Sick Britain syndrome reaches epidemic level

Taking a ‘sickie’ has passed into the language as a necessary if undesirable
prop to modern living – its almost become acceptable to admit that there are
days when we feign illness just to find time to manage our private lives.

It is the exposed tip of an iceberg of ambiguity and twisted thinking about
illness, stress and incapacity at work. Despite there now being 2.7 million
people claiming incapacity benefit – a full two million more than 20 years ago
– we don’t really believe the numbers. What we think in our hearts is that it
is no more than a mass outbreak of feigned sick leave.

To those on the right, it is proof that the current welfare state creates a
dependency culture, that people are slacking, and that the whole system needs
tightening up. To the leftwingers, it provides yet more evidence that we have
to improve the welfare state – people are having to pretend to be sick to get
an adequate standard of living.

Few take the numbers at face value; yet 3,000 people move onto incapacity
benefit every week.

Either they always had a problem, or it became magnified by work. But
whatever the reason and whatever their original state of health, they are now
genuinely incapable.

It’s a problem for everyone; for those facing the psychological and social
trauma of accepting permanent disability; for the Government paying the benefit
and for the companies who have to suffer the cost of the transition from work
to incapacity benefit.

Last year, work and pensions minister Andrew Smith announced a drive to cut
the rising cost of incapacity payments. A pilot scheme this year, will
introduce mandatory interviews for new claimants, provide a one-off grant to
help the transition into work, and will include extra money for claimants who
take jobs paying less than £15,000 a year. People with more severe conditions
will be exempted.

UK employers spend up to 16 per cent of their pay bill each year managing
sickness absence. Up to 70 per cent of these costs are attributable to
long-term absence, which also accounts for more than 55 per cent of all working
days lost. If sickness within organisations could be reduced, stopping
long-term absence turning into incapacity, it would be a win-win situation for
all concerned.

Recent policy emphasis in the UK has been on how employers can intervene and
rehabilitate sick or injured employees – taking action early enough to break
the sequence of events leading to incapacity. For employers, this means early
intervention, looking at work practices and environments, adjusting work
conditions, and easing people back into work.

But while employers recognise the argument, they are daunted by the
implementation. Both employers and the Government need to think more broadly
about mutual support. But above all we need to open up this debate urgently and
frankly. It is emerging as one of every organisation’s – and society’s –
fastest growing problems.

By Will Hutton, Chief executive, The Work

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