Back to work: implications for HR

Employers have been urged to look at their staff rehabilitation policies following far-reaching proposals to get people off incapacity benefit and into work were announced last week.

Under the current system, incapacity benefit starts at £56 a week, rising to £66 after six months and £74 after a year. Ministers believe this incremental system encourages claimants to stay on benefits, reducing their chances of returning to work.

The Department of Work and Pensions’ new approach will see a big increase in advisers to help claimants look for a job and will draw heavily on a programme of interviews and training.

The Government hopes this change of emphasis will catch potential returnees early. Its figures show that once people have been on incapacity benefit for a year, they continue to live on government handouts for an average of eight years. It estimates that one million of the 2.6 million currently drawing incapacity benefits could return to work given the right development.

Revisit  rehabilitation

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) has welcomed the proposals and urged employers to revisit their rehabilitation procedures. In a study carried out last year, the organisation found only a quarter of UK companies have a dedicated rehabilitation policy in place.

“Too often rehabilitation is managed in an inconsistent way,” said Ben Willmott, an employee relations adviser at the CIPD. “It needs to sustained and integrated with other corporate policies such as training and assessments.”

He said any rehabilitation programme to help new workers should dovetail into company schemes aimed at bringing their own employees on long-term sick leave back into the workplace.

Installing equipment to help people in wheelchairs or those suffering from bad backs is one piece of advice from Keith Faulkner, managing director of Working Links, a public-private partnership specialising in getting the long-term unemployed working.

Emotional help

However, Faulkner said people who have been away from work a long time are just as likely to be suffering from stress or depression and will require emotional rather than practical aid.

“They may have simply lost the habit of getting up early for work, or be unused to the amount of travel needed,” he said.

Faulkner recommended in these cases that employers exercise a degree of flexiblity.

“It may be sensible, for instance, to bring them into the company on a part-time basis rather than going full-time immediately,” he said. “Their hours can then be gradually increased in line with their progress. Companies should aim to make the transition back to work as smooth as possible.

He also suggested employers assign a mentor or ‘buddy’ to look after the new starter. “Line managers have an important role to play, watching for potential problems – but good line managers do that anyway,” he said.

Audrey Williams, a partner in the HR group at law firm Eversheds said under the Disability Discrimination Act, employers already have certain legal obligations to offer the long-term sick work.

“The Act is about being positively active and employers must be prepared to make reasonable adjustment to accommodate people with disabilities,” she said.

A typical example is allowing people time off to visit the hospital or attend a counselling session.

“With these new proposals, employers are only going to see an increase in these kind of issues. It is important they are aware of them now,” she said.

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