Employee benefits as an intervention to address sickness absence will not work alone if employers do not focus on suitable job design for their employees, an expert in workplace health has warned.
Speaking at WSB's Managing Sickness Absence Forum, The Work Foundation Centre for Workforce Effectiveness director Professor Stephen Bevan explained that introducing employee benefits into the workplace to tackle sickness absence would have limited success if employers did not seek to look at the types of jobs their employees were in.
"You can do whatever you like in terms of sickness absence management at a minute policy level, but we know that the most impact on a sustained, systemic basis is giving people good jobs to do. Giving them good jobs where they have control, autonomy, voice and where they're well managed has far bigger impact on their cardiovascular health, their mental health and their sickness absence than any fruit bowls you want to put out in the office," Prof. Bevan said.
"But people don't want to hear that, because it means they've got to change the way they manage their organisations, the way they've got to organise work, the way they've got to design jobs. The notion that a random act of kindness from a line manager might actually have an impact on someone's health and wellbeing is still something that many managers resist heavily."
Prof. Bevan also noted that organisations needed to be aware of the link that was present between musculoskeletal conditions and mental health issues when trying to help employees with these problems back into the workplace.
He explained that one of the main problems in this area was that people suffering musculoskeletal conditions were at higher risk of developing a mental health condition, but most employers and health professionals tended to treat the two as separate problems. Around 44 million workers across the European Union were affected by musculoskeletal conditions caused by work - which contributed to around half of all lost work days.
"For some people with chronic low back pain, the best predictor or their early return to work is job satisfaction. So their back might get better but the fact they hate their job may be ultimately the biggest barrier to their return to work. So we have to be quite nuanced in how we're dealing with how we get these people back to work," he continued.
Overall, Prof. Bevan explained that prevention was key to keeping people in work. Figures from The Work Foundation estimated that around 55% of the working age population in 2030 will have at least one long term condition that will affect their ability to work.
Across the whole of the EU only 3% of healthcare spending was spent on prevention and this was just slightly higher in the UK at 8%.
Prof. Bevan concluded: "Who shares the responsibility for dealing with this? Whose job is it to do anything about this? Because actually there's no one government minister whose job it is to deal with this problem. In fact what you see is a throwing of a hot potato of workforce health in policy circles.
"And you could argue that in some organisations it's no one's job to deal with this. It's either the health and safety person's, an occupational health and safety person, an HR person or a benefits person. It's quite rare still to see a really neatly coordinated coherent strategy that deals with this problem head on rather than just treating the symptoms of the problem," he added.
"Preventing people getting ill in the first place might seem relatively boring but I think this is something that employers could do more of."
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