The health and wellbeing of staff is a key responsibility for HR. But is all the pressure to keep costs down and raise productivity making employees sick?
There is a clear link between staff wellbeing and heightened motivation, yet occupational health (OH) professionals increasingly feel that HR’s crude focus on the statistics rather than the causes behind absence could be causing, rather than solving, problems.
“It’s fair to say that HR staff focus on absence rates instead of tackling the root causes,” says Graham Johnson, operations manager for health at work at Bupa Wellness.
He cites the examples of the NHS and local authorities cracking down on absence rates in the face of soaring costs and mounting debts. However, a knee-jerk response and a referral to OH can be useless – even counterproductive.
“Problems arise when people are ‘sent’ to OH,” he says. “Some people come to us who have no idea why they are here. We are here to offer support and ways of getting staff back to work, but usually we are brought in too late.”
Employees may even see a referral to OH as a sign that they are being disciplined for their poor attendance. And the reactive stance taken by HR means that OH is less effective than it might be.
Johnson points out that looking more in depth into absenteeism can give employers valuable information about their organisation, and how staff are faring in different functions and departments.
“What is needed is the automatic involvement of OH after a trigger period – whatever that might be for an individual organisation. Then we can set up case conferences looking at what interventions can be made,” he says.
Tracking patterns of absenteeism flags up potential problem areas in the company, but many HR departments don’t see this as a priority, keeping records of incidences of absenteeism, but not the cause. This is a missed opportunity, says Johnson. “If five people are off in one department with stress-related illnesses, you can look to see if a management issue is at the root of this.”
Claire Raistrick, managing director of Matrick Ergonomics, agrees that employers often fail to see patterns in absenteeism, or think strategically about the health of staff.
“There is a tendency for companies to wait until they have issues with an individual with, say, musculoskeletal symptoms, and then seek advice in respect of that one individual, rather than seeing it as both a warning and an opportunity to review the job design,” she says.
Another thorny issue is confidentiality. According to Dr Mark Simpson, managing director of AXA PPP Healthcare, employees and businesses alike would benefit if there were clear lines of communication between HR and OH. But differing views of issues such as confidentiality can get in the way.
“One side is as culpable as the other,” he says. “OH hides behind a cloak of confidentiality, while HR managers can make inappropriate requests that are not relevant to a person’s fitness for work. Equally, OH staff sometimes fail to give information that would be of value to the business.”
Eye on the goal
For professor Sayeed Khan, chief medical adviser to manufacturers’ organisation EEF, one of the key issues is that HR underestimates the link between employee health and wellbeing and the business goals of an organisation.
“No one can define ‘wellbeing’,” he says. “Like stress, it’s perhaps impossible to define. But HR professionals should understand that this isn’t just a woolly issue. It has real bite, and it relates to performance.
“The best way to differentiate your workforce in the face of globalisation and competition from countries such as China and India is to make sure it is competent, skilled and motivated. The difference is not in plant and equipment, but in people,” adds Khan.
As long as organisations view it as a marginal, add-on activity, the effectiveness of OH will be limited, stresses Johnson. “Some employees get on a merry-go-round of absence and being referred to OH, which they never get off,” he says. “If we see someone repeatedly, and say there is no medical reason for their absence, then there is a management reason, and HR needs to look at this.”
Johnson also calls for more commitment from HR to making workplace adjustments. “Often, it’s just a case of showing line managers that there is support for them – from OH, HR, health and safety staff and even government schemes such as Access to Work, which provides assistance to firms employing staff with disabilities,” he says.
Johnson would also like to see more involvement from HR on helping people back into full-time work after prolonged sick leave, via phased part-time working and setting goals that returnees should easily be able to meet.
Ultimately, both HR and OH will do a better job if they join forces and think strategically, concludes Raistrick. “Investing in how employees work – the physical and psychosocial aspects – is still a major area in which organisations haven’t reaped benefits,” she says. “There is an opportunity here for HR to spearhead this. Surely that would be a better use of their skills than firefighting.”