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Jessica  Clough
Jessica Clough,
TRAINEE CHARTERED LEGAL EXECUTIVE
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Health is everyone’s business – a look at the latest consultation on employee sickness absence
08 August 2019

In the light of the frightening statistics below, the Government has begun a consultation aimed at improving workplace health and well-being called “Health is everyone’s business”

The statistics

  • Each year 4% of the workforce (1.4m people) have at least one sickness absence lasting 4 weeks or longer.
  • 12.7m working-age people have long-term health conditions. 
  • 1 in 3 of those people have a mental illness. 
  • Workplace adjustments are less likely for those with mental health issues.
  • Every year around 300,000 people with long term mental health condition fall out of work 
  • The likelihood of returning to work reduces the longer an individual is off sick.

However, early intervention and workplace support reduces time off sick, encourages quicker returns to work and reduces rates of ill-health related job loss.

The consultation

The Government is proposing several approaches to encourage employers to take early intervention to support employees with ill health, to prevent and reduce ill health related absence and help employees return to work.   It also looks at what additional support the Government could provide to assist employers when dealing with sick employees, particularly those small and medium employers (“SME”) who often struggle with lack of resources and knowledge to deal with sickness absence effectively.

The proposals

1. Encouraging early intervention and support from employers

Given the limited efforts made by most employers to support employees staying in or returning to work it is proposed to strengthen the statutory guidance on the actions an employer must take before they can fairly dismiss a sick or disabled employee.  This is to encourage employers to carry out “early, sustained and proportionate action” to support employees with health issues.

The consultation also seeks views on the idea of introducing compulsory reporting of sickness absence data to the government.

2. Right to request workplace modifications on health grounds

This right would apply to employees who are not already covered by the disability provisions of the Equality Act 2010. Under the proposal, suggested “modifications” would have to be “reasonable” and could include a range of solutions from physical adaptations, to changes to hours, work patterns and responsibilities.

This new duty would sit separately from, and in addition to, the duty to make reasonable adjustments and is proposed to work in a similar way to the right to request flexible working, with employers being able to refuse requests on set legitimate business grounds (to be determined).

The consultation seeks views on whether there should be any period of qualifying employment required and who would be eligible for this right, if it were to be introduced. They propose either:

  • Those with a single long term sickness absence of 4 or more weeks; or
  • Those with a cumulative total of 4 or more weeks’ sickness absence in a year; or
  • Any employees returning to work after period of sickness absence of any length; or 
  • Any employee who can make a case for modification on health grounds.

3. Reforming Statutory Sick Pay

The consultation proposes reform to SSP to make it more flexible as it is recognised that it does not work well for those with part-time, flexible or atypical working arrangements. Suggestions include:

  • Allowing employees returning after two weeks’ of sickness absence to take a mixture of wages and SSP (on a pro-rata basis) in order to encourage use of phased returns to work, which it hopes will promote quicker returns to work and reduce employee disconnection and job loss.
  • Widening the eligibility for SSP to cover those on incomes falling below the lower earnings limit (“LEL” – currently £118 per week). Those LEL earners would not be paid full SSP (as this would amount to more than their weekly wages) but paid SSP as a proportion of their wages (80% is the suggested level, on which it seeks feedback). It also seeks views on whether to extend paying SSP as a proportion of salary to all employees, although it is not proposing to carry out this change at this stage.
  • Making SSP less cumbersome and complex for employers, particularly SMEs through suggestions such as creating an online calculator to help employers work out what SSP to pay and considering removing qualifying days to help simplify how SSP works. 

4. Compliance and enforcement

The consultation looks at ways of strengthening compliance and enforcement for failure to pay SSP as there is some evidence of employers not paying SSP when they should– mainly for agency workers because of a lack of clarity over their contractual status.  

It suggests increasing the fines that can be given to employers under the existing HMRC-run SSP disputes process, and seek views on whether enforcement of SSP should to take a more robust approach in the future, mirroring what is done with National Minimum Wage enforcement.

5. Informing employees of their rights

It is proposed to make providing a written statement of terms and conditions a Day 1 Right and for it to set out details of eligibility for sick leave and pay. 

6. Improving access to Occupational Health

There are two proposals in connection with Occupational Health:

  • Improving access and removing barriers to OH allowing quicker easier access
  • To make it easier to identify the quality of OH advice through various proposals such as a OH Supplier comparison database and a questionnaire to determine services and needs.

7. Advice and support for employers

It recognises that SMEs often struggle to understand their responsibilities and lack confidence in dealing with sickness issues. The consultation seeks employer input on what support they need and what would be most effective. Suggestions include:

  • Providing examples of good practice
  • Providing more information on employer responsibilities and obligations
  • Advice on sickness absence management and retention
  • Sign posting to other resources

The consultation closes on 7 October 2019, so please do send in your views.

Why should we care about employee health?

The benefits of investing in employee health and wellbeing are obvious and include: 

  • Reduction in time lost to ill-health; 
  • Higher staff satisfaction and retention rates; 
  • Improved workforce productivity
  • Reduction in the cost of recruiting and training new staff

What can employers do to encourage good mental health?

  1. Invest in and promote an Employee Assistance Programme
  2. Work with an Occupational Health provider
  3. Look at ways to promote health and wellbeing in your workforce
  4. Train managers so they are confident in dealing with issues around ill-health
    1. Focus on early interventions to prevent sickness becoming long term or resulting in dismissal
    2. Helping those who are off sick to maintain a link to the workplace
    3. Look at workplace adjustments and modifications such as assistance equipment, or changes to role or hours as part of phased return to work

We can help with

  • Advising on how to implement systems to improve workforce wellbeing and productivity.  
  • Providing training for managers on handling employees’ sickness absence issues - more information is available on our training page.

At our London Conference on 17 October 2019 Achieving Sustainable Workforce Productivity 
we will be discussing the factors which influence sustainable productivity and how HR can help to create workplace cultures and people strategies which energise, engage and focus their people to create a stronger sense of purpose and passion.

One of our speakers is Professor Nielsen, the Chair of Work Psychology and Director of the Institute for Work Psychology at the University of Sheffield, who will be discussing the impact of employee’ health and wellness on sustainable productivity and providing guidance on how we can support workers to thrive at work.

If you would like to know more about managing sickness absence, building employee wellness plans, or are interested in attending our conference, please contact the employment team at [email protected] or phone us on 0118 952 7284.

Consistent with our policy when giving comment and advice on a non-specific basis, we cannot assume legal responsibility for the accuracy of any particular statement. In the case of specific problems we recommend that professional advice be sought.

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