19 Mar 2024

HR Insight: The scale of long-term sickness on the UK economy

HR Solutions discuss why we’re seeing an increasing need to support long term sickness.

The increasing need to support long-term sickness is becoming evident in the UK, with research from leading professional bodies highlighting concerning trends in sickness absence and the rise of conditions such as Long COVID. This article delves into the scale of long-term sickness on the UK economy and explores strategies for employers to support individuals back into work while navigating legal obligations and avoiding discrimination.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) reported a significant increase in the number of economically inactive individuals due to long-term sickness, with almost 2.58 million people affected—an increase of 76% from 2019. Key findings from the report include a rise in self-reported long-term health conditions and a substantial proportion of individuals reporting depression, anxiety, or musculoskeletal issues.

Similarly, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) highlighted that sickness absence reached its highest level in over a decade, with mental ill health and musculoskeletal injuries being the top causes. COVID-19 continues to contribute to sickness absences, with Long COVID emerging as a significant factor.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) reported millions of working days lost due to work-related ill health and injuries, with associated costs reaching billions of pounds. Long COVID has added to the burden of work-related illnesses, underscoring the need for comprehensive support measures.

Employers play a crucial role in supporting individuals affected by long-term sickness. Establishing clear absence policies and procedures, including legal obligations to make reasonable adjustments, can provide a framework for managing sickness absence effectively. Employee assistance programmes (EAPs), mental health first aiders, and wellbeing champions can offer valuable support and promote a culture of wellbeing in the workplace.

Flexible working options can facilitate the return to work for individuals recovering from sickness, while line management training equips managers with the skills to handle absence management sensitively and effectively. Stress risk assessments (SRAs) help identify workplace stressors and implement appropriate interventions to support employee wellbeing.

Employee communication forums and wellbeing strategies contribute to a holistic approach to reducing sickness absence and promoting employee engagement. However, employers must strike a balance between supporting individuals and managing the operational impact of long-term sickness. While dismissal may be necessary in some cases, employers must ensure fairness, avoid discrimination, and adhere to legal obligations throughout the process.

To mitigate the risk of discrimination, employers should provide training on equality, diversity, and inclusion, ensure clear communication of policies, and seek medical advice when making decisions with significant implications for employment. Considering redeployment opportunities and exhausting available employment benefits before dismissal can help support individuals and minimize legal risks.

In conclusion, addressing long-term sickness requires a multifaceted approach that prioritizes employee wellbeing while managing operational challenges. By implementing supportive measures and adhering to legal obligations, employers can create a workplace culture that promotes health, resilience, and inclusivity.

Read the full article and more information on supporting long term sickness in HR Solutions' Knowledge Base article

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