Sickness absence: the health of the nation

Photo by a.drian via Flickr, under Creative Commons Licence

Photo by a.drian via Flickr, under Creative Commons Licence

In the current environment of job insecurity, increased pressure at work and the subsequent increases in stress and stress related issues, occupational health services are more indispensable than ever.

Occupational health is a term we’ve all heard and one that we’re all very familiar with, but is it one that we actually fully understand? One definition of the term occupational health might be “the promotion and maintenance of the physical and mental wellbeing of all staff and the prevention of ill health” and it can be viewed almost as a middle-ground between the medical profession and the world of work.

Most employers are experts in their own field, but aren’t specialists in health. However, occupational health professionals have an understanding of working environments and health, and how the two interrelate. This means that they are able to take an unbiased view of working situations in order to decide whether there are risks to a person’s health.

In terms of its aims, occupational health could be described as follows:

  • Preventing work-related ill health
  • Promoting the wellbeing of workers
  • Ensuring that the work environment and work practices are assessed and modified to the needs of individuals, where necessary
  • Managing health-related risks in the workplace.

Employers can’t be expected to engage in good occupational health practices for purely altruistic reasons, however organisations have a duty to look after the people they employ while they are at work and these responsibilities are set out in legislation too.

Those organisations that don’t protect the health and wellbeing of their workers may face costly legal comebacks that can damage their reputations. Aside from fulfilling legal requirements, the most tangible and measurable benefit of occupational health services is an increase in staff productivity. It’s a simple premise: healthy, happy employees will be more productive; so looking after workers’ health is paramount to ensuring organisational success.

Let’s not forget that employees stand to gain from occupational health too. People want to work in safe environments – even those who love their jobs would not want to work in an environment that poses uncontrolled risks to their health. If risks are managed at work then people can continue to work safely and benefit from some of the broader benefits of working, such as financial standing, and improved self-esteem and self-confidence.

Sickness absence
This is all very well, but what about sickness absence, which continues to be such a major drain on the economy? After a small drop in absence levels in 2012, absence is back up to the levels observed in 2010 and 2011 at an average of 7.6 days per employee, according to the CIPD/Simplyhealth Absence Management Survey in 2013. The direct costs of sickness absence amounted to £14bn across the UK economy in 2012 (CBI’s Absence and workplace health survey 2013) and there are a number of indirect costs associated with sickness absence too, such as lost productivity or reduced customer service, which are harder to quantify and assign a cost to.

Sickness absence is the bane of many an organisation, particularly smaller ones. It is difficult for employers to arrange temporary cover at short notice (especially for specialist tasks) when employees are off work. Costs start to rocket as others are drafted in to cover the absent employee, which increases their workload and pressure, disrupts the workflow and potentially causes them to miss deadlines.

Subsequently, morale is threatened, particularly if those remaining at work feel that the person’s absence is an issue that’s not being addressed by management. Or the increased pressure on colleagues can cause accidents or more absence due to workload-induced illness.

Where good workplace wellness programmes are in place, however, they have been shown to offer a number of benefits, including a reduction in rates of sickness absence, reduced medical costs, productivity improvements and happier, healthier and more loyal employees.

Fairness, dignity and respect
Ill health cannot always be avoided, so those who have health issues should be treated fairly, with dignity and respect – a premise that is at the heart of both the Equality Act 2010 and the global standards for respecting human rights.

Workers have a right to an inclusive and safe working environment, and employers should consider workplace adjustments for staff who need them. Employers and managers should be trained to deal with attendance issues, which need to be dealt with efficiently and sympathetically in order to avoid them impacting on others in the organisation.

As we’ve seen, absence levels are on the rise, yet it’s interesting to note that the number of fatal workplace accidents is actually declining. According to HSE data, the number of workers fatally injured in the workplace fell from 172 to 148, however, annual fatality statistics shouldn’t be viewed in isolation, but in relation to trends over a number of years.

When compared to figures over the past five years the figures appear to be levelling off rather than actually falling. One major factor contributing to increased sickness levels is mental ill health, including stress, depression and anxiety, which are thought to be responsible for 91m lost working days each year, more than for any other illness, according to an ACAS report in 2012.

Stress can build up over time and can manifest itself in a range of illnesses if it’s left unchecked. It’s a difficult issue to tackle because it often goes unnoticed and can cause associated health issues almost before sufferers have acknowledged their stress.

In this uncertain economic climate, in which organisations and workers are under increased pressure to work long hours and to constantly perform at the peak of their ability, it is no wonder that stress issues, stress-related health problems and sickness absence associated with stress are on the rise and that occupational health services are arguably more indispensable than ever before.

This article appeared in ‘Safety Management‘ from the British Safety Council and was written by Renie Shaw, Marketing Manager of the Health for Work Adviceline. The Health for Work Adviceline offers free advice and guidance to organisations experiencing work health issues.

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One Response to Sickness absence: the health of the nation

  1. Wayne Pearson says:

    I work for the local council and I have suffered from mental health and it been work related and. And a ll I get is threats bey saying I just wanted to know if they can do this