In today’s world, employers are expected to play a more significant role in supporting their employees’ health and well-being. With the NHS struggling to manage the increasing number of individuals seeking medical assistance, employees are looking to their employers for support. Long-term sickness leave is a growing concern for businesses, with the latest data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) revealing record numbers off work due to long-term sickness.

The ONS data highlights that 2.52 million people were off work on long-term sick leave in the three months to January 2023. This is a 2.6% quarter-on-quarter and 7.9% year-on-year increase, making it the highest since record-keeping began in 1993.

Long-term sickness is often caused by back or neck problems, mental illness, nervous disorders, and progressive illnesses such as cancer. Although the government has introduced measures to address some of these issues, employers also have a crucial role to play in mitigating the impact of long-term absenteeism. Employers can take proactive measures such as reviewing their working practices and aligning them with HR policies to support their employees.

Five strategies to help reduce long-term sickness:

1. Ensure a robust absence policy is in place

Businesses need to establish a clear absence management policy that outlines the notification procedures and who is responsible for managing absence. It should provide guidance on policies and procedures, including flexibility for different conditions, individual circumstances and returning to work on a phased basis. It should specify the information employees need to provide, such as details about their condition, their expected absence duration and if they need to provide a Fit Note. A good system can help businesses to track, record, and report absences, and identify trends so appropriate action can be taken to manage absence levels.

2. Use Occupational Health

In the spring budget, Chancellor Jeremy Hunt announced that he would be exploring the role of occupational health in the workplace, recognising its importance in helping people return to work. Many firms already have access to an occupational health provider, and it’s crucial to take advantage of this resource.

To make the most of this opportunity, it’s essential to understand the criteria for referring employees and ensure that line managers are aware of it so that they can set expectations with employees when they hit certain milestones of absence. Companies should also consider who is responsible for making referrals and when a referral should be made, as well as what information should be included in the referral.

Providing comprehensive details about what has been tried, what worked and what didn’t, the employee’s condition, and their role is critical. The more information provided, the higher the quality of the response back from the Occupational Health provider. By doing this, businesses can receive valuable insights into the employee’s situation, including any recommendations for adjustments that can help them return to work more quickly.

By utilising occupational health services, businesses can effectively manage employee absence and ensure that employees receive the support they need to return to work as soon as possible.

3. Train your line managers

Line managers are on the front line working with employees and will be the ones liaising with absent employees, so it’s important to equip them with the right skills. Providing absence management training for line managers is therefore essential which should include spotting the early signs of illness such as stress or anxiety which could lead to mental health disorders. Also find out what additional support they may need such as how to handle difficult conversations with staff.

4. Promote Private Medical Policies (PMI)

It is essential for employers to inform their employees about the diagnosis and treatment options available to them through their private medical policies (PMI) and how to access them for faster treatment. For businesses that do not currently offer PMI, it could be worthwhile to consider implementing it in the future. Similarly, for businesses that already offer PMI, extending it to more members of the workforce could prove beneficial. By promoting PMI, businesses can provide their employees with access to timely and high-quality medical care, which can help reduce the duration of sick leave and increase productivity.

5. Do your policies offer Added Value Services?

Many firms may not be aware of the additional services included in Group Income Protection policies that could benefit their employees. These services include early intervention support to assist employees in returning to work more quickly by providing rehabilitation support. Physiotherapy, cognitive behavioural therapy, and other mental health therapies are also accessible through these policies, and it’s advisable to use them well before the end of the deferred period and no later than halfway through it. Moreover, virtual GPs, app-based support, and Employee Assistance Programmes are frequently included in policies and can be used pre or post-absence.

To make employees aware of these available services and how to access them, communication is vital. Returning to work after a long absence can be challenging, so businesses should consider reaching out to their employees early on in their absence. This is the most critical time, and any interventions they offer are more likely to be successful in ensuring a return to work.

To address this issue, businesses should embed a well-designed absence management strategy and integrate it into their company culture. It’s also important to review the overall health and wellbeing strategy to ensure it’s suitable for the post-COVID world to help prevent employees from getting sick in the first place. By providing employees with the necessary support and resources, businesses can help them return to work more quickly and maintain their productivity.

Emma Capper
UK Wellbeing Leader at Howden Employee Benefits & Wellbeing | Website | + posts

Emma Capper is the UK Wellbeing Leader at Howden Employee Benefits & Wellbeing