Doctors blame bosses for soaring sickness rates

Jul 12 2006 by Brian Amble Print This Article

Britain's family doctors have blamed employers for failing to take responsibility for the health and wellbeing of their staff as new figures reveal a dramatic rise in the number of people needing to be signed off work with illness.

With the bill for poor health and absenteeism costing UK businesses some £13 billion a year, doctors predict that this figure is set to soar unless employers take urgent action to help workers manage their health.

According to the Norwich Union Healthcare's Health of the Workplace report, a third of family doctors have noticed a sharp increase in the number of people needing to be signed off work with illness for seven days or more.

Doctors have a clear view on where the responsibility for this lies. Nine out of ten believe that firms don't do enough to prevent workers falling ill, while the same proportion blame companies for failing those staff who are ill and not doing enough to help them back to work.

Furthermore, doctors are also concerned that inadequate NHS frontline services for conditions such as depression, leave employees with nowhere to turn.

Seven out of 10 companies do not see employees' health as their responsibility
And as the report reveals, this criticism is far from being misplaced. Fewer than four out of 10 UK companies view employee wellbeing as an HR priority and a further four out of 10 ignore it completely and have no system in place for health management.

Most tellingly, however, seven out of 10 companies do not see employees' health as their responsibility.

Yet HR Directors report that the major health problems affecting workers are stress, back problems and depression - all issues that can be caused or exacerbated by the working environment.

Meanwhile, more than four out of 10 employers said they have struggled with key members of staff being off for long periods of time, causing widespread disruption, morale problems and financial loss.

The report suggests that one explanation for the lack of investment in health and wellbeing is that almost half of UK companies choose to manage health issues on a case-by-case basis.

But this is a risky short-term strategy, it argues, since almost half of companies admit they don't invest enough time or resources in pre-empting sickness.

And with the government seeking to reform sickness benefits through the Welfare Reform Bill introduced last week, both doctors and employers will be coming under increased pressure to act in this area over the next year.

"These figures show that the system is failing workers," argued Tim Baker, Director at Norwich Union Healthcare.

"Greater co-operation is needed between GPs and employers to find a solution to rising illness caused at work. Businesses must look to the many examples that exist within both the public and private sector of organisations, such as the Royal Mail and Rolls Royce, which have actively promoted a healthy workplace and proactively managed adverse health effects and consequently achieved a reduction in absence and ill health and increases in productivity."

Businesses and doctors should not blame one another, he added, but instead bear joint responsibility for tackling the problems of employee ill health.

"Grasping the issue and adopting a joined up approach between stakeholders means that also the widespread benefits of tackling the issues can be shared," he said.