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There are many concerns for businesses in the UK but in recent years, both productivity and the impact that sickness absence can have on top and bottom line performance, have put employee health and wellbeing right up the various stakeholder agendas.

At 18% less productivity than the average of G7/developed countries, the UK has begun to address this discrepancy to remain at the top table of Economic regions.[1] The Government estimates that matching the US would raise GDP by 31% equating to £21,000 pa additional annual household income.[2] At the top of Government this is a worry; health and wellbeing provides a significant opportunity to address productivity, noting that the UK State disability bill is estimated to be £36bn annually.[3]

Our presenteeism research[4] showed that 89% of employees came into work when unwell and it is estimated that absenteeism costs UK employers £16 billion.[5] Employee health and absence can have a huge effect on a business: last year the average number of sick days rose from 6.6 to 6.9 per employee, with the cost of sickness absence to organisations equal to £554 per employee[6].  So it remains a mystery that, with such numbers, health and wellbeing is not at the top of the corporate agenda.

It’s clear that organisations need to tackle this problem head on by taking a proactive approach to improve the health and wellbeing of employees.  So how can employers best go about managing absence within the workplace?

Mental health – a growing cause of workplace absence
The message from all the evidence is clear: employee health and wellbeing coupled with effective early intervention, rehabilitation and support are proven to be effective. They should be business priorities for keeping employees in work where possible, or ensuring a swift return when time off is required.

However, while Government regulation will undoubtedly provide an extra layer of support to employees claiming State benefits, employers and their employees would be unwise to rely on this alone. The level of benefit for those placed in the Work Related Activity Group (WRAG) from April 2017 will be decreasing by 30%, from £5,312 to £3,801[7] and 74% of employees believe that State benefits will reduce further and be harder to qualify for.[8]

Although there are a number of causes of long-term absence, including musculoskeletal disorders, accidents and mental health, one of the most significant factors – and one that is steadily increasing – is stress.  The Health & Safety Executive estimates that together with anxiety and depression, 9.9 million working days are lost a year from stress, depression and anxiety with huge ramifications for businesses and the individual.[9]  As prevention is always better than the cure, employers must look into ways to ensure that stress does not become a problem in their workplace.

Our research[10] showed that 57% of UK employees have suffered from mental health problems while in work which is a worrying indication of the prevalence of these issues, with stress (43%) and depression (26%) the mostly commonly cited experiences. Of those who experienced mental health issues, 5% had to take off more than six months which has potentially huge consequences for the individual’s financial security and state of mind, as well as implications for the business. 28% of all of our Group Income Protection (GIP) claims are for mental health which is the largest cause, 5% more than cancer. [11]

It is clear that there is a worrying lack of understanding and awareness surrounding mental health in the working world, which is something employers should be keen to address. Employers should also make clear that employees will not be penalised or treated differently, if they suffer from mental health problems. This would reassure workers and encourage them to seek the treatment they need.

Tackling workplace absence through support services
Despite a range of services and support systems to help with employee wellbeing and mental health issues, almost a third of employees believe their organisation has no support while a further 25% are unaware of the type of support their organisation offers.[12] This raises concerns about the amount of support provided and a lack of effective communication when it is available.

So, what services are available to employers looking to improve their employee health and well-being within the workplace? And will these services bring any help to the organisation?

For mental health stress, management initiatives within the workplace are commonplace.  Stress management services such as ‘Team Resilience’ training are available as stand-alone products.  But further support can also be found as part of other absence management services, such as absence reporting services, that signpost employee assistance programmes if mental health is mentioned and even further ‘incident’ reporting if this is work-based.

Stress and mental health, however, are not the only causes of absence. Employers should collate data before any expenditure to measure both effectiveness and ROI of any investment.  There are a whole range of more general absence management programmes available for employers who are looking to cut down on sickness absence. These can range from simple software packages allowing employers to monitor and report absence efficiently, to telephone lines manned by occupational nurses that provide useful information and advice on the management of individual absences. Again, these can be stand-alone services or form part of an integrated, holistic health proposition but the message is simple – how can you manage unless you can measure, therefore data-led initiatives should underpin activity.

