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Government efforts to get the long-term sick off benefits and b

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Government efforts to get the long-term sick off benefits and back to work risk being undermined by low levels of rehabilitation support in the workplace, according to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development’s (CIPD’s) “Annual Absence Management Survey 2008.” 

The survey finds nearly four in ten (36%) employers offer no rehabilitation support to help employees make successful and long-lasting returns to work. Such services are most common in the public sector, where 84% of employers offer them. The figure falls to 48% in private sector services, and just 25% in organisations employing fewer than 50 people.  Where support is offered, on average it takes more than two months before the employee is referred, by which time chances of a successful return may already have diminished significantly. 

Ben Willmott, CIPD adviser on workplace health, said: “Government efforts to get people off long-term sickness benefit and back into work are to be welcomed.  But more needs to be done to stem the steady stream of workers heading the other way.  Increased use of workplace rehabilitation support and services has a key part to play in achieving this and in particular the provision of access to occupational health services, the use of flexible working to aid phased returns to work and the provision of access to counselling services. 

“The government could make a real difference by providing tax incentives to encourage more employers to occupational health and vocational rehabilitation services.  We’d also like to see recommendations from Dame Carol Black’s review of workplace health rolled out and implemented as soon as possible, as well as increased government investment in developing the occupational health services provided by NHS Plus and the rehabilitation support services provided by Remploy. Government, NHS and employers have a mutual interest in reducing the numbers falling into long-term sickness and getting people back to work.  Joint action on services and incentives are the best way to achieve this.”  

The CIPD is calling for:  

  • Government investment to extend the coverage and range of services offered by NHS
  • A network of NHS occupational health departments across England, supplying services to industry, commerce and the public sector, with a focus on SMEs
  • Implementation of Dame Carol Black’s recommendation that a “Fit for Work” service be developed to provide early access for employees to services like counselling and physiotherapy
  • The HSE’s pilot Workplace Health Connect service, providing occupational health advice and support for SMEs, re-launched as a permanent scheme, with full national coverage.

Sickness absence accounts for eight days per employee per year. The annual absence survey also found average levels of employee absence have reduced slightly in almost all categories:   

  • For all workers, levels fell from 8.4 days per employee per year in our 2007 survey to 8.0 days in our 2008 survey
  • Public sector absence remains the highest, but has fallen from 10.3 days to 9.8 days; voluntary sector absence fell from 9.6 to 8.7 days; in private sector service firms it remained static at 7.2 days; in the manufacturing and production sector it fell from 7.6 to 7.2 days
  • Employers estimate the average cost of absence at £666 per employee per year.
  • Short-term absence remains the biggest problem for private sector organisations. Absence of up to seven days accounts for 74% of overall absence in the private sector, compared to 50% in the public sector
  • Long-term absence of more than four weeks is more prevalent in public sector organisations, accounting for 29% of working time lost to absence, almost double that of private sector organisations (13%).

Willmott concluded: “These falls are welcome, but absence levels in the UK still remain stubbornly high. Many employers can still do much more to improve how they manage absence and support employee wellbeing.

“However, encouragingly the survey shows employers are continuing to invest more in supporting employee wellbeing to help prevent the commonest causes of ill health such as stress, back pain and musculoskeletal conditions.”  

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