Are new sickness proposals fit for business?

There’s been a cautious welcome from employers this week to the recommendations in the government’s Sickness and Absence Review.

The report was commissioned as part of a drive to help UK plc tackle the crippling problem of long term sickness absence, estimated to cost the economy a total of £60bn a year.

One of its key recommendations is that decisions about whether employees with long term health issues are fit to return to work should be taken out of the hands of GPs. It’s suggested that an Independent Assessment Service be set up instead, so that GPs and employers can refer patients for more expert advice.

The aim is that this will help to overcome a key problem with the current Fit Note system – namely that many GPs simply don’t have the time, confidence or sufficient training to make recommendations about the feasibility of patients returning to work. By their own admission, they often don’t know enough about the detail of an individual’s job or working environment to make an informed decision – and so opt for the ‘safe’ approach of signing them off sick.

Expert independent assessors, the report argues, would be in a better position to advise about was whether an individual was fit for work or could perhaps return if some adaptations were made to their role.

It remains to be seen whether the government will accept the report’s recommendations (it’s expected to respond in February next year) – but on the surface the proposals would appear to spell good news for employers.

SMEs in particular need help with effectively managing long term absence. One person off sick in an already hard-pressed small team can have an enormous impact.  Employers are effectively somewhere between a rock and a hard place. They want to be sympathetic and support their employees – but at the same time they need bums on seats in order to get the job done and grow the business.

Of course, it’s not just those with on-going health problems who cause a problem for small companies. Long term absence is easily visible. There are a few people in the business who haven’t been at their desks for some time, everyone knows who they are and arrangements can be put in place to cover their work.

The impact of short-term sickness, however, is more difficult to assess – and impossible to plan for. The odd day off here or there can add up to a great deal of time lost overall.  Projects get behind, customer service standards slip and colleagues get fed up having to cover for the persistent ‘offenders’ in their team.

There are now sophisticated HR software systems available to help businesses track both types of absence. They can help companies build a clearer picture of where problems lie and how much it is costing them – and can help the business take a more proactive stance to managing absence overall.

It’s a cost effective way of keeping on top of the problem – although sadly the reality in most businesses is that the issue is either left to drag on, because employers are worried they will get it wrong and end up in a tribunal – or they simply try and find a way to manage the individual out.

One concern about the government’s proposed new system is that it could create more red tape for employers, who will have to provide detailed information about job roles to assessors so that they can make the right decision.

Going through the process could, however, be worth the effort if it helps a business hang on to a talented employee who for the sake of a few small changes to working hours or responsibilities could continue to make a valuable contribution.

Perhaps most importantly, the proposed changes are likely to speed the whole decision-making process up. The current system is long and unwieldy and it can take months for a decision about whether a person is fit for work or not.

Research shows that the longer an individual is off sick, the more unlikely it is they will ever return to work. A rapid and properly informed decision will make sure employers know where they stand and will also reduce stress and uncertainty for the employees involved.

So what’s your take? Will the proposals help or hinder your business? We look forward to hearing your views.

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