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Published 3 August 2023
Employers are being urged to do more to keep their workers healthy and take steps to reduce long term sickness.
The UK Government is consulting on how the tax system can support employers to increase the provision of occupational health for their employees. This is accompanied by a joint consultation by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) on ways to improve the uptake of occupational health by employers. Together, these consultations will inform the Government's approach to supporting occupational health provision. Please click the following links to access details of the consultations:
• Tax Incentives for Occupational Health• Occupational Health: Working Better
Both consultations, published on the 20th July 2023, are intended to tackle the record high numbers of people not working due to long term sickness. According to Government figures, typically for every 13 people currently working, one person is long term sick.
Employees in large organisations have for some years had access to mental and physical health support at work. Employers are being encouraged by the Government to do more to keep workers healthy and reduce absence due to long term sickness through the introduction of occupational health support. This is particularly aimed at small and medium sized organisations where support is not as widespread. As many as 90% of large organisations offer some form of occupational health support compared to 20% of smaller employers.
The DWP consultation seeks views on establishing an agreement and partnership between the Government, employers and occupational health providers on the increase in occupational health provision, including the introduction of a national "health at work" standard to provide a baseline for such provision.
The other DHSC consultation seeks views on options to increase investment in occupational health services by employers through the tax system. The Government is considering additional tax relief to businesses to cover occupational health costs.
Common work related health problems include headaches, back problems and musculoskeletal disorders and stress. Employers have well established duties under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 to ensure so far as reasonably practicable the health, safety and welfare of its employees. There has always been focus on ensuring safety in the workplace through the Act and through prescriptive health and safety regulations covering requirements for employers to undertake risk assessments, provide appropriate and effective PPE and ensure machinery and equipment is safety to use. There are also specific legal requirements to undertake medical surveillance and assessments for employees working in certain industries and exposed to certain types of risks at work, including those involved with asbestos, lead compressed air and ionising. In recent years, there has been a greater focus by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) on the risks to health and welfare at work in view of the number of working days being lost through long term sickness.
According to the Trades Union Congress (TUC), every year 400,000 employees suffer from stress related illnesses linked to work, impacting on their physical and mental health. No specific legislation deals with stress at work but this falls under the general responsibility of employers to ensure, so far as reasonably practicable, the health safety and welfare of employees.
There are clear benefits to be had from reducing absence from work due to long term sickness. In addition to the social benefits of a healthier population, a healthy workforce will be more productive and lower absenteeism will reduce the burden on the DWP and DHSC. Improved and more widely available occupational health support to reduce the risk of physical and mental health issues can clearly play a significant part in tackling ill health and absenteeism. Any "health at work" standard may become the standard expected by the HSE to mitigate health risks at the work place. If health issues and high levels of absenteeism are identified at places of work, employers may find the HSE taking an interest, assessing if suitable and sufficient occupational health support is available to mitigate the risks of ill health, and potentially taking enforcement action including issuing improvement notices and bringing prosecutions.
The consultations give a clear indication of the Government`s direction of travel to improve occupational health and reduce absenteeism resulting from long term sickness. Measures to improve occupational health and reduce long term sickness must be encouraged but will clearly come at a cost to employers. The cost of failing to put in place suitable and sufficient occupational health support for employees may be much greater.
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