Short vs long term absence
Employees may sometimes need a long-term solution to their problems, both in the work place and in their private life.  Counselling and trauma support is one such solution that can offer support to employees going through a difficult time helping them to deal with the issues and allow them to return to work.

These are not the only systems which can offer ways to reduce both short and long term sickness absence.  Stress management tends to be short-term, focusing on practical solutions to relieve the everyday pressures of modern life before they progress into an absence issue.  Culture can be very beneficial and it is important that employees feel able to confide in their employers so they can receive whatever support they need. Failing to promote the importance of wellbeing or enhancing the stigma of mental ill health among employees will have a negative impact on collective morale and individual recovery in the long term. 

Employee Assistance Programmes, for example, are a great way of providing support at all stages of working life. Such benefits ensure workers feel valued and also provide the necessary support should any problems occur, boosting morale and productivity. An Early Intervention Service can also prove effective in reducing the amount of time off an employee requires by facilitating their return to work.  Our research shows a 70% reduction in absence duration where we are able to get involved with a mental health absence early.[13]

Prevention rather than cure by stopping health problems from happening in the first place
Educating staff about health issues and helping them understand more about what they can do to limit their own absence rate is a good first step to reduce absence, for example, offering information on ways to improve their lifestyle.  This can take many forms, including specific health awareness events targeted at certain groups (e.g. giving up smoking), health awareness fairs/seminars, healthy eating in canteens/staff restaurants, simple poster and leaflet campaigns etc.

Wellness (or wellbeing) services can also work to improve the atmosphere in the workplace, while increasing motivation amongst employees and reducing turnover rates at the same time.  These services range across a broad number of programmes such as health screenings, relaxation treatments and massages, corporate sponsored gym memberships and web-based ‘healthy lifestyle’ and ‘health risk assessment’ programmes. Wearable technology provision is becoming increasingly popular, with aggregated corporate data being the aim so that organisations can target specific health initiatives.

Working environments have been shown to have a negative impact on mental health with the most common causes being high pressure and excessive workloads, so addressing this should be considered. Workplace bullying or unpleasant behaviour from a boss is also cited by 15% as a cause of mental health worries and failure to resolve any unpleasantness will damage employee morale.[14]

Taking a proactive approach and addressing a negative environment puts the employer in control of the situation, and can help create a much better working environment for employees, which is instrumental in supporting them and, in turn, can increase staff retention and employee productivity.

It is evident that far more needs to be done to combat mental health problems in the workplace, and recognise it deserves equal footing to physical health. Stress and depression are serious issues and need to be treated as such, yet half of people who’ve experienced a mental health issue while in work agree employers needs to do more to encourage good mental health among their staff.[15] The implications of ignoring mental health, or seeing it as less important than physical health, are hugely damaging to employee wellbeing and business culture.

With all this in mind, it is very unlikely that any informed employer will take much persuasion that employee sickness and absence needs to be addressed. Improving employee health and wellbeing is, therefore, a very good place to start.


[1] http://researchbriefings.files.parliament.uk/documents/SN06492/SN06492.pdf pg. 3

[2] https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/443898/Productivity_Plan_web.pdf pg. 6

[3] ABI Welfare Reform for the 21st Century; the role of income protection pg. 14

[4] Canada Life Group Insurance Research – Presenteeism , September 2015

[5] http://www.personneltoday.com/hr/sickness-absence-rates-and-costs-revealed-in-uks-largest-survey/

[6] http://www.cipd.co.uk/binaries/absence-management_2015.pdf pg 7 &13

[7] http://www.canadalife.co.uk/group/insight-adviser-zone/welfare-reform.aspx

[8] Canada Life Group Insurance Research – State Benefits, April 2016

[9] http://www.hse.gov.uk/statistics/dayslost.htm

[10] Canada Life Group Insurance Research – Mental Health, December 2015

[11] Canada Life Group Insurance – GIP Claims Statistics, 2015

[12] Canada Life Group Insurance Research – Mental Health, December 2015

[13] 80% of mental health claims last only 7 months using EIS, compared to 2 years where EIS is not used – a 70% reduction in claim duration. Canada Life Group Insurance – October 2015

[14] Canada Life Group Insurance Research – Mental Health, December 2015

[15] Canada Life Group Insurance Research – Mental Health, December 2015