Understanding the health and work link

Educating and training line managers is critical to cutting absence rates and preventing unnecessary long-term sick leave. This was the key theme in a conference on managing absence organised by IRS.

Joy Reymond, head of rehabilitation services at income protection services insurer Unum, said line managers needed to understand health risks in the workplace. She advised “educating front-line management about ergonomics and safe, healthy work practices”.

Another recommendation from the speakers was to maintain contact with an individual while they are on sick leave.

“The purpose is not to harass people but to let them know their absence is noted and that their presence is important,” said Dr Lucy Wright, director of clinical services at Atos Healthcare.

Dr Su Wang, group head of health at Royal Mail, said employers should not rely on simply contacting people when a trigger point (a specific amount of time on sick leave) has been reached.

“I think triggers are helpful but they shouldn’t be the be-all and end-all,” said Wang. “Dialogue with employees, conversations with individuals and addressing issues – that will help them attend more. But managers should use discretion.”

Geoff Davies, chairman of the Commercial Occupational Health Providers Association, added that management discretion should be backed up by making absence part of performance measurement. “Management discretion is fine but you need accountability,” he said.

Having an individual responsible for co-ordinating return to work was crucial, said Reymond. “This is quite often absent in companies in the UK – having someone who sees it as their primary responsibility [to deal with] return to work makes all the difference.”

She said this form of case management would become an issue once the ‘Fit for work service’ recommended by Dame Carol Black was piloted. Black’s recommendations raise issues about who will deliver the service, what skills and training they need, said Reymond.

Several speakers spoke of the importance of making the business case for absence intervention using key performance indicators that managers understand.

“Put it into language that managers understand, look at sickness absence from a business perspective. For example, for a population of 200,000 employees, if 10% are off sick, 10,000 are not at work but being paid, and that’s equivalent to 107 directors being idle, or three large mail centres not working,” said Wang.

Royal Mail uses business unit comparisons, showing weekly absence costs and targets over the course of the year.

Speakers also advised HR and OH professionals to capture and monitor absence data.

“As the economy moves into a difficult financial phase you need everyone working who can. Monitor and capture data, identify patterns,” advised Wright.

“Every organisation that produces a product that needs to be in a certain place at a certain time, these organisations know who is in work – manufacturing, logistics. It’s very common to find in service industries that there is very poor absence management,” said Wright.

Wellbeing and health promotion interventions could have benefits for health and safety, said Wang. In a staff survey, 38% said that changes to a healthier lifestyle would change their attitude to health and safety.

“Simple health interventions lower absence and also show 50% fewer accidents – this is new,” said Wang.

Reymond agreed that a “safety-committed culture” could help cut absence.

Royal Mail is also offering health checks not only for employees, but for their families in a pilot in Bolton. “This is OH going beyond OH,” said Wang. The health checks measure weight, blood pressure, cholesterol and check urine.

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