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February 18, 2011

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"Unsustainable" sickness-absence regime in line for scrutiny

The Government is to launch an independent review on how to reduce the cost to the economy caused by long-term sickness absence.

The review, which is sponsored by the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department for Business Innovation and Skills, will be jointly chaired by David Frost, director-general of the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC), and Dame Carol Black, national director for health and work. It will examine how the current system can be changed to help people return to and stay in work, and reduce the £100bn that working-age ill health costs the economy every year.

Under the current system employers cover the cost of short-term sickness, while long-term absence is paid for by the State. With more than 300,000 people leaving work to claim sickness-related benefits each year, the Government hopes the review will establish ways to help these people return to employment.

Minister for welfare reform, Lord Freud, believes the current system fails sick workers and is a drain on tax-payers. He said: “Too many people, through no fault of their own, have fallen on to a life on benefits because of the failures in the sickness-absence system. This isn’t fair to the tax-payer but most of all it isn’t fair to the individual. We all have a stake in reducing sickness absence, but it’s not clear who is best placed to take responsibility for this change.”

The TUC believes the review is driven by the Government’s spending-cuts policy and is not in the best interest of workers. Its general secretary, Brendan Barber, said: “If this were to be a genuine attempt to support those on long-term sickness get back to work then the TUC would welcome it with open arms. However, we are concerned that it will end up as just another part of the Government’s cost-saving onslaught on the incomes and rights of those at work, and those on benefits.

“The fact that the review is being conducted by a leading voice of employers’ interests, with no corresponding involvement from unions representing workers affected by sickness absence, gives us little confidence in the outcome.”

The TUC wants the Government to tackle sickness absence through investment in rehabilitation services, or by preventing ill health in the first place. Said Barber: “You do not get workers back to work by cutting their access to benefits or pay. You get them back by providing access to early rehabilitation and supporting those who have been ill for a long time by giving them the confidence to return.

“The other way to reduce the number of people on long-term sick leave is to prevent them from becoming sick in the first place, but the cuts in the budget of the HSE and the fall in enforcement activity from local-authority safety inspectors mean more employers can get away with running unsafe and unhealthy workplaces.”

However, the BCC’s David Frost hit back, describing the review as a necessary step towards helping the economy recover as the current system is unsustainable.

He said: “Sickness absence undoubtedly has a huge impact on businesses – particularly on smaller firms that struggle with the processes and procedures required, not to mention the direct costs involved. The private sector must focus on growth if we are to sustain the recovery, so it is right that the Government has chosen to look at ways to reduce sickness absence in the workplace and get people back into employment.

“I look forward to working with Dame Carol Black to reduce the unsustainable bill on both employers and the State caused by sickness absence, and making radical recommendations to achieve this.”

The Government has also announced a £12m finance injection to fund health and work programmes, including the current Fit for Work Service and occupation-health advice lines. IOSH executive director of policy, Luise Vassie, believes the reivew and the Government’s funding will have a postitive impact, she said: “IOSH welcomes the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) review into long-term sickness absence. Being in work has health and wellbeing benefits for the individual, their family and the community – and it’s good for the economy, the taxpayer and the business.
“We believe that the extra £12million channelled into funding health and work programmes will be key to providing more support to companies, meaning that problems are tackled early, rather than being left to develop into a long-term absence issue. Rehabilitation policies can also be built into these programmes as part of a wider strategy to enable employees’ early return to work.
“However, through this review, the DWP needs to make sure it helps people coming off benefit to find suitable roles, allowing them to return to work with the proper support they need.”

New statistics released by the Office for National Statistics revealed that sickness absence fell to a low point during the recent recession but has since returned to pre-recession levels. Before the onset of the downturn, 2.5 per cent of employees in the Labour Force Survey had had at least one day off sick in the week before they were interviewed. This figure fell to an all-time low of 2.1 per cent in the first quarter of 2009 but was back to 2.5 per cent by the last quarter of 2010.

Commenting on the figures, EEF head of health and safety policy, Steve Pointer, said: “These figures illustrate that sickness absence remains a significant issue for businesses. As well as costing business around £15bn a year, with the cost to tax-payers being several times higher, these costs reduce competitiveness and hamper growth.” €

What makes us susceptible to burnout?

In this episode  of the Safety & Health Podcast, ‘Burnout, stress and being human’, Heather Beach is joined by Stacy Thomson to discuss burnout, perfectionism and how to deal with burnout as an individual, as management and as an organisation.

We provide an insight on how to tackle burnout and why mental health is such a taboo subject, particularly in the workplace.


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13 years ago

I find it distasteful that those on long term sickness in Local Authorities also acrue holiday time whilst absent for work. Holiday time should only be acrued when actually working.

13 years ago

There is an obvious case for reducing the cost to the taxpayer (the government’s contribution) to the cost of employment related ill health. Surely the logical solution is to use the very basic principle of ‘he who causes the harm pays for it’. The unavoidable duty of an employer or potential employer, is to protect the health of employees. It doesn’t say for a few days’ so why can’y ALL the costs be carried by the employer, insurance premium increases would weed out the ‘unsafe employers’

13 years ago

its about time the public sector came into line with the private sector, 3 – 6 months is more than enough of a drain on tax payer`s