Maggie Stanfield: Service sugars bitter pill of illness costs

Employers may be kind, caring and genuinely magnanimous to their staff but they need to make money to thrive and to pay wages, says Maggie Stanfield

No employer wants to spend money on non-essentials, especially in the current financial climate, when even the annual Christmas party has been subject to cutbacks.

But employers do understand an “invest to grow” strategy. Business owners and managers see the value of securing workforce loyalty and innovative companies have been finding a range of ways to help achieve that. There are team-building days, charitable fund raising-days, competitions, away days, even prize holidays.

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By far the biggest component of lost productivity comes from one source: days lost in sickness absence. Across Great Britain, that comes to about 140 million days a year, at a cost to employers of some £9 billion in sick pay.

The overall public system for managing sickness at work has come under close review. Last year, Dame Carol Black, national director for Health and Work, examined the issue in her Independent Review of Sickness Absence. She was unimpressed with what she saw as profound flaws in a system that does little to incentivise employers to support staff who are off sick and to help them get back into work.

Dame Carol wants to see a much stronger professional resource available to employers, one which offers more flexibility and better access to support services. She says the existing system is far too restrictive and fails to provide alternatives to being either completely incapacitated or fully fit for work.

“Unless this is addressed, employers cannot make adjustments to help people whose illness is compatible with a return to work. Solving this issue is the first crucial step in stemming sickness absence and inactivity. In longer-term and more difficult sickness cases, employers have told us that they need independent bespoke advice, especially if they do not have their own occupational health services.”

This is what occupational health service Salus offers its clients. Mark Kennedy General manager,, explains: “We have four key themes or areas of service: occupational health, health and safety, return-to-work services and absence management. Our expert inter-disciplinary team can help companies and organisations of any size, whether in the public or private sector, to make sure that they are following best practice. We can help them to devise constructive policies that support staff who are off ill while at the same time reducing overall sickness absence.”

Salus recognises the challenges for both employers and employees: “It’s a two-way thing,” says Kennedy. “We provide support for those individuals who are off sick, who are struggling to stay in work and who probably have all sorts of other demands going on in their lives.

“They are trying to juggle all the plates of family, finance, perhaps an unemployed partner, and health problems. Those can’t be seen in isolation from other issues. We can provide support to that person, right from the earliest stage, so that they are able to return to work much more quickly than would otherwise be the case.

“The evidence has shown us that if that early intervention and support is there, then people return to work much more rapidly. For employers, that is good news of course. When an employer has invested in someone’s training and that person has become a key member of the team, they don’t want to lose that individual.”

Good occupational health strategies, including sickness absence management, make excellent business sense for every employer, whatever the size. “We really want to ensure that more employers realise the value of investing in good absence management policies. It genuinely does impact on that bottom line,” says Kennedy.

“If you can gradually get someone back into the workplace, especially if they have certain health issues, then you will keep them longer. They will be less likely to go off sick again and you are likely to be rewarded with a higher level of loyalty,” he adds.