A major survey of UK employers has made a clear link between investment in occupational health provision and reduced rates of absence among workers.
The study of more than 600 employers by manufacturers’ organisation EEF is believed to be one of the largest of its kind ever undertaken.
It found that, where there was OH support (whether internal or external), 39% of companies saw a reduction in short-term absence and 28% saw a reduction in long-term absence. Where there was no OH provision, these figures fell to 22% and 19% respectively.
The survey also showed that the UK’s manufacturing sector is leading the way in investing in OH.
A total of 65% of manufacturing companies provided some form of OH service, reported the EEF.
This was more than double the national average, of around 25-33%, estimated by the Health & Safety Executive (HSE), it said.
EEF chief medical adviser, professor Sayeed Khan, said: “These figures demonstrate a clear link between addressing sickness absence and improved business performance.
“Companies that still put this issue in the ‘too difficult’ tray would do well to sit up and take note of the very real benefits they would reap from tackling the problem,” he said.
Yet, when it came to promoting rehabilitation and getting people back to work, just 10% of companies saw government and HSE occupational health policies as the drivers for investing in this area.
They also complained that significant barriers to rehabilitation were still being raised by GPs (41%), along with slow access to NHS services.
The government, therefore, needed to address the training of health professionals and GPs as a priority if it wanted to raise their awareness of sickness absence and rehabilitation issues, said the EEF.
Other key findings included that the overall sickness absence rate among the companies polled was 3.1% in 2005 (or 7.1 working days lost per employee), slightly down on the 3.6% reported in 2004 (or 8.1 days lost per employee).
Management concerns about the cost of sickness absence was the primary reason for investing in and focusing on sickness absence, with “the general wellbeing of employees” coming second.
Companies reported that more than a third of their staff did not have a single episode of sickness absence.
Minor illness was cited as the main cause of short-term absence by 95% of the respondents, followed by back pain and other muscular/joint problems (51%).
Surgery and medical tests were the main cause of long-term absence (45%) followed by back problems (40%), non-work-related injuries (26%) and stress (24%).
Employers also reported using specialist OH or other consultancies rather than their GP.