Organisations that make plans to keep staff healthy and to help them recover if illness strikes may reap rewards from lower absenteeism and greater loyalty, says Stephanie Spicer
The longer an employee is off sick the less likely it is that they will return to work. For employers, therefore, it is important to keep staff engaged with the workplace after they become sick and to have a process in place to fully re-engage them once they are fit enough to come back.
Long-term employee absence is not something to be ignored. According to the Office of National Statistics, the number of people claiming incapacity benefit increased from less than 1m in the early 1980s to more than 2.3m in the mid-1990s.
When employees are off sick, it makes sense to try to keep them engaged by maintaining contact and making sure they are up to date with what is going on at work. Being kept up to speed with what is happening in their absence will help their confidence when they are able to return.
Dr Jonathan Cleeland, medical director and consultant occupational physician at Norwich Union Occupational Health, says keeping in touch with an employee who is off sick can be done very informally by the human resources department or the employee’s line manager. However, organisations are increasingly opting for a more formal approach by introducing absence management programmes with a helpline serviced by clinical staff.
“Normal protocol is [that] the employee has to ring in on the first day of sickness if possible and register with the helpline, explain why they are off, how long they think they will be off and what they are doing about getting better.
“[With this system], the nurse will log the details and, taking account of data protection and confidentiality, provide information back to the management in the company. It alleviates the company from having to do some of the leg work and provides assistance the company can use to monitor absence,” says Cleeland.
The provision of health benefits, such as private medical insurance (PMI), can obviously help in some situations where employees go off sick. If they have a back problem and need physiotherapy, for example, PMI will mean they should get seen by experts quicker than they would through the National Health Service. “Too often [recovery] is left to chance with employees off for weeks on end and nobody doing much about it,” Cleeland adds.
But while medical insurance is useful in helping sick employees, there is an argument that prevention is better than cure. Absence management assessment services can help businesses evaluate their procedures and protocols by identifying troublespots for sickness absence and helping them to focus on areas for improvement.
Joy Reymond, head of rehabilitation services at Unum, says: “For companies that have a group income protection policy, an absence assessment programme can reinforce its effectiveness by assessing areas of risk and ensuring that a programme is in place to manage effective health and safety and, where appropriate, return to work.
“There is a lot employers can be doing, in putting systems, approaches and training in place so you don’t have unnecessary sickness absence, and when you do have it, it doesn’t get ignored until it becomes a big problem,”she says.
In some cases an employer might also be able to access occupational health services through an insurance provider to help rehabilitate employees. Some employers also have in-house occupational health services that they can refer employees to. Dr Mike Goldsmith, chairman of the Commercial Occupational Health Providers Association and chairman of occupational health and rehabilitation provider Medigold, says: “I don’t think there is any chance of a company rehabilitating someone who is long-term sick without using a professional. But sending someone to an occupational health practitioner once they have been off for over six months is nigh on a waste of time – the quicker you get [a professional] in there, the better chance you have.”
Once an employee is in a position to return to work, employers need to take steps to facilitate that process and to re-engage the employee into the workplace. The role of line managers is key, says Reymond. “They will be the ones who know the employee and what the impact is of them being absent and the things they might be able to do in a graduated return to work.
“There is a move towards employers being flexible with employees who are only partially able to do their work, yet still enabling them to be back at work and contribute what they can and stay engaged with their colleagues and the work that they do.”
If an employee has had an illness that is stress-related or psychological, they may appreciate it if their employer eases them back into the workplace for shorter hours or alternate days to build up their work gradually, for example.
But the ideal is to avoid getting to the stage of people being on long-term sick leave in the first place, says Cleeland. “Look earlier than the illness and anticipate what might happen to an employee in their lifetime. If you do health promotion with your employees you [will] find your sickness absence levels drop, so getting everyone to look at their diet and cut down on their boozing and smoking is bound to have a beneficial effect in the long run.”
By taking preventative measures and building in strategies to keep employees engaged when they are off sick and to re-engage them once they do return to work, employers stand a better chance of having a healthier, happier workforce.
CASE STUDY: HONDA
The Honda motor plant in Swindon has a comprehensive process for assessing the ability of employees to work and for rehabilitating them in the event of injury or illness.
The process starts with a rigorous pre-employment screening process and staff are then assigned tasks appropriate to their physical attributes.
Mike Weaver, manager, health, safety and environment at the company, which has between 5,000 and 6,000 employees, says: “You get good morale, very much less absence, and better quality. If you make a job difficult to do, sooner or later the quality will deteriorate.”†
All employees receive private medical insurance (PMI) and the firm has around 20 healthcare staff onsite, including occupational health nurses and a team of outsourced physiotherapists.
Other help, such as osteopaths and counsellors, are enlisted as needed through the company Hanoun Medical and Managed Occupational Health.
Rehabilitation of injured staff is central to the Honda strategy and the process begins early.
“If someone has an MSD [musculoskeletal disorder], even if it is not caused by the processes here, it’s clearly in our interests to get them back to work as soon as possible. People who try to work through pain take a lot longer to get back to work,” adds Weaver.