Recommendation ID

What are the challenges and potential solutions for UK employers and employees in micro-, small- and medium-sized organisations (which may not have easy access to additional services such as employee assistance programmes or occupational health services) in ensuring sickness policy is managed effectively and facilitating return to work?

Any explanatory notes
(if applicable)

Why the committee made the recommendations
There was a small amount of low-quality evidence from UK studies that providing free-to-access employee assistance programmes and occupational health services is regarded as good employer practice. It is valued by employees as an indication that the organisation cares about the health and wellbeing of the workforce.
However, the evidence suggested that employees are not always aware that these services are available or what their remit is. This possible lack of awareness was discussed by the committee and also identified by the expert testimony from the occupational health expert. Particular reference was made to employee assistance programmes, for which there may be a misperception that programmes focus only on mental health and there can be stigma associated with this. In reality, they can also offer practical advice on other issues such as debt counselling.
The committee further discussed that employees may have concerns about the confidentiality of employee assistance programmes. Within this discussion the committee noted that the services provided by these programmes are confidential. They also recognised the importance of employees having information on how to access the programmes independently and without needing to ask their employer.
The committee discussed evidence and expert testimony from the occupational health expert that early access to interventions offered by occupational health providers are regarded positively by employers and employees, and may help to reduce sickness absence rates and support sustainable return to work. These can include fast-tracked access to physiotherapy or counselling sessions.
Although it was unclear whether the interventions included in the economic model were provided at an early stage, the model suggested that providing specific interventions was cost saving. The committee noted that it is important that the potential benefits and decision to refer to occupational health are discussed and agreed between the employee and their manager to avoid it being perceived as a punitive response to absence.
The committee were aware that services such as these tend to be offered by larger employers and that people working in micro-, small- and medium-sized organisations may not have access to them. They were aware from the government policy paper on 'Improving lives – the future of work health and disability' that around 43% of employees in the UK are employed by small- or medium-sized organisations.
The committee agreed that research is needed to determine effective and cost effective ways to support people to return to work after sickness absence, in UK workplaces of all sizes, including micro-, small- and medium-sized organisations (see research recommendation 1). In addition, they agreed there is a need for research on the challenges and potential solutions for UK employers and employees in managing sickness absence and return to work in smaller organisations where access to additional services may not be readily available (see research recommendation 5).

How the recommendations might affect practice
Larger organisations are more likely to already fund services providing early intervention opportunities, whereas micro-, small- and medium-sized organisations may not be in a position to fund external occupational health provision or provide employee assistance programmes.
Implementing the recommendations may need resource input initially, but over time may result in a reduction in the costs of sickness absence and improved productivity. For example, providing 'fast track' or early access to interventions may incur an additional cost. However, this may be included as part of an occupational health service that an organisation provides, as part of a proactive approach to supporting employee health and wellbeing, and this investment may help to reduce the costs of sickness absences in the longer term.
Full details of the evidence and the committee's discussion are in evidence review C: facilitating return to work from long-term sickness absence.

Source guidance details

Comes from guidance
Workplace health: long-term sickness absence and capability to work
Date issued
November 2019

Other details

Is this a recommendation for the use of a technology only in the context of research? No  
Is it a recommendation that suggests collection of data or the establishment of a register?   No  
Last Reviewed 30/11/2019