By Emma Capper, below, UK wellbeing leader, Howden Employee Benefits & Wellbeing

The ONS figures were published ahead of the “Back to work” Spring budget, which included some positive health measures including a £400 million support package to improve mental health and musculoskeletal resources, and the expansion of the placement and support scheme for individuals with these conditions providing them with greater access to digital apps and offering businesses enhanced occupational health services.

The government’s plans may not go far enough as the fallout from the pandemic continues to affect access to diagnosis and treatment services. The NHS is overburdened, resulting in limited access to GPs and other services, leading to more individuals being absent from work due to ill health and struggling to receive proper treatment and diagnosis. While the government has outlined some plans to address this, employers play a big role in supporting not only their employees but the NHS as well.

Employers can take a more proactive approach to reduce absences by considering the culture they want to create in their organisation and aligning their  HR policies with it. For example, this could involve reviewing working practices to ensure employees can work to the best of their ability or reviewing their systems and processes.

What else do businesses need to consider?

Implementing a robust absence management policy

Companies need a clear and robust absence management policy that outlines the notification procedures and who is responsible for managing absence. It should provide guidance on policies and procedures, including flexibility for different conditions, individual circumstances and returning to work on a phased basis. It should specify the information employees need to provide, such as details about their condition, their expected absence duration and if they need to provide a Fit Note.

Having a good absence management system in place will help businesses to track, record, and report absences, and identify trends so appropriate action can be taken to manage absence levels.

Train line managers in absence management

Another important consideration is providing absence management training for line managers as they will be liaising with absent employees. It is important to assess whether they require additional support, particularly when they are having difficult conversations or supporting an employee or need training to manage such conversations.

Use Occupational Health

Does the business have access to an occupational health provider? If so, is there an established criteria for referring employees and are line managers aware of it so they can set expectations with employees when they hit certain milestones of absence?

Other key questions to consider are: Who is responsible for making referrals, and at what point should a referral be made? What information should be included in the referral? It’s vital to provide comprehensive details, including what has been tried, what worked and what didn’t, as well as details on the employee’s condition, and their role. The more information provided, the higher the quality of the response back from your Occupational Health provider will be. If you don’t have access to an occupational health provider, consider finding one that accepts ad-hoc referrals for certain circumstances.

Group Income Protection & Added Value Services

If a Group Income Protection policy is in place, it is important to know what additional services the policy includes, such as early intervention support for employees, to help them return to work more quickly. These can and should be accessed well before the end of the deferred period that applies and certainly no later than half-way through. Virtual GPs, app-based support, and Employee Assistance Programmes are also commonly included in policies and can be used pre or post-absence. These benefits must be communicated well so employees know what support is available and how to access it.

Group Income Protection providers typically offer rehabilitation support to assist individuals back into the workplace. Providers may also offer access to physiotherapy, cognitive behavioural therapy, and other mental health therapies.

Encouraging employees to access these services can ensure employees are treated quickly and help facilitate their return to work much sooner and reduce pressure on the NHS). Providers can support partial claims and claims for shorter periods of absence – referring employees to these services early on, particularly for mental health and musculoskeletal conditions, can be beneficial as this may shorten the length of the absence considerably.

Private Medical Policies

Businesses need to make employees aware of any diagnosis or treatment options available to them through their private medical policy, and how to access it for faster treatment. Emma concludes, “There are many measures businesses can take proactively to support employee healthcare and help to reduce absence, but it is key to remember, the early part of an employee’s absence is critical as interventions will typically have the most success – returning to work becomes increasingly difficult the longer an employee is absent. Providing early support to employees during their absence can increase their chances of returning to work – with this in mind, embedding a well-designed absence management strategy and supporting it within the company’s culture is key.”

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SME Publications/ SME XPO 2024