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The missing linctus

As many column inches have been written about sickness absence in UK businesses as solutions have been offered to the problem. As many companies offer bonuses for good attendance as deduct pay for the first few days of absence.

Conventional thinking surrounding best practice for managing absence includes factors such as conducting an audit of absence and understanding the issues within the business, measuring absence data accurately, addressing the drivers behind absence, effective early intervention and delivering effective rehabilitation.

These processes miss the point, which is that 60 per cent of all absence relates to short-term periods off work (source: CBI Absence and Labour Turnover, 2004) .

Why is it that three employees can wake up on Monday morning with flu symptoms, yet two get into work while the other stays in bed? The healthcare sector has sought to adopt an approach to the problem through soph- isticated systems involving call centres manned by medical professionals, development of employee assistance programmes and an ever greater focus on management of stress once diagnosed.

New thinking is beginning to challenge this approach. If you like, the healthcare sector is tasting some of its own medicine and starting to focus on a preventive approach rather than curing an established problem.

Wellness is the emerging theme as human resources directors grapple with the increasing cost of providing healthcare services, higher employee expectations and delivering a simple, hassle-free, healthy workplace.

There is good reason for this change of focus, with research, such as the 2004 survey by Discovery Health, demonstrating significant reductions in claim costs where staff have adopted a wellness programme.

The message is simple – engaging staff in a wellness programme enhances motivation, improves workplace health and drives down stress claims linked to disillusionment and disengagement.

Evidence is now emerging that this approach can reduce the claims spend on private medical insurance by as much as 60 per cent (source: Discovery Health, 2004, based on 36 to 45-year-old employees with good fitness).

This is a welcome bonus for a typical human resour- ces director being challen- ged on spiralling benefit costs or seeking to demonstrate a return on investment from the introduction of flexible benefits.

How is this achieved? How does the logic work? Simple. Address engagement in employee health and wellbeing, for example, through an improved diet, and you demonstrably decrease the risk of coronary heart disease. This disease kills 110,000 in the UK each year, 41,000 of whom are under 75 (source: Derek Wanless, Securing Our Future Health, 2004) and is one of the single biggest contributors to claims spends within PMI plans.

Indeed, Wanless suggests that people who are fully engaged with regard to their health and wellbeing will move their chance of suffering from coronary heart disease around five years into the future.

What is meant by wellness and engagement of staff? Too often, the simple solution is to offer gym membership and think the problem will go away. If only.

Engaging staff in their own health first and foremost requires a fundamental understanding of their lifestyles, attitudes and issues. Only by undertaking thorough employee research can an adviser seek to build a plan tailored to employees’ needs which offers a subtle blend of health education, access to facilities and systems that enable self-management.

Employers need to think through nutrition plans for staff and encourage health sceening and health MOTs that develop plans and objectives for health improvement. They should even go as far as providing counselling about employees’ work/life balance.

Some product providers, such as PruHealth, have given businesses a route by which they are able to financially reward employees who are actively engaging in healthy living. By allocating a points status to individuals which can be improved by active engagement with vitality partners, employees can earn different levels of cash rewards.

Cash incentives are a tangible motivator for employees to become healthier. Healthy people are absent less and claim less.

Does this sound too good to be true? Maybe. After all, this is no overnight solution and it takes time for these types of initiatives to begin to have an impact on long-term absenteeism and insurance spend. But the benefits of an improved employer/employee relationship can be immediate and, bearing in mind that short-term absenteeism is often a cultural or behavioural issue, benefits can be felt quicklyThe complete solution to the absence problem needs an holistic, flexible approach to determining corporate benefits, an effective communication programme and robust data collection and rehabilitation processes which manage absence.

Unlike some of the draconian methods proposed over recent years, many of which have Big Brother overtones, the approach of wellness and employee engagement offers employers an opportunity to position it as a benefit to staff, perhaps as part of a flexible benefits launch.

It is a pleasing realisation to note that, in the healthcare market, medicine does not need to taste bad for it to be good for you.

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