This week sees the launch of our eighth sickness absence and rehabilitation survey. The EEF – Westfield Health survey is informed by detailed responses from more than 450 EEF member companies. It is particularly timely, both in providing an early indication of how the fit note system is working in practice and in providing evidence for the independent review of sickness absence commissioned by the Department of Work and Pensions.
Sickness absence continues to decline
The headline news is the continuing downward trend in sickness absence. As the chart below show, since 2007 there has been a steady decline from an average 6.7 days absence per [3%] employee, per year to just 5.0 days [2.2%] in 2010. During the same period the proportion of employees taking no absence at all rose from 40% to 45%. The idea of a general ‘sick note culture’ does a great disservice to many employees and employers.
Fit note – a good start but more to do
In April 2010 the familiar sick note was retired and replaced by the new fit note, intended to improve communication between GPs and employers and so facilitate better and quicker rehabilitation. So how is it working?
It is easy to take a ‘glass half empty’ view of the results, with many employers yet to be convinced. However over 20% indicated that fit notes had already helped them to reduce sickness absence. That is an impressive start and a good foundation on which we must continue to build.
Government needs to continue to drive a culture change amongst GPs with training and the roll-out of an electronic fit note. Employers need to be proactive in making local GPs aware of the adjustments they can make to help early return - our survey found that doing so significantly improved the quality of fit notes received. We are currently developing some materials to help employers improve communication with their local GPs on this important subject.
Managing absence works
As the chart below illustrates, there are wide variations in absence rates between companies. Whilst company size and the make-up of the workforce have an effect, the actions taken to manage sickness absence are key.
The survey found a clear correlation between those companies with strategies in place to train managers in sickness absence and tougher absence targets, with falling absence rates. More than two thirds are now achieving their targets compared to half in 2007 whilst those companies who trained their managers are one third more likely to reduce their sickness absence.
There continue to be some positive signs in rehabilitation, The proportion of companies reporting barriers to rehabilitation such as waiting for treatment, continued to decline. Those identifying no barriers had an average absence rate of 3.8 days compared to 5.4 days for those experiencing barriers. The decline in the proportion identifying GPs as a barrier, from 39% in 2006 to 26% in 2010 is particularly positive; the fit note can improve this further.
As the chart below shows, one quarter (24%) of companies have paid for treatment themselves, whilst employees in a further 15% were covered by medical insurance. It seems likely that private provision may prove a rising trend as the UK comes out of recession, and if health service reforms create public uncertainly about the speed of access to NHS services.
Ensuring that health service reforms do not compromise NHS provision is an important priority. But Government can also send an important message to employers by removing tax from private treatment. At present interventions such as physiotherapy, provided by employers, are taxed as a benefit in kind if the condition results from a non-work cause. Removing that would be modest in terms of lost revenue but would send a clear signal about the part employers can play in speeding up recovery and keeping their workforce healthy.
This is just a taste of the survey findings. We, and Westfield Health, our partner for the survey will blogging in some more detail on key themes over the next few weeks.
EEF members can take advantage of our cash plan, delivered by Westfield Health. Our simple and innovative corporate healthcare plan costs from as little as £1 a week per employee. Supporting rehabilitation as well as providing a valuable benefit to employees. Find out more here.