Give employers tax breaks to tackle ‘chronic’ sickness absence, EEF urges


Businesses should be offered tax incentives to provide private healthcare treatments for staff to tackle the spiralling costs of long-term sickness absence, according to one of the UK’s largest employer bodies.

Failure to accommodate the ageing workforce, an under-pressure NHS and confusion over whose responsibility it is to get people back to work, have all contributed to an increase in long-term sickness absence among the UK’s manufacturers, says a new industry-wide survey from EEF.

According to the research, carried out by EEF and Jelf Employee Benefits, 41 per cent of companies have reported an increase in long-term absence in the last two years, with back problems and musculoskeletal disorders the main cause.

This is contrary to last year’s results when stress and other mental ill-health disorders were reported as the most common cause of long-term sickness absence.

Of the employees covered in the survey, 5 per cent were off work for a period of four weeks or more, with employers reporting that the time it took to get medical tests, investigations, surgery and subsequent recovery all contributed to the levels of long-term sickness absence.

Two-fifths (40 per cent) of companies still rely exclusively on the NHS as the primary source of treatment to reduce absence, despite the introduction of the government’s Fit for Work (FfW)service in 2015, EEF found. Just 18 per cent of employers in the manufacturing industry currently pay for non-NHS treatment for staff.

The EEF said more incentives should be introduced to encourage organisations to provide private healthcare, help tackle the UK’s chronic sickness absence problem, take the burden off of the already under-pressure NHS and in turn address the UK’s productivity puzzle.

“Keeping people fit and healthy, while enabling a speedy return to work from absence, is essential to economic growth. Healthy employees experience fewer motivational problems, are more resilient to change and are more likely to be engaged with business priorities,” said Terry Woolmer, head of health and safety policy at EEF.

The survey found that 60 per cent of manufacturers would pay for private treatment if the cost was offset as a business expense.

While there was high awareness (78 per cent) of the government’s FfW service among EEF members, Woolmer admitted that was because the organisation had made a significant effort to promote and encourage use of the service. Other sectors and industries weren’t quite so well-informed.

Speaking to People Management, Woolmer said: “If you speak to a number of people who come to our seminars, for example, they are unaware of the service… and the indications we have from HML [Health Management Ltd], which runs the service for the government, is that it is not being fully utilised at the moment.”

Out of 306 employers, only 17 surveyed had used the FfW service so far, or referred employees for assessment. Of the whole sample, just 19 per cent of EEF members said they would definitely be willing to pay for medical treatments recommended by the service, and almost a fifth (18 per cent) said they would not use it at all.

“The FfW service is really dependent on employers willing to spend money to get people back to work earlier, so it re-opens the question as to whether private medical insurance and income protection insurance is a good way to combat the problem,” Woolmer said.

“If companies are willing to invest in that, there’s merit in the government providing fiscal incentives for employers, or even tax relief, to take the burden off of the NHS.”

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