Government Review of Sickness Absence

The Government has recently announced a new review into the sickness absence system in the UK. According to the DWP , ‘ The independent review, jointly chaired by David Frost, Director General of the British Chambers of Commerce and Dame Carol Black, National Director for Health and Work, will explore radical new ways on how the current system can be changed to help more people stay in work and reduce costs.’

I’ve got a sense of deja vue. I thought that was what Dame Carol and the Health Work and Wellbeing programme had been tasked with in 2005 – that’s six years ago.  I still don’t know what effect this programme has had, as no performance indicators have ever been published.

Massive figures are quoted in the DWP press release such as working age ill health costing the economy £100 billion of which £30 to 40 billion are attributed to mental health problems.

How do we arrive at these figures? We rely on small sample absence surveys such as those from the CBI and CIPD and then try and extrapolate them across employment as a whole. Let’s be honest, we just don’t know. There’s still 25% of employers who don’t even record or monitor absence.  

If the costs to the economy really are that great and the bulk of those costs fall on the public purse through sick pay, NHS treatment costs and welfare benefits, isn’t this a good time to try and grasp the real extent of the problem.

I’m wondering whether it would be possible for every employer to be legally mandated to submit an annual return on sickness absence within its organisation.  A very simple return asking for % absence rate and several of the high ranking causes should not be too onerous to complete.  This could be submitted along with any number of employee related returns already required by HMRC. 

It would ensure that all employers took absence seriously. Having to report on something and make it available for wider scrutiny really does concentrate the mind. I know this is a generalism, but poor levels of sickness absence tend to be a sign of poor management.

Wouldn’t it be great to be able to review not just the financial performance of an organistion but also its performance in health and wellbeing, because the quality of the supply of its services and or products are so closely linked. Show me an organisation with poor sickness absence and I’ll guarantee that it has a poor culture and low productivity.

If we can bring this out into the open, then the results will be twofold.

First, we won’t continually be guessing what the real figures are. We will have the right data to prioritise the right financial or clinical interventions.

Second, making employers properly accountable will drive internal improvements reducing the need to spend any more of the public purse on this than is necessary.