05 Mar 2024
by Louise Bloomfield

According to the Office for National Statistics, sickness absence rates are at a record high. Figures from February to April 2023 show that the proportion of people who are economically inactive mainly due to long-term sickness is up 6.3 per cent (or 580,000 people) over the latest four years, to 2.55  million.

Common work-related health problems include headaches, back problems, musculoskeletal disorders and stress.

There are clear economic and social benefits to reducing absence from work due to long term sickness. Employers can do more to prioritise worker health and reduce absenteeism.

Research shows only 45% of workers in Great Britain have access to occupational health (OH) services. The Government is conscious that these figures of OH cover are much lower than in other countries that have legislated to make the provision of OH a legal requirement, where figures are over 75% coverage.

Unsurprisingly it is in small and medium-sized enterprises where support is less widespread. Government data shows that 92% of larger organisations offer some form of OH support, however, this drops to around 18% when considering smaller employers.

Government consultation

To facilitate improvement, the Government launched two consultations on 20 July 2023 on how to tackle economic inactivity due to long-term sickness.

The first consultation, the Working Better Consultation, focused on ways to improve the uptake of OH provision and to tackle the record high numbers of people on long-term sickness.

The second consultation, the Tax Incentives for Occupational Health Consultation, focused on how the tax system can support employers to increase the provision of OH services for their employees.

On 22 November 2023, the Department for Work and Pensions published its response to the Working Better Consultation.

The DWP confirmed its intention to take forward these actions:

  • Explore a set of measures to further drive increased OH take-up among employers and develop a long-term strategic OH workforce approach to build a multi-disciplinary work and health workforce. 
  • Support the development of a voluntary minimum framework for quality OH provision. The voluntary framework will aim to set out the minimum level of OH intervention that employers could adopt to help improve employee health at work and will be tailored to differing business sizes.
  • Explore whether Government should develop new voluntary national workplace health and disability standards to provide best practice guidance for employers to support people with health conditions and disabilities to start, stay and succeed in work.
  • Explore options for a potential small and medium enterprise (SME) group purchasing framework supported by a digital marketplace. This initiative would aim to enable SMEs to pool their purchasing power to benefit from economies of scale.

Interestingly, the Government has drawn back from its initial proposal to make OH provision mandatory for employers or introduce automatic enrolment for OH.

The Government has said it is continuing to explore the case for providing further support to employers through the tax system and will respond to the Tax Incentives Consultation in due course.

Employer duties

Employers already have well established duties under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 to ensure so far as reasonably practicable the health, safety and welfare of its employees.

There has always been focus on providing safe premises for work and a responsibility on the employer to be aware of the risks of their workplace and undertake risk assessments on that basis.

In recent years, there has been greater focus by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) on the risks to health and welfare at work in view of the number of working days being lost through long term sickness absence.

No specific legislation deals with stress at work; however, this falls under the general responsibility of employers to ensure, so far as reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare of employees.

In addition, if health issues and high levels of absenteeism are identified at places of work, employers may find the HSE taking an interest The HSE will assess if suitable and sufficient OH support is available to mitigate the risks of ill health, and could take enforcement action, including issuing improvement notices and bringing prosecutions.

The measures to create a healthier workforce and reduce absenteeism contained in the consultation response will clearly come at a cost to employers if they engage with the measures outlined, albeit we may still see tax incentives which will help. However, the cost and risks of long-term ill-health is a much greater cost to employers, communities, individuals, and the economy.