Are injuries away from the workplace the responsibility of employers? Paul Wimpenny explains why firms should aim to keep staff healthy, productive and at work, regardless of how the injury occurred.
Last year in England, almost half of the reported 1.25 million work-related injuries were musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) and yet, according to the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health, 53% of MSDs treated by doctors were non-work related, meaning the overall majority were sustained at home or while taking part in leisure activities.
These figures raise an interesting question: when employees suffer injuries outside of work that stop them from working, whose responsibility is it to get them back to work and up to full capacity?
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If an employee suffers an injury while at work, the likelihood is that their employer would provide support designed to help them return to work quickly and safely. But where injuries outside of work are concerned, staff are largely on their own because, according to the Fit for Work initiative: “It is not the responsibility of the employer to get an employee fit again. That lays with the employee and their doctors as their primary carer.”
However, as Fit for Work further explains: “The employer may wish to try and support the employee back to work sooner, rather than waiting until they are fully fit if the employee is on long-term sick.”
This suggests there are only two options for your employees: to return to work as soon as possible whether or not they are fully fit; or to remain absent from work for an extended amount of time. These options are not appealing to either party.
For an employer, having a key member of staff absent for a long period can have a huge impact on the business, both financially and from an efficiency perspective. However, the impact of presenteeism can be just as serious. This is when employees are at work but are not fully fit, leading to a reduction in productivity and potentially slowing down the rehabilitation period.
From the employee’s point of view, prolonged periods of absence can impact long-term career prospects, while working when not completely fit can have health implications, and result in minor conditions becoming more serious and enduring.
Whatever the legal position, from an employer’s perspective it is in the interest of all parties to put measures in place to support and rehabilitate employees no matter what the cause of their injury or absence.
For example, if an employee suffered an injury after work at their step class, playing five-a-side football, or even emptying the dishwasher, and were unable to make it into the office the following day, the individual, their colleagues and the employer would all suffer for the duration of the absence.
If an employee cannot come to work, either their tasks will not be completed or someone else will have to do them instead. This, in turn, means that one (or several) of their colleagues will either suffer an increased workload, or prioritise someone else’s work instead of their own, creating a backlog. This can also potentially increase both stress levels and instances of psychosocial absences among employees. Meanwhile, all this impacts profitability due to the decreases in productivity and efficiency.
Additionally, organisations employing the minimum number of staff necessary to maximise profitability are likely to use temporary staff to replace those on sick leave.
The average cost of a “temp” is higher than the cost of a core member of staff (who may still be receiving pay while absent), which further impacts profitability and, in all probability, productivity, as the temp is unlikely to be able to work as effectively as the employee whose absence they are covering.
Meanwhile, the employee is at home contemplating an extended absence. For example, a musculoskeletal injury that requires physiotherapy treatment and subsequent rehabilitation can begin with a week-long absence before their doctor sees them and refers them for physiotherapy.
They may then have to wait six weeks for the physiotherapy appointment, meaning they have potentially been absent for seven weeks. If the physiotherapist then wants to see them again in a fortnight, they could absent for nine weeks or more.
So, while legally it is not necessarily an employer’s responsibility to help employees return to work, it is in their best interests.
There are many ways an employer can provide care and support to employees, but having a health and wellbeing strategy in place is the most sensible option.
Providing workers with access to an occupational health service safeguards against illness and injury and, when something does go wrong, your employees will be helped to get back on their feet and return to full capacity. This could involve phased returns to work and amended duties.
By including access to occupational physiotherapy into the occupational health mix, employees can be treated more quickly instead of waiting for NHS treatment, helping to reduce their pain levels, get them back to work more quickly and increase their productivity.
Preventative measures can also help to reduce the risk of further absences due to the recurrence of musculoskeletal disorders. The fact that most of these injuries actually occur outside of work needs to be reflected in workplace policies. Regardless of where an injury occurs, the effects to the employer, employees and finances are the same.
The workplace is changing. Today, more than ever, almost all jobs require teamwork in order to succeed and a flexible approach to OH will help to enable this.
All employers need to realise that it is in their best interests to get their employees as fit as possible, as safely and quickly as they can, and then maintain their fitness, for the good of the entire business and the UK economy.
Paul Wimpenny is clinical governance officer at Physio Med.