Looking ahead to the new sickness absence review – keeping people in work

On 17 February 2011 the Government called for a major review of the sickness absence system in Great Britain in order to help combat the staggering £100 billion that working age ill health costs the economy every year. The independent review, jointly chaired by David Frost, Director General of the British Chambers of Commerce, and Dame Carol Black, National Director for Health and Work, will explore new ways in which the current system can be changed to help more people stay in work and reduce costs.

Each year around 150 million working days are lost in the UK to sickness absence of which over 25% is longer-term absence, a proportion of which ultimately leads to worklessness and reliance on benefits.

The scope of the independent review of sickness absence, which is due to be published in late summer 2011, is to:

  • explore how the current sickness absence system could be changed to help people stay in work and reduce overall costs;
  • examine whether the balance of these costs are appropriately shared between the state, individuals and employers;
  • make tangible recommendations for system change;
  • ensure that recommendations for change are consistent with promoting private sector growth and minimising burdens on business, in particular, small and medium-sized businesses.

Under the current system employers bear the costs of short-term sickness with the State (and ultimately the taxpayer) absorbing the cost of longer-term ill-health. Over 300,000 people leave work each year to claim sickness-related benefits, which makes up around half the total flow on to Employment and Support Allowance (ESA). Once out of work these people face an even greater risk of their health deteriorating further, and the potential of themselves and their families falling into poverty. Ministers are determined to end this vicious cycle and are clear that in these difficult economic times, the country cannot afford to continue to bear these costs.

One important remit of the review will be to examine what tends to work well elsewhere in the world, especially in Europe, and what lessons the UK could learn or implement. Some countries are more focused on encouraging employers to take occupational health advice very early on, which would help facilitate return-to-work and encourage people to take account of their health conditions. The Health for Work Adviceline (which was awarded further funding on the same day in February 2011 after a successful pilot programme) plays an important role in this regard, by allowing employers to quickly and easily access expert advice on employee health issues to reduce their impact on the organisation and the individual – www.health4work.nhs.uk (0800 0 77 88 44).

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