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Issue:- 19 June 2014

Sickness rates in North West highest in the UK

THE North West officially has the highest sickness rates in the UK, according to the 2014 Sickness Absence survey, published by EEF, the manufacturers' organisation and Jelf, Employee Benefits, a specialist business consultancy. The survey, the largest of its kind, shows that 5.6 days per person a year are lost to sickness in the North West, while sickness rates are the highest in the UK at 2.4%.

Nationally, levels of absence have reached a record low of 2.1%, equivalent to 4.9 days per employee per year. This remains around the levels seen over the last few years. However, long-term absence has increased, with 40% of companies reporting an increase in the last 2 years.

According to the survey, stress and other mental health-related disorders have shown the biggest increase in long-term absence, with just over half of companies reporting it as a cause, an increase of 7% in the last 5 years. 20% of companies cited it as the most common cause, an increase of 4% in the last 5 years. This possibly reflects, for the first time, evidence of the effect on employees of the long period of recession and austerity.

This increase comes despite more investment by employers in managing sickness absence and placing employee health and well-being programmes on a par with other business investments. 66% of companies now have sickness absence programmes, while 68% of companies offer access to occupational health services for employees. Over a quarter of companies also offer employee assistance programmes, health checks and health cash plans.

Yet, despite these investments, there is increasing evidence that manufacturers are seeing no benefits from the 'Fit Note', a programme of which EEF has been highly supportive since its introduction. In addition, employers are still reporting that the quality of the advice given by GPs is poor, despite half of employers saying they have made adjustments to enable employees to return to work.

Darrell Matthews, North West Region Director at EEF, says:- "Sickness and absence levels in this region are the highest in the UK, so we certainly cannot afford to rest on our laurels. Driving down absence rates, helping more employees return to work earlier and encouraging their well-being is critical for our economy. But, despite employers increasing investment in managing sickness absence and providing their employees with more health-related benefits, the improvement in overall absence rates has more or less now plateaued.   From now on the focus has to be on reducing long term absence, which is only going to happen if we up our game. This must start by making the 'Fit Note' fit for purpose so that it can make real inroads in reducing unnecessary sickness absence."

Iain Laws, Managing Director – UK Healthcare at Jelf Employee Benefits, adds:- "A focus on prevention must become a priority for UK employers who need to maintain a competitive workforce within an overall population that is both ageing and ailing. This is not only essential to tackle absence, but to also address the less easily identifiable issue of presenteeism, which can see job performance decline as a result of ill health. This is fundamentally a well-being problem with stress and musculoskeletal issues almost certainly mirrored as the main causes, as with absenteeism."

Other findings from the report are:-

►  Only 24% of employers believe that the 'Fit Note' has resulted in employees returning to work earlier, compared to 40% who said that it had not.

►  More companies disagree (45%) than agree (16%) that the advice given by GPs about employees' fitness for work has improved. The gap between those who rate the advice positively and those who view it negatively has widened substantially over the past 2 years.

►  Focus groups of employers are reporting they are seeing no improvement in return to work under the 'Fit Note' system compared to the old 'Sick Note'.

►  33% of companies did not receive any 'Fit Notes' signed 'may be fit for work', a figure which has remained more or less consistent in the 4 years the 'Fit Note' has been operating.

►  40% of companies said there was insufficient information in the 'Fit Note' to make a decision, up from 33% in 2012.

►  A fifth of companies have not seen any computer generated 'Fit Notes', with employers reporting manual notes were still the most common.

In response, EEF is making the following recommendations:-

1. Government setting a cut off date by which all GPs and medical professionals in hospitals will have received training in use of the 'Fit Note'.

2. Setting a similar cut off date following which all 'fit notes' must be computer generated.

3. Spending some of the £170m currently earmarked for the Health and Work Service on the training of all 40,000 UK GPs in Occupational Health. EEF estimates this would cost approximately £6m.

4. Make the Health and Work Service mandatory for employees to be referred to, as opposed to the voluntary scheme currently proposed.

5. Allow companies to offset the cost of intervention where they pay for treatment against business costs as an allowable business expense. EEF's survey shows half of companies already do this and a greater incentive would encourage more to do so. This would help employees return to work earlier and help reduce pressure on the NHS.

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