• International Workplace
  • 30 January 2007

Workplace Law FM Conference - Occupational health and absence issues

The idea of managing and investing in occupational health is one that is growing in importance for businesses.

Speaking yesterday (31 January) at Workplace Law’s 8th Annual Facilities Management Legal Update Conference, consultant David Woollcott highlighted that in the UK absence spells are becoming longer, with a rising trend for absences of more than one year.

Employee absence from work can be caused by anything from minor illnesses such as colds and headaches, to major illnesses such as stress and musculo-skeletal injuries. Non-medical causes range from personal crises and family issues to feeling undervalued or bullying/harassment.

In his session Woollcott spelt out the extent of the problem and the implications this has for business. In 2004/2005 two million people suffered from work-related ill health amounting to 35 million lost working days. According to the CBI’s annual absence survey the annual cost of absence is £13.2m, with direct costs per employee (sick pay, lost productivity etc.) of £531 and indirect costs (temporary staff, re-arranged shifts etc.) of £584 per employee.

Stress is one of the biggest causes of absence, with an average 12.8 million working days lost to stress, anxiety and depression.

Woollcott detailed a number of practical approaches employers can use to reduce absenteeism:

  • Value of managing staff attendance – Does your business live the idea “people are our greatest asset?” He highlighted that primary management responsibility should be about maximising attendance and that managing absence is a secondary supplementary responsibility. Proactive intervention, he pointed out, will uncover a problem, reduce absenteeism and is cost effective.
  • Manage your own data – Recording and analysing incidents of and reasons for absence within the organisation, and for each employee to identify patterns, is important.
  • Develop a strategy – Identify who is responsible for what. HR should develop relevant policies and carry out training that should be applied fairly by line mangers.
  • Policies and procedures – Woollcott highlighted a number of issues that should be addressed in any workplace policies such as: contact with an absent employee, back to work interviews and allowances for dentist etc. visits.
  • Roles of HR and line managers – including appropriate training and awareness raising - on how to manage absence and returns to work.
  • Return to work interviews – Woollcott pointed out that there are different approaches for back to work interviews depending on the length and type of absence. He also added it was an opportunity to confirm the employee health return, agree a plan of action and check for other issues.

On the subject of using an occupational health service Woollcott commented that it can often be a “shock to the system” to employees whose absence is not regular and reasons questionable, especially if they have to call a nurse from the service when they are ill rather than just contact their line manager.

He detailed a number of instances when using an occupational health service can be useful for an employer. Such as when: someone has a higher than average absence for related/unrelated reasons, someone has a pattern of absence connected to extended public and personal holidays, alcohol or drug abuse, ill health retirement or health adversely affected by work.

The session also identified a number of fundamental issues to do with occupation health which employers should remember, including: employers are not medical experts; GPs are advocates for employees; employers can’t obtain medical information without an employee's consent; employers should not base decision on “gut feeling” or take it as an opportunity to get rid of a troublesome employee; the Disability Discrimination Act can have a fundamental effect on employment decisions; and that fewer than one in five employees have access to OH.

Woollcott also looked in detail at the typical range of OH services, the OH process and the benefits for businesses of using an OH service.

He finished the session with the comment that, referring back to the information he had revealed to do with the cost to business of absence, a referral to an occupational health service will cost less than the cost of having an employee absent for one day.