Government plans to widen statutory sick pay and improve workplace health

sick pay consulation
Work and pensions secretary Amber Rudd.
David Mirzoeff/PA Wire/PA Images

Plans to offer a sick pay rebate for organisations that effectively help staff get back to work have been revealed by the government today, as part of a package of measures to improve support for employees with long-term conditions or disabilities to remain in employment.

More workers will also be eligible to claim statutory sick pay (SSP), and will be able to claim it for mental as well as physical health conditions, under plans detailed in a consultation by the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department of Health and Social Care.

The government plans to amend SSP regulations to enable an employee returning from a period of sickness absence to have a flexible, phased return to work, working the hours and days that would benefit them. This would allow an employee to earn a part wage and part SSP.

More than 100,000 people a year leave their job following a period of sickness absence lasting at least four weeks, the government said, while 44% of people who are off sick for a year fall out of work completely.

Work and pensions secretary Amber Rudd said: “With three in five employers facing challenges when supporting employees to return to work, it’s time that we took a closer look at how businesses can retain staff.

“Good work is good for our mental and physical health, and by working closely with employers we can help prevent the loss of talent when people unnecessarily leave the workplace.”

The government is also considering whether to introduce legal guidance to encourage employers to intervene earlier on during a period of sick leave, such as making adjustments to working patterns or keeping in touch with staff who are off sick.

Other recommendations include:

  • the introduction of a right to request workplace adjustments on health grounds – with the consultation asking how employers should be required to respond to such requests
  • introducing strengthened statutory guidance that prompts employers to demonstrate that they have taken early, sustained and proportionate action to support employees’ return to work
  • whether employees should be asked to take action to support their return to work, such as engaging with an occupational health service
  • government taking action to ensure employees are paid the SSP they are due and that there is adequate redress if not. It could fine employers that fail to pay staff what they are owed
  • an SSP rebate for employers that manage sickness absence effectively and support their employees to return to work.

Part of the consultation also asks employers and health providers how the capacity, value and quality of occupational health services can be improved.

It says that although the government recognises that some smaller firms might lack the financial resources to invest in OH, it is not committing to any financial support at this stage. However, it is exploring the case for targeted support for employers that need it.

Other OH-specific plans include:

  • considering whether to introduce vouchers and subsidies for SMEs and the self-employed to access OH support
  • gathering data around the OH workforce to consider whether it is able to meet demand – it claims 44% of
    providers are unable to fill roles, typically clinical roles such as nurses and doctors
  • working with partners to encourage a significant increase in the number of OH specialists
  • exploring ways the government can  support training opportunities or existing postgraduate courses to alleviate pressures on the OH workforce.

It also asks employers about the indicators of quality and compliance that would help them choose an OH provider, such as work outcomes or customer reviews, and how these outcomes could be measured.

Prerana Issar, chief people officer at NHS England said: “Helping people manage their health while at work through common sense measures like sickness absence management and occupational health services, is good for employees, better for employers and ultimately supports both the NHS and the economy.”

But Julian Cox, head of employment at iLaw, said that if statutory sick pay entitlement is extended, there a risk that people with long-term conditions may enter employment but take regular time off.

“This means that rates of SSP need to be set very carefully. SSP for those earning under the current £118 a week threshold need to be low enough that there is a strong incentive for them to turn up to work, while being sufficient that people with long-term conditions feel able to return to the workplace in the first place.

“At the same time, the government needs to ensure that the proposed sick pay rebate for small businesses is set at a level that means that the social security costs of long-term health conditions are not simply transferred from the government to individual employers,” he said.

Dr Will Ponsonby, president of the Society of Occupational Medicine said: “We welcome these proposals to invest in occupational health. It makes sense to facilitate investment in occupational health for small businesses and we urge the government to invest in occupational health professionals to allow this scale up to occur. We will continue to work collaboratively with the government with the aim of ensuring that new OH services are appropriately designed and funded.”

Dr Anne de Bono, president of the Faculty of Occupational Medicine said: “We support the consultation’s emphasis on investment in training in occupational medicine, which is desperately needed to provide the quality OH offer to employees that our workplaces require. Employee health and wellbeing contributes to successful business performance and we know that highly effective companies commit to a culture of health.”

The consultation closes on 7 October.

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