Occupational health feels effects of economic downturn

The global downturn is being felt within occupational health as much as elsewhere in the economy, with employers putting staff under pressure to carry on working when ill, reports of rising levels of stress, anxiety and sickness, particularly in the City, and HR being forced to justify what it spends on workplace health.

Absence management firm FirstCare said it had logged a record 380,000 people calling in sick every day, with anxieties about jobs, family finance and the global economy triggering a nationwide leap in the numbers of people taking time off work.

At the same time, research by budget hotel chain Travelodge reported that three-quarters of employees say they are losing sleep because of concerns about the credit crunch.

Yet, conversely, research by health insurer HSA argued that fears about job security are prompting more employees to struggle into work when they are in fact ill, echoing research by insurer AXA-PPP in September, suggesting there has been a rise in presenteeism in the workplace.

More than four in 10 of 1,200 UK workers polled by HSA said they were less likely to take time off during the economic slowdown, with three-quarters of the 250 HR professionals surveyed agreeing this was likely to be case.

More worryingly, more than a third of the HR professionals also claimed their company encouraged employees to continue picking up e-mails and performing basic tasks while off sick. A further 15% admitted that, while they did not officially encourage staff to do this, it probably took place.

Three-quarters also said they were aware of “extreme working”, where employees continued to work through incapacity and illness rather than take a day off sick.

At a corporate level, the HSA research found that HR professionals were coming under increasing pressure to justify the choice and value of their healthcare benefits. But more positively, more than one in 10 employers polled also said they were planning to increase the range of benefits offered over the next 12 months.

Richard Halley, head of business-to-business sales at HSA, said: “It is apparent that companies are under pressure to scrutinise the healthcare benefits they offer and to invest in those schemes which offer the best value, combined with visible results.”

London private mental health hospital Capio Nightingale meanwhile, has said it has seen the number of people, many of them City workers, seeking advice for mental health disorders such as anxiety, depression and stress rise by a third in the past three months.

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