Managing Employee Health and Absence: a conference review

A conference on managing employee health and absence, organised by XpertHR Events, took place on 23 November 2011. Employee wellbeing specialist Dr Bridget Juniper looks back on the topics covered.

The world economy continues to teeter on the brink, bringing with it a renewed determination to find ways to improve the productivity of working populations. In the UK, a new government initiative is about to focus on ways to reduce sickness absence, which is estimated to total 140 million days lost every year.

The costs of this to employer and the state are mind-boggling, with the former footing a bill for sick pay and associated costs of £9 billion per year and the latter having to outlay £13 billion annually on health-related benefits.

To tackle this problem, the Government funded an independent review of the sickness absence system, led by David Frost, the former director general of the British Chambers of Commerce, and Dame Carol Black, the Government’s health adviser. Their results and recommendations were published on 21 November 2011.

The main event

It was therefore timely that a conference looking at employee health and absence, hosted by organisers XpertHR Events, was held two days later. Entitled “Managing Employee Health and Absence”, with the strapline “practical strategies to reduce the cost of absence and improve the physical and mental wellbeing of your workforce”, 30 delegates gathered in central London to learn more about how they can tackle this problem.

A case study on North Yorkshire County Council showed how the organisation linked attendance to increments in grade; another from Trafford Housing Trust showed a more proactive, holistic approach. The audience also learned about progress on government-sponsored initiatives such as the Fit for Work Service pilot in Leicestershire, which suggested, encouragingly, that 80% of people were back to work within 12 weeks of the initial GP referral.

quotemarksMore than 80% of all sickness absence spells are short term and account for more than half of total working days lost.”

When looking at absence, there is a clear propensity to divide this into short-term absence – usually defined as up to one week – and long-term absence – those absences lasting more than four weeks. These two categories call for discernibly different approaches. The conference focused on long-term absence and what causes it. How to effect a return to work after a long period of absence, how to avoid legal claims and how to conduct fair ill-health-related dismissals were also examined.

If an indicator of what is most pressing to an audience is the number of questions asked of the speaker at the end of their presentation, then the long-term absence legal minefields around policies and procedures won the day convincingly. The consequences of getting the legalities wrong are sobering. Ending up in a tribunal with potential compensation payouts of some £80,000 per case was a stark warning to HR professionals who are tasked with the unenviable job of correctly advising managers and individuals on the right course of action.

Long and the short

According to the Black and Frost report, more than 80% of all sickness absence spells are short term and account for more than half of total working days lost. This ties in with the North Yorkshire County Council experience, where 52% of all absence was classed as short term. Research published earlier this year suggests that around 15% of days that workers take off owing to illness are not genuine.

According to the authors, this equates to 27 million “sickies”, costing £2.7 billion in 2009. Given these costs and the high proportion of short-term absence, surprisingly little air time at the conference was given to the dilemma of malingerers and spurious absence claims. While a number of references were made to Waddell and Burton’s sem­inal report Is work good for your health and wellbeing? (2006), which records the virtues of “good” work, the benefits of such practices and their link with short-term absence were somewhat under-explored during the day. Employers must look at long-term absence and, as evidenced by Black and Frost, it is an obvious area of reform. Fronting up to short-term absence is certainly more of a challenge, but the size of the prize is there to see.

The day’s agenda covered a number of key issues that were highly relevant to the challenges facing employers today. However, more tips and advice on short-term sickness could have provided a more balanced picture. Pardon the pun, but advice on practical strategies for short-term absence was conspicuous by its absence.

Dr. Bridget Juniper is head of Work and Well-Being Ltd, which specialises in the measurement of employee wellbeing and predictors of absence.

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