Tooled up to tackle absence

The manufacturing and engineering employers’ association EEF has developed an absence toolkit to help GPs assist HR. Sally O’Reilly investigates.

Managing absence is a persistent headache for HR and occupational health (OH) professionals, and traditionally a lack of communication with GPs has not helped.

The tendency for family doctors to issue sicknotes for minor illnesses or sign people off for lengthy periods of time has long been a bugbear for employers. Under the current system, staff need a sicknote to claim their statutory sick pay, employers complain that doctors are too willing to issue them, and GPs are frustrated with sick workers clogging up their waiting rooms.

While employers, GPs, OH professionals and unions agree that something has to change if the UK is to make a dent in its £13bn annual incapacity benefit bill, attempts to reform the system have been unsuccessful, and at the end of 2006 a pilot scheme testing out a new system produced few, if any, tangible conclusions.

But one way of improving the situation is to make communication between GPs and employers more systematic, and increase the level of mutual understanding.

Tools of communication

With this in mind, manufacturers’ organisation the EEF has produced a new toolkit for GPs, which aims to help them communicate more effectively with HR and OH staff.

“Often, GPs aren’t aware of simple workplace modifications that can be made,” says Sayeed Khan, chief medical officer at the EEF. “And they don’t know about other options, such as moving people to other jobs. The most they feel qualified to say is that someone should go back into the workplace to do ‘light duties’, or else they sign people off.”

The toolkit includes a number of communication aids, including standard letters for GPs, which set out to help them respond in a clear and succinct way to enquiries from employers – especially when the employer does not have an OH service.

“Our standard letters, including ones for staff with back pain and stress, suggest that GPs explain what is wrong in layman’s terms, and cover key points, such as what is actually preventing the person from coming back to work,” says Khan.

“More importantly, the letters ask the GP to say what this person can do. Can they sit, stand or walk? All of this is useful information that you can use when making an assessment about someone’s fitness for work.

“We ask GPs to give a prognosis, but if they don’t know what the prognosis is, we ask them to say they don’t know, rather then guess,” Khan adds.

The EEF believes it is not necessary to write to the GP if an employer has good OH and HR teams, as these departments have the professional skills to make an informed decision about whether someone is fit to carry out their usual job, or whether there is another role they can take on a temporary basis.

OH involvement

Another simple way for GPs to improve their service is to ask their patients whether they have an OH service, says Khan. “We know that organisations with more than 500 staff will have OH of some kind.

“If the GP gives someone a sicknote for a week or two, then tells them to see OH at the end of that time, this is a simple way of putting the responsibility on the employee to do something themselves.”

With good, clear information, an employer may choose to pay for fast-track treatment to get a worker back to good health more quickly.

“Employers may consider paying for treatment if the NHS doesn’t get treatment to people as quickly as they need,” adds Khan.

The EEF points out that the NHS does not cater effectively enough for the needs of the working-age population, and that one area the government’s health, work and wellbeing strategy is looking at is ‘timely access to support and treatment’.

The Royal College of General Practitioners has developed a half-day workshop to enable GPs to ask relevant questions about fitness for work as part of a routine, seven-minute consultation. More than 150 GPs took part in a successful national pilot scheme earlier this year. Khan, who was involved with its content and delivery, would now like to see government backing for a national roll-out of the training.

Wellbeing in brief

Pathways to Work scheme

The government is to roll out its Pathways to Work scheme across the UK, as part of its welfare reform plans. The announcement was included in July’s Green Paper on welfare reform, which also included a ‘jobs pledge’ to find work for some 250,000 people on benefits. The scheme offers people on long-term benefits access to advisers to help them look at the work opportunities available to them.

Mental health risk findings

Stressful jobs can add to pressures that tip younger, more vulnerable staff into bouts of major depression and anxiety, a study has suggested. Researchers at King’s College, London, looked at the psychiatric assessments of nearly 1,000 people in the early stages of their careers, and found that as many as one in 20 expected to experience serious depression or anxiety every year as a direct result of pressure from work. The study is thought to be the first of its kind to establish a firm link between stressful work and poor mental health among people with no history of mental health problems.

Printer scare story

A team of Australian scientists has warned that office printers could damage employee health in the same way as cigarette smoke. The Queensland University of Technology study found that 17 of the 62 printers tested emitted tiny particles of a ‘toner-like’ substance that could penetrate a human lung. Researchers fear the particles could be carcinogenic, or could cause breathing problems.

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