White Paper outlines employer health role

The Government is putting pressure on employers to take responsibility for the health of the nation.

The Choosing Health White Paper dedicates a 20-page chapter to the connection between health and work – the first time the Government has drawn up comprehensive guidelines for employers.

The Department of Health believes two million people suffer an illness they believe has been caused by, or made worse by, their work.

But aside from the ban on smoking in the workplace, the White Paper is marked in its lack of compulsion on employers – opting instead for general advice and numerous case studies.

Ben Willmott, employee relations adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, called for more specifics on how the suggestions could be applied.

“This is an issue that the Government needs to develop a coherent strategy on,” he said. “Employers are improving how they manage well-being issues, but it is still quite a marginal concern for the majority of employers.

“The Government needs to come up with some specific suggestions, especially regarding how SMEs can come to terms with getting access to occupational health when there may be cost issues,” he said.

The White Paper calls on employers not to wait until staff are fully recovered from sickness before they try to get them back to work as “inactivity compounds poor health”. It recommends that “healthcare professionals, wherever they work, need to start from the point of view that getting people back to work is likely to benefit their long-term health”.

To aid this process, the White Paper encourages employers to use temporary job modifications to help people back, even if they are not able to do their usual job.

This will require building a three-way partnership between health professionals, individuals and employers, according to the White Paper.
However, it also warns employers that work can be detrimental to staff health if they do not have sufficient job control and have an imbalance between effort and reward.

Warren Wayne, an employment lawyer at Bird & Bird said employers needed to be careful of breaching legal duties to staff.

“When bringing a staff member back to work early, employers need to think about the duty of care to the employee who is ill as well as its duty to other employees. There is a duty of care on employers not to damage employee health. There is also an implied duty in an employment contract, which says that employers must provide a safe system of work. This could lead to claims for constructive dismissal.”

The White Paper also urges companies to focus on the root causes of stress by reducing job monotony through the use of good HR practices. 

For guidance on how to analyse sickness absence data, go to  www.personneltoday.com/indepth   or visit www.personneltoday.com/24017.article to find out how to manage the health of your staff

Work and health in numbers

– 1.38 million – the number of unemployed in the UK, the lowest since 1975

– 2 million – the number of employees who suffer an illness they believe has been caused by, or made worse by, their work

– 3.74 million – how many staff work longer than the 48-hours laid down by the Working Time Directive

– 40 million – the amount of working days that are lost each year to occupational ill health and injuries

– 11bn – the cost of sickness absence to employers, which amounts to 16 per cent of salary costs

– 8 hours per week – how much more productive healthy workers are than unhealthy ones

– 10-20 per cent – the potential reduction in absence if companies run health and well-being programmes

Source: Department of Health/Towers Perrin HR consultancy

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