Industry urges Government and employers to address increasing mental health issues

The call was made on the back of the UK’s largest business survey on sickness absence published today by EEF, the manufacturers’ organisation and Jelf Employee Benefits. It shows employers and GPs are struggling to address mental-health issues in the workplace and growing concerns at long-term absence trends.

Commenting, Professor Sayeed Khan, Chief Medical Adviser at EEF, the manufacturers’ organisation, said: “While overall absence levels remain low, there continues to be a marked difference between short- and long-term absence which is creeping up. Without a renewed effort to tackle its root causes it will continue to act as a drag on the economy and efforts to improve productivity and boost growth.

“Of particular concern is the gradual increase in stress and mental-health-related problems over the last 5 years with which GPs and employers are struggling to deal. As a society we can no longer ignore the very real impact of these issues both on the individuals concerned and the wider economy. Whilst employers and GPs appear able to manage other causes of absence they must now be given the tools to deal with stress and mental-health issues in the same way.”

Iain Laws, Managing Director – UK Healthcare and Group Risk at Jelf Employee Benefits, added: “The importance of Occupational Health and growth in health benefit provision resonates with employers who are increasingly recognising the productivity impact of ill health. It is therefore a little surprising that so many organisations still do not have formalised systems to identify absences at an early stage so these can be managed through effective interventions.

“Reliable, easy-to-use absence-recording systems empower employers and managers to provide the support to employees to minimise absence and manage longer-term or complex cases. This in turn can have a positive impact on benefit costs as early detection and action often means lower treatment costs as well.”

According to the survey, overall sickness absence remains low at 5.1 days with half of employees having zero absence. However, this masks evidence that the ‘ sickness presenteeism’ which marked the period of recession is fading away: absence levels increasing slightly by 0.2 days, the number of manual workers reporting zero absence falling for the first time in five years and the fact only 55 per cent of companies hit their absence target, the lowest since 2008.

While overall absence levels remain low, however, there is a marked difference in long-term absence with two-fifths of companies reporting an increase, while only a fifth reported a decrease. This is the largest increase in five years, a period where long-term absence has been gradually increasing.

Back pain and musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) remain the main cause of long-term absence with stress and mental-health disorders the main cause of absence for one in four companies, although this has gradually crept up since 2009.

However, stress and mental illness is regarded as the most difficult form of absence to make workplace adjustments for with almost a third of companies saying this is the case. Furthermore, a third of employers said that they do not have approaches for managing mental-health-related long-term absence, whilst evidence suggests GPs also find it difficult to suggest workplace adjustments, highlighting the need for more training in this area.

Just one in ten companies provides training for line managers in mental-health issues and only 2 per cent of companies have an open mental-health disclosure policy, suggesting business matches society in finding it a difficult issue to address.

The survey also shows that employers’ approach to managing absence remains mixed. Encouragingly, the number of companies setting absence targets is increasing (a third have no target compared to two-fifths last year) and two-fifths can make workplace adjustments or provide training to manage long-term absence.

However, in contrast, almost three quarters of companies don’t measure the cost of sickness absence. In addition, 70 per cent don’t measure the return on their investment for the health & well-being benefits they offer while only 3 per cent do.

According to EEF, the new Fit for Work service will be critical in reducing long-term absence, especially MSD’s and mental health issues. However, EEF doubts whether the current tax-incentive offered is sufficient enough to encourage employers to pay for treatment.

EEF has made the following recommendations to create conditions for the service to succeed:
1. Ensure the service is resourced with healthcare professionals with knowledge of different industries so that appropriate interventions and adjustments can be made.

2. Ensure return-to-work plans are discussed with all relevant parties before they are agreed and finalised.

3. A discussion between the employer and Fit for Work service before it is agreed with the employee.

4. Introduce health tax-credits or allowable business expenses to incentivise employers to pay for treatment recommended by the Service or Occupational Health provider.

5. Mandatory referral of employees who are likely to be absent for more than four weeks.

6. Statutory Sick Pay paid only on condition the employee co-operates with the Fit for Work Service.

7. Restrictions on GPs signing employees off for more than four weeks unless the patient engages with the service.