How to solve the wrong problem


This week, I was intrigued to read about the new government scheme that is designed to get workers on long term sick back to work. Can we assume the government is admitting that the Fit Notes scheme isn’t working? Haha – not a chance!

The plan is to encourage all employees who have been off for four weeks or more to meet with an occupational health advisor. To fund this service/initiative the government is going to stop SSP repayments to companies and award a contract to a private sector occupational health firm – aka another firm of sharks who take the government for a ride and make lots of money whilst doing so.

My first question is: where are all these occupational health consultants going to come from? All qualified to support a speedy return to work and make assessments about both the workplace and the job roles? The Job Centre? Outerspace?

I’m convinced when they start recruiting, the selection pool will come from those occupational health ‘consultants’ who have had very little or possibly no training at all. What is certain is that the approach, given the lack of solid training and experience in this area, will be procedural and bureaucratic and won’t allow for individual decision making around real workplaces and real job roles.

The article I read said “Ministers say employers will save money overall by having fewer staff off sick. It may save companies up to £70m a year in reduced sickness pay and related costs”.

Interestingly, I associate the word ‘companies’ with the private sector. But is it not specific parts of the public sector that has the major long term sickness problem? The government announced this scheme at the same time a report on stress in the police force was published – the report said currently 800 police officers are off sick with stress, which is estimated to cost around £29m per year. By tackling this problem alone the government would be well on its way to achieving that cost saving of £70m per year!

So, would I be considered a cynic if I said that effectively, the private sector is to fund a scheme to reduce long term sickness in the public sector?

My problem with this initiative is that I really don’t see that having an extra cog in the medical wheel in the form of a poorly trained OH advisor, is going to get staff back to work more quickly.

What would have an impact on long term sickness numbers…

  • A more confident/assertive staff management in the public sector.
  • A courageous stand against enhanced sick pay schemes that don’t always encourage a return to work.
  • A clamp down on staff who claim it’s their right not to have to meet with their employer, answer their phone or read the letters their employer sends them whilst off sick.
  • A real focus on developing work ethic and an accountable culture/work environment.

I’ve been running an HR consultancy for 17 years and I’ve learnt what a waste of time it is to try to solve the wrong problem when managing staff.

We have well over 300 clients around the UK and we encounter long term sickness issues on a very regular basis. Having surveyed my team, these are the real problems we are supporting with: 

  1. The lengthy time it often takes employers to get reports from GPs and other medical professionals. If it takes six weeks to get the first GP report they are officially long term absent before you have even begun the process of managing them!
  2. The frustrations caused when the doctors have provided insufficient information or, in some cases, no information whatsoever on their reports. Doctors and advisors also seldom answer the actual questions that have been put to them by employers – it doesn’t stop them submitting their bill though!
  3. The impossibility of managing absence when so many sick employees go off the radar and cease all, or almost all, contact with their employer. What’s horrifying is that staff feel they have every right to cease contact because it suits them and employers live in fear of being accused of bullying if they are assertive about needing contact.

Never one to dump problems on you without any possible solutions, here are my three recommendations to the government that will make a difference in respect of long term absence:

  1. Require employees and their GPs to meet within seven days of a GP report being requested and for that report to then be returned to the employer no more than seven days later.
  2. Penalise GPs who are too lazy to fill out reports properly or provide no information at all but who fail to state their intended refusal to cooperate before asking for payment.
  3. Give employers the right to make employment decisions without fear of disability discrimination or other claims if employees fail to respond to communications from their employer within seven days – unless there are real extenuating circumstances. In which case four weeks should be allowed.

Thoughts, ideas, opinions? All welcomed as usual. Please either email me or leave your comments in the box below!

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