A new breed of outsourced sickness absence management services is coming into the marketplace. Will they threaten the role of OH professionals, or be seen as a partner?
The value of a coherent absence management system is often underestimated by employers. They fail to appreciate that absences due to interpersonal conflict and capability issues are management problems, rather than clinical ones; that if referrals are made earlier, then absences can be managed more effectively, and that resolving employee absence can often require a multi-disciplinary approach, of which OH is a key part.
Although still in its infancy, the outsourced approach to sickness absence could have some interesting implications for existing OH services within organisations. It could be argued that there is a real opportunity for an OH department to become embedded with the newly-emerging approach to the management of absence and employee health, facilitated by the use of this new breed of outsourced sickness absence management services. The potential gains for OH services are improvements in tactical efficiency, linkage to a more readily-measurable, bottom-line effect, and a clear role within a more coherent strategy for employee health.
There are some differences in the profiles of the six or so suppliers of outsourced absence management services. Some suppliers insist that employees call in sick from the first day of absence, and line managers are then notified by e-mail or telephone. Others notify by fax or text - but the Data Protection Act (1998) implications of this approach should be carefully assessed. Some providers only want to get involved after seven or 14 days' continuous absence, when staff are called by telephone as the entry point for a nurse-led telephonic management service. While this may increase the use of OH input, the boundaries and interactions with any existing OH services will need to be carefully defined.
With 'day-one' service providers, one key service issue concerns deciding who is best placed to take the calls. Some have 24-hour contact centres manned by experienced listeners who gather information, while others have limited opening times but prefer nurses to take the calls as a direct lead in to case management activity. In theory, the nurse-led approach, although limited in accessibility, should be the more valuable service, but there are some strong counter-arguments.