How businesses can reduce long term sickness leave
By Emma Capper, UK Wellbeing Leader at Howden Employee Benefits & Wellbeing
Long term sickness leave is a growing problem for UK firms, long-term absence rates reaching record levels according to the latest data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS).
2.52 million people were off work on long term sick in the three months to January 2023 – up 2.6% quarter-on-quarter and 7.9% year-on-year and the highest since record began in 1993.
These figures were published ahead of the spring budget, when the government announced 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.
However, these plans may not go far enough as the fallout from the pandemic continues to affect access to diagnosis and treatment services. Businesses may have to pick up the slack if they want to encourage people back to work or improve people’s physical and mental health, so they don’t end up having to take long-term sick leave.
According to the ONS the most common causes of long-term sickness are problems or disabilities connected with the back or neck; mental illness and nervous disorders, as well as progressive illnesses such as cancer. ONS also points to symptoms of long COVID as likely to be an important factor.
Compounding these health problems is the fact the NHS is overburdened, resulting in more limited access to GPs and other services. This is leading to more individuals being absent from work due to ill health and struggling to receive proper treatment and diagnosis. Employers therefore have a big role in supporting not only their employees but the NHS as well.
Keeping staff fit and healthy needs to be a priority to reduce the impact on productivity and performance. 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.
Below are five strategies to reduce long term sickness:
Implement 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
Many businesses will have access to an occupational health provider, so establishing what the criteria are for referring employees is important. As is making sure line managers are aware of it so they can set expectations with employees when they hit certain milestones of absence.
Business should also consider who is responsible for making referrals, and at what point should a referral be made, plus 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.
For firms that don’t have access to an occupational health provider, now may be the time to consider finding one that accepts ad-hoc referrals for certain circumstances, especially if they notice rising absenteeism across the workforce.
Find out about 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.
Promote Private Medical Policies (PMI)
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. For businesses that don’t currently offer PMI it may be something to consider in the future or for those that do to extending it to more of the workforce.
These are just a few actions businesses can take to proactively to support employee healthcare and help to reduce absence. A key point worth remembering is that it’s often the early part of an employee’s absence which is most critical, as this is when 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 them returning to work fit and well. With this in mind, embedding a well-designed absence management strategy and supporting it within the company’s culture is vital.