• ‘Wellbeing days’ and 52 weeks’ sick pay among ideas to tackle £9bn ill-health bill

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  • 17 Feb 2017
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MP blasts plans, but experts welcome IPPR’s innovations to help more employees stay in work

Organisations must place wellbeing on a par with sickness in an effort to tackle the UK’s spiralling sickness absence rate, the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) has said, as it unveiled a range of innovative ideas including ‘wellbeing days’ and a large-scale extension of sick leave.

In its new report on long-term sickness absence, the IPPR estimated that 460,000 people transition from work to sickness and disability benefits a year, with employers paying £9bn a year for sick pay and associated costs. It calculated that the government spends an additional £14.5bn on support allowance. If sickness absence rates continued to spiral, the IPPR predicted that Britain's sickness benefits bill would rise to almost £17bn by the end of the decade.

Because mental ill-health is one of the leading causes of heightened sickness absence, tackling the increase in claims for mental health conditions must be a priority for policymakers and employers alike, the IPPR said. As well as promoting more open communication around mental ill-health, the IPPR suggested that a new ‘fit pay’ payment be introduced to allow employees to temporarily reduce their hours – and stay in work – if they suffer a physical or mental health condition.

“More and more people are suffering from mental health conditions in work,” said Joe Dromey, senior research fellow at the IPPR. “We’re calling for employers and the state to do more to keep people well in work. Our proposal for fit pay will do just that, helping employees who develop a health or mental health condition to manage their condition and stay in touch with work.”

The think tank also recommended that the government extends statutory sick pay to 52 weeks, to reflect the prevalence of complex and long-term health conditions that often exceed the existing 28-week limit. It said a growing number of employers have introduced ‘wellbeing days’ that can be taken by employees at extremely short notice or on the day itself, unlike regular periods of leave that must be booked in advance.

Conservative MP Steve Baker publicly rejected the IPPR’s recommendations: “Whoever suggested ultra short-notice chill-out days can’t have ever run anything in their life,” he said. “It must be nice on planet IPPR.” But other experts have applauded the report’s efforts to confront widespread issues around wellbeing in the UK.

“The findings from the IPPR are valuable and welcome, although many of the issues they raise are not news to those who work on the frontline in the health at work sector,” said Charlotte Cross, director of the Better Health at Work Alliance. “That the fit for work service is limited in scope and engagement with its target audience has been known for some time, for example, so it’s good to have these issues publicly acknowledged by a think tank in a way that could provoke the government to take decisive action.

“Investment in a proper health at work structure is an important thing to advocate, and we agree with the recommendations that the government should adapt statutory sick pay and introduce a fit pay scheme to better reflect the shape of modern ill-health and absence.”

Dr Clare Gerada, former chair of the Royal College of GPs, said: “For too long we have seen supporting health and mental health as the responsibility only of hardworking GPs and the wider NHS, ignoring the vital role employers could and should play.

“Employers need to play their part both in promoting the health and wellbeing of their workforce, and in supporting people back to work when they fall ill.”

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Comments (4)
  • On first thought the "well-being days" do seem to fly in the face of actually trying to run a business....however, on reflection, if you can positively impact on someone's well-being by being lenient when appropriate and allowing an employee a breather, then this might stop a prolonged period of absence in the future, which will ultimately impact further and heavier on the productivity of a business and it's ability to hit targets or meet customer demand.

    Having not read the actual commentary around the "well-being days" I am imagining some sort of common sense approach to operational requirements is still sought - or for there to be a pre-existing conversation of a condition / problem for these days to be invoked.

    It's good to know that someone is thinking about trying to tackle these issues from a different angle.

  • As an employer we already do everything we can to try to get employees back to work. Employees tell us that doctors will sign them off work without hesitation. We have written to doctors to ask if we can assist our employees back to work and it has taken in excess of four weeks to get a reply. Doctors reports take six weeks and really do not address our questions. On one occasion I did get a fit for work note and the doctor had stated that "we were not to contact the employee as he was finding it stressful".

    We could do with occupational health that supports a couple of local companies who get to know us and the work that we do.

  • Successive Governments progressively over a period of years have shifted the responsibility for the wellbeing of UK residents to business; businesses already contribute massively to the wellbeing of UK residents through business taxation; employers national insurance; business rates; sick pay; pension contributions; this has resulted in an ever increasing squeeze on business profit margins; putting business owners under ever increasing pressure which in turn transmits through their workforces which in turn causes more stress; more sick leave and ergo more cost to the business.

    The recommendations in this article will work wonderfully well in a utopian society in our reality they will serve to do nothing more than increase the electrified spiral of pressure.

    I notice these recommendation do not come with costings or management structures or recommendations as to where the money will come from to fund them.

    When people wanted a job in the rational past they would offer their skills and expect a payment in return and a safe place to work.

    Will the future of running a business and employing people morph into taking on the wellbeing of the whole family and all their relatives.

  • Yet again employers and taxpayers are expected to foot the bill. Steve Baker is absolutely right. Short notice 'well being' absence would cause massive disruption to businesses like ours who support vulnerable members of the community and who rely on their carers arriving on time. With good people management including employee focused welfare policies, counselling and sickness/attendance monitoring systems these proposals are unnecessary and if introduced are likely to be abused.