You’ve read the headlines. You’ve seen the stats. The cost of workplace absence can be eye- watering: arguably more so for micro to small businesses for whom the law of percentages dictates an increased likelihood of key people being impacted: directly or indirectly.
As part of the government’s ongoing shift towards putting the onus for individual health on the shoulders of employers, a couple of consultations and recommendations were published this summer: escaping under the radar of most.
Firstly, in June, an interim DWP report – Sickness absence and health: employer behaviour and practice – came out revealing employer attitudes to health and wellbeing. It investigated how companies currently manage absence.
On the SME front, it concludes that while they understand that employee health impacts business and productivity, they are very reactive and lack understanding of absence management. 56 per cent of small employers say they ‘take action as and when employee health and wellbeing becomes a problem’ in comparison to 28 per cent of large employers that say the same.
This report came in response to the DWP’s Improving Lives: the future of work, health and disability paper published in 2017, which focused on improving employment prospects for disabled people and those with a long-term health condition over the next 10 years.
Why does this matter right now? Because just a month later – in July 2019 – recommendations that more workers should be eligible for Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) were published that would amend the rules of SSP to allow for phased returns to work following sickness absence, widen eligibility for SSP to extend protection to those on the lowest incomes and strengthen compliance and enforcement of SSP payment.
Alongside these proposed changes, the consultation also considers how a rebate of SSP might be designed for SMEs that demonstrate best practice in supporting employees on sickness absence.
SSP is currently paid by employers at a flat rate of £94.25 per week for a maximum of 28 weeks. To qualify, at present an individual must be an “employed earner” for an employer that pays secondary class 1 NI contributions, they must have been on sick leave for 4 days minimum and earn an average of at least £118 a week.
14 per cent of small employers currently don’t pay any sick pay at all, never mind consider return to work programmes. And, as evidenced above, prevention doesn’t really figure.
So, where’s the evidence that proactivity pays? Data from Vitality’s latest Britain’s Healthiest Workplace (BHW) study, developed in partnership with RAND Europe and the University of Cambridge, revealed that three quarters of ill health related absence and presenteeism in 2018, equating to £61bn, came from factors such as depression, poor lifestyle choices, and stress, all of which can be targeted by businesses through health and wellbeing initiatives.
These initiatives can include interventions such as virtual GP services, employee assistance programmes (EAPs), health checks, exercise and nutrition programmes, apps and wearables.
BHW showed that interventions have a marked effect on employees’ health. The top performing companies all showed common characteristics such as embedding a culture of health, capable line managers who supported employees and high awareness and participation in their health and wellbeing programmes.
However, the research also demonstrated that awareness of and engagement with such interventions was low. For instance, while 67 per cent of employees have access to interventions in the mental health space, only 26 per cent of them claim to have knowledge and awareness of the interventions on offer. Additionally, once aware, only 18 per cent of employees actually participate in any of the programmes, demonstrating that not only do employers need to increase awareness, but employees need to engage with the interventions available to maximise impact.
Simply implementing intervention programmes is no longer enough. By prioritising and elevating employee engagement in health and wellbeing, ideally to board level, it is possible to make a significant difference to productivity and the overall success of the business. Not only can this bring about a competitive advantage for companies, but it will ultimately build a stronger and healthier society for us all.