UK: Independent Review Of Sickness Absence – Sick Of Sickness Absence?

Last Updated: 13 December 2011
Article by Paul Whinder and David Israel

On 21 November 2011, Dame Carol Black, the government's national director for health and work, and David Frost CBE, the Director General of the British Chamber of Commerce, published a report which considers ways of minimising loss of work due to ill health and finding ways of reducing the associated burdens and costs on individuals, employers and the taxpayer. The report makes a number of recommendations to improve sickness absence and associated costs. Whether these recommendations will actually be taken up by the government is unknown, however, it is well worth reading our summary below to get an idea as to what steps can be done now and what could be done in the future to address this ever present issue.

As you will appreciate, what follows is very much a summary of the report.

Establish a new Independent Assessment Service (IAS) to assess ill health

It was noted that you, as the employer, rely on the GP's Fit Note to inform you when an employee is expected to be fit enough to return to work, but a GP's duty is to their patient and not to you or the state. It was suggested that what you need is independent, bespoke advice on employees' health and how they can be supported in a return to work. The report recommends that if an employee has been absent for four weeks they be referred to a government-funded Independent Assessment Service ("IAS"). The IAS would provide:

  • An in-depth assessment of an individual's physical and/or mental function.
  • Advice about how an individual taking sickness absence could be supported to return to work.

In other words, they suggested that there be a state sponsored occupational health service. The report also recommends that the government revises its Fit Note guidance to ensure that judgements about fitness move away from only job-specific assessments. Rather, Doctors should assess whether an employee is fit to return not only to their own job but to work more generally.

Improve employers' management of sickness absence

The report reiterates that you, as employers, can also help yourselves through good management and early intervention. They highlighted the importance of:

  • Proper management of absence and a better understanding of its costs – sickness absence targets and trigger mechanisms to review attendance should be used.
  • Promoting management best practice, including how to deal with the growing problem of stress and mental health conditions – occupational health input should be used to tackle long-term absence.
  • Better guidance to help employers understand the law on sickness absence – you should use your absence management policies to explain the process you intend to follow, and employees should be made aware of them.

It was also proposed that it should be made easier to end the employment relationship rather than using costly compromise agreements. The report recommends the use of "protected conversations" to enable employers and employees to have honest, open conversations about sickness absence. It is also recommended that the ban on pre-offer of employment health questionnaires be reconsidered.

Tax relief to help employers support sick employees return to work or remain at work

The report recommends:

  • Retaining tax relief on Employee Assistance Programmes.
  • Introducing tax breaks for employers' expenditure that supports sick employees return to work or remain at work.

Assist long-term sick employees return to work for a new employer

The report notes that some long-term health conditions mean an employee can't continue with his existing job even though the employee is fit to do alternative work, possibly for a different employer. Currently, work for a new employer is not considered until they enter the benefits system. The report suggests giving employers access to a voluntary job-brokering service that would support such employees change employer. The types of support it is suggested should be offered for free to the long-term sick (those absent for 20 weeks) include:

Working with employment advisers to identify what is stopping the employee from remaining with their current employer

  • Developing a job-change action plan that reflects the needs of the individual
  • A skills audit and access to relevant training opportunities
  • Practical help to access job vacancies

While utilising the service the employee would continue to receive sick pay from their current employer until their eligibility runs out.

The end of the "sick-note culture" that the report is attempting to achieve is likely to be welcomed by employers bogged down by the inconvenience, disruption and associated costs of sickness absence. There is no doubt that GP's are all too willing to hand out sick notes. However, it is difficult to conceive how certain recommendations could actually be implemented. For example, how does one define what is and is not acceptable to say in a 'protected conversation' and, even if the law did try to define this, there would still inevitably be disputes as to whether what was said should be 'protected'. The proposal to overturn the ban on pre-offer of employment health questionnaires also looks slightly shaky. Such questionnaires can still be used post-offer and pre-commencement of employment with the same effect. The only difference is that, once the questionnaire has been completed the offer is withdrawn, there will be no hiding the connection. Also, without being overly sceptical, how likely is it that a state run occupational health service would actually be able to be run cost efficiently, smoothly and effectively! That said, the Report's reminder of the need to always follow good sickness absence management procedures is welcome as this ultimately, in our experience, determines how much of issue there really is. Watch this space to see if the recommendations in the report come to fruition!

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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