Sickness absence: time for a fresh approach
Given the current sluggish nature of the economy we need to pull on every possible lever to try to promote economic growth. One of the key aspects of this is ensuring that our workforce is fit and healthy, that people are in work and their skills are being fully utilised.
For this reason, the issue of sickness absence is one that government, employers and other stakeholders have put considerable effort into tackling over the last decade. Not only is it lost productivity for companies when people are off work, especially for long periods, but it is a large dead cost to the economy as all the evidence suggests the longer people are off work, the more likely they are to drop out of the workforce with all the costs to individuals and society this brings.
Considerable efforts to tackle this issue have led to the training of some GPs in Occupational Health together with the introduction of the 'fit note' two years ago which shows what people are able to do, rather than what they can't do. Companies themselves have also become far better at adopting strategies to manage absence and train managers.
This has produced significant gains in tackling short term absence which EEF's survey evidence has shown declining continuously in recent years. However, our latest survey published this week has shown that the overall gains have now flattened out, whilst of greater concern is the divergence in short and long term absence.
In particular there has been a jump in long term absence due to factors such as stress, anxiety and depression which some will conclude may be a knock on effect of the job insecurity that many people now feel. However, whilst the reasons may be many and complex, it perhaps suggests that the efforts to date have now been exhausted and that government needs to re-invigorate its policies in this area. In particular,
EEF is urging government to implement the recommendations of the Frost/Black review of work and wellbeing, including an electronic fit note, training of all doctors in Occupational Health, as well as tax breaks for those companies who invest in rehabilitation themselves. As well as helping get people back work quicker it would also take pressure of the NHS capacity which is still seen as a barrier by almost one third of companies. The gains made to date have been considerable but a fresh approach from government, companies and other bodies is now needed.