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Long-term Sickness Absence – Is Help Is On the Way?

From Emergency Ward 10 in the late 50s, through to Casualty, ER and House MD in more recent times, hospital dramas have been enormously successful TV. Why Hugh Laurie giving a brooding, semi-shaven performance of a grumpy and (let’s be charitable) troubled medic was so popular is beyond me, but there’s no accounting for taste. In reality long term sickness absence is a pain (in every sense of the word) both for the unfortunate sufferer and his employer.

While most companies will be very understanding, long term absence because of ill health does cause big problems for businesses. Yesterday’s blog dealt with Blue Monday. Whether you subscribe to the theory of a Blue Monday or not (I don’t as it happens),the fact is that depression is now one of the most common causes of long term absence in the UK. Employers have to tackle issues of long term sickness and it can be a daunting prospect.

A return to work interview can only do so much. Larger companies often have internal support and advice at the ready, with some even offering a 24-hour advice line for employees who need someone to talk to. But most companies don’t have this luxury. Only 10% of employees working for smaller firms have access to an occupational health service, which means that it can be a lot harder for employers to access expert advice to help them manage sickness absence in the right way.

Successive Governments have tried to tackle the UK’s absence problems. As part of the Coalition Government’s response to the report “The Health at Work – An Independent Review of Sickness Absence”, a new assessment and advisory service will be launched with the intention of getting people back to work and away from long-term sickness benefits.

The minister responsible for welfare reform, Lord Freud, has said that it will save employers up to £160 million a year in statutory sick pay and will increase economic output by up to £900 million a year.

The idea is that the new scheme will mean that all employers will have access to support to keep people in work and to help them return to work. The longer people are absent, the less likely they are to make a return to work at all. In fact after six months’ absence, there is only a 50% chance that the employee will return to work at all.

The Government hopes that the proposed service will give clear advice on how a business should react in cases of sickness absence and the likelihood of an employee returning to work in more long-term serious cases. The new scheme is expected to be up and running in 2014. Whether it will fulfil the Government’s expectations is currently a matter of conjecture. Even if it does, the vast majority of ill health absence is for minor, short term illnesses, so it may not have all that much impact. Time will tell.

In the meantime, we can commend the virtues of a tactical HR approach in getting people back to work. If you’d like to know more, get in touch.

Russell HR Consulting provides expert knowledge in HR solutions, employment law training and HR tools and resources to businesses across the UK.

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