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Tackling long term sickness absence in the manufacturing industry

Britain’s manufacturing industry accounts for half of all UK exports, employing in excess of 2.6 billion people. Yet with wages 13% higher than the economy average and pay growth rising faster than in the rest of the economy for the last two years, the industry is still not immune from issues of sickness absence in the work place.

A recent survey by the EEF, sponsored by Jelf Employee Benefits (the EEF Survey) has found that whilst overall absence in the manufacturing industry remains low at 2.2%, there has been a significant rise in long term absence in the last five years.

The most common causes of long term sickness are musculoskeletal problems and absence as a result of medical tests, investigations and surgery. However, mental health and stress are creeping up as a serious issue, becoming the most common cause of absence in survey respondents employing more than 500 people.

What does this mean for business?

The average sick pay cost per employee is £374. This equates to a total cost of £1billion for the manufacturing sector alone. In previous years, the CIPD’s survey found that manufacturing and production organisations were least likely to include mental ill-health among their main causes of absence. This year’s findings show this is no longer the case. Between 2013 and 2014 the proportion of manufacturing and production organisations including mental ill-health among their main causes of long-term absence more than doubled for both manual (27% to 56%) and non-manual workers (23% to 60%). There has also been a small increase in those including it among their main causes of short-term absence. Survey respondents over the last few EEF surveys have consistently confirmed that the most difficult types of long-term sickness absences employers tackle in respect of workplace adjustments are stress and mental health problems. Therefore the guidance below focuses on early management and treatment of mental health issues but is applicable to all sickness absences.

According to the EEF Survey, many companies do not have systems in place to deal with long-term sickness absence. Companies therefore need to ensure that they have effective policies in place to deal with sickness absence and a more proactive approach to spotting potential absentees before problems occur.  This includes, amongst other things, consulting properly with staff on sickness absence and taking appropriate medical evidence at the right time.

What can you do?

Effective management of sickness absence involves striking a balance between providing effective support to employees with health problems and maintaining and enforcing efficient policies against those who appear to be taking advantage of sickness absence provisions. When dealing with long term sickness absence, employers should always consider whether an employee is or would be classed as disabled under the Equality Act 2010.

In most companies it will be the employee’s line manager who is best place to notice any changes in the employee and be aware of any prolonged or regular absence. Training is essential to help managers recognise signs, particularly of stress related mental illness. Employers should however not forget that their managers and board level staff may also suffer from the same issues. NICE guidance issued this month suggests 37% of line managers have undiagnosed depression. Therefore training of all employees to recognise the signs in themselves as well as others would be most effective.

Employers, particularly in manufacturing where health and safety is paramount, may also wish to incorporate mental health screening into their general health screening for all employees, ensuring a holistic approach to health and to promote the understanding that physical and mental wellbeing are interlinked.

Intervening at the right time, before long term absence occurs, is a skill. With the help of training and employee screening however, the likelihood of successful early intervention is vastly improved.

What to do next?

Think outside the box! A third of employers told EEF they relied on the NHS alone to manage absence. Whilst the Government’s new Fit for Work Scheme does aim to provide an occupational health assessment and a bespoke return to work plan, analytical evidence so far suggests that employers won’t see much improvement in practice.

Recent findings also suggest that GPs are taking the same approach to the Fit for Work Scheme as they did to the highly criticised Fit Note regime. This is not surprising given that the EEF Survey found only 12.3% of family Doctors had been trained in health and work (September 2014 census). Combine this with the EEF Survey finding that “only 23% of employers were found to provide GPs with information about work adjustments they can provide” (e.g. change to working hours or patters and physical environment) and the result is potentially worrying for employers.  What needs to happen is that those employers who intend to rely solely on the Fit to Work Scheme need to adopt a highly collaborative approach to work with the employee’s GP to stand any chance of a fair capability dismissal or to avoid a claim of failure to make reasonable adjustments (amongst other things).

This early insight into the Governments Fit For Work Scheme should give employers compelling impetus to utilize other available services. Data on more than 3,500 employees that used an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) in 2013 found the percentage that were struggling with workplace pressures fell from 51% before counselling, to just 5% afterwards. Additionally, the EEF Survey found that access to online counselling, which often comes as part of an Employee Assistance Program was the most significant benefit offered to reduce absence (71%).

Steve Herbert, Head of Benefits Strategy at Jelf Group Plc, would encourage all employers to look again at their existing benefits offerings to see if they already have access to services within their package which will help manage sickness absence better. Overall the take home message from the EEF survey is that all employers, but particularly those in the manufacturing industry, need to become more accustomed to utilising occupational health services, employee assistance programmes and wellbeing health checks to compliment effective internal return to work policies, rather than simply relying on the NHS to get their employees back to work as soon as possible.

How can you find out more?

For advice on workplace adjustments, managing sickness absence or any of the other issues raised above please contact any member of the BPE employment law team.

These notes have been prepared for the purpose of an article only. They should not be regarded as a substitute for taking legal advice.

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