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Sickness Policies ‘Back In Spotlight’ As Research Examines UK Absence

Lawyers Urge Employers To Not Rest On Laurels Regarding Issue


By Rob Dixon

Employment law experts have urged businesses to continue to ensure they have robust sickness policies in place, after new research put a spotlight on how rates of sickness in the UK are around half the size of those in Germany and France, which is encouraging news for employers.

Researchers at the Wolverhampton Business School found that less than one in ten employers in the UK experienced high levels of sickness in 2009, compared to 25 per cent of German firms and 21 per cent of companies in France in the same year.

The report, based on the European Company Survey, suggested that differences in employment protection (fewer rights) and lower sick pay could be linked to why the UK’s rates of sickness were lower. Other more positive issues mentioned included profit-sharing among staff, less variation in workload and a positive working atmosphere.

News of the findings has come several months after a report by PricewaterhouseCoopers revealed a fall in the number of sick days being taken by the UK workforce – with the average worker taking 9.1 days off annually due to sickness.

Glenn Hayes, a Partner and expert in employment law issues at Irwin Mitchell’s Leeds office, said the vital part of tackling staff sickness is to have the right measures in place.

He outlined: “Whilst this research shows the UK has favourable sickness rates in comparison to other major European countries, it is important that employers do not rest on their laurels when it comes to examining and addressing how sickness is handled in their workplaces.

“There are a range of tools and tactics that employers now have at their disposal, ranging from investment in in-house counselling services, which provide workers with the support they need to aid recovery and get back into work to the less-costly option of return to work interviews.

“Using the latter as a key part of the absence process allows employers an opportunity to ask key questions in a considerate way about an employee’s health and welfare, which could mitigate further problems that may worsen without appropriate intervention.”

Glenn added: “One issue mentioned in the new research is how France and Germany was felt to be more generous in terms of sick pay compared to the UK. Whilst some employers in the UK maintain generous sick pay schemes, particularly in the public sector, others have taken steps to reduce payments in this regard, a potentially tricky issue for employers.

“Another difficult issue for employers to approach regarding sickness is how, very often, figures on absence can be used in criteria related to redundancy. Phrased in the right way, this is an important thing to reiterate to staff.

“There are undoubtedly so many sensitive issues around sickness absence, but selecting the right methods and processes can be a vital step towards ensuring a productive, happy and ultimately healthy workforce.”

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