3rd February 2020

Is the ‘cost of working’ set to rise?

The ‘cost of living’ is always in the media spotlight. It is tangible, highly visible and politicians, depending on their allegiance, will commonly use rhetoric to either support their party or disparage their opposition. However, a less tangible effect has a financial impact on us all.

In a recent study conducted by insurance provider Vitality Health in association with the University of Cambridge, RAND and Mercer Marsh Benefits, it was reported that an average of 27.7 days were worked by employees whilst unwell in 2017, compared to 24.2 days in 2016. A massive increase in the year of just under 15%. Now if that was a rise in the ‘cost of living’, it would be all over the news!

If that was not enough to be concerned about. In the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development’s (CIPD) 2018 Health and Well-being at Work survey, 86% of respondents said they had observed employees working whilst unwell in their organisation over the last 12 months, compared with 72% in 2016 and just 26% in 2010. Or to put into context, presenteeism, as it is commonly referred to, has more than tripled since 2010. On the other hand, the traditional and tangible measure of employee wellbeing has been sickness absence or ‘absenteeism’.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) figures released in July 2018, show that the average number of absenteeism days that UK workers take has almost halved since records began. From an average of 4.1 absenteeism days in 2017, compared with 7.2 days in 1993. This downward trend has accelerated since the economic downturn of 2008, with absenteeism rates in the UK falling by 0.5 percentage points to 1.9% in 2017. But is the positive effect of reduced absenteeism being masked by the increase in presenteeism?

To compound this further, the CIPD survey also found that ‘leaveism’, or working during your holidays, is also a growing problem. 69% of respondents reported that leaveism has occurred in their organisation over the last year.

Rachel Suff, senior employment relations adviser at the CIPD, said: “In order to encourage a healthy workplace, organisations need to look beyond sickness absence rates alone and develop a solid, evidence-based understanding of the underlying causes of work-related stress and unhealthy behaviour like presenteeism. Without this evidence base, efforts to support employees and improve their health and well-being will be short-lived.”

If we are going to even begin to address this problem, then occupational health teams will need systems that deliver on information and provide knowledge to the organisation – and not simply clinical data gathering or a box ticking system that also happens to help with the booking of appointments!

Occupational health can be very reactive, for example dealing with and case managing referrals or screening paper documentation submitted as part of the recruitment process. However, reacting to and fixing the issue without fixing the problem often means the issue will only reoccur.

Mental health and musculoskeletal issues amongst the workforce are today commonplace. Ongoing referrals to physiotherapy or counselling support services certainly return benefits in terms of accelerated returns to work and reducing absenteeism.

But what about the causes, and is there enough information that is easily accessible to the workforce in order to educate and support?

Health surveillance screening will tend to focus on workplace hazards and what effect those hazards have or how they may affect wellbeing. Here the causes, if wellbeing is being affected, may be self-evident and measures can be taken to reduce risk and improve wellbeing by applying practical adjustments.

The challenges of today’s occupational health team are to reduce absenteeism, reduce presenteeism and reduce risk in the workplace. Many extracurricular activities, including lifestyle, should not be ignored, as these will affect the above.

When you can actually and easily glean knowledge from information, and this information is derived from accurate and safe data points, then you will start to see the wood for the trees – perhaps the ‘solid, evidence-based understanding’ that Rachel Suff recommends.

Civica has supported a healthier workforce with innovative occupational health and health and safety software for over 28 years.

Our software supports organisations with their responsibility to keep employee wellbeing on top of the business agenda. It enables organisations to deliver these critical services effectively and as efficiently as they can. Our software is not just a repository for data. It offers a solution. Powerful analytical tools turn data into information and using that information provides the knowledge to act and act with trust and accuracy.

Our latest occupational health software, OPAS-G2, started with understanding the challenges that lay ahead for our customers, their employees, and our shared technical challenges too.

However, we do understand that software alone will not fix the issues discussed in this paper and there are many challenges and many issues we have not had time to reflect upon here.

But the right solution, delivered by the right partner, will support you in meeting the growing challenges head-on, with an optimistic view for the future.