Over two-fifths (43%) of businesses have had employees absent from work for more than four weeks due to ill health in the last two years, according to new research by the British Chambers of Commerce and Unum.

The overriding impacts of staff absences are operational (88%) and on staff morale (76%) according to the results of the survey of over 1,000 businesses of all sizes and across all sectors. The business-to-consumer sector, which includes retail, catering, and hotels, was more likely to report impacts with 93% of firms reporting operational impacts and 85% affecting staff morale.

Respondents also reported financial (44%) and reputational (36%) impacts from staff absences.

Most businesses recognise the importance of supporting employee health and wellbeing, with 62% offering benefits such as access to wellbeing support, private medical insurance, occupational support services and healthy lifestyle benefits such as gym membership and cycle to work schemes.

The survey found that 41% of businesses believe that providing financial protection benefits, such as income protection insurance and critical illness cover, could or does help them to attract and retain employees. This rises to 52% for larger companies with more than 50 employees.

The results reflect the economic impacts of ill health in the workplace and the actions businesses are taking to promote and maximise staff wellbeing. The government is currently consulting on proposals to prevent health-related job loss, which will require businesses to take a more proactive role.

Businesses want staff to maintain good health and help them to return to work after a period of sickness. However, the process can be difficult and expensive for employers to manage. Employers would benefit from financial support and clearer guidance to help them invest in services that can support them to prevent and manage sickness absence.

Jane Gratton, Head of People Policy at the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC), said:

“People are the most important asset of any business and a healthy and happy workforce lends itself to increased morale and productivity. Many firms already take proactive steps to support the physical and mental wellbeing of staff and, when they have the capacity and resources, will offer a range of information, services and benefits. 

“Maintaining employees’ health and resilience is always the best option, but when people are absent though ill health it is in everyone’s best interests that they are supported back into work as quickly as possible. But managing sickness absenteeism can be difficult and expensive for businesses, especially smaller firms who don’t have access to specialist in-house HR services.

“Employers need access to good quality, affordableservicesto help them understand how to support their people in the best way, together with clear, up-to-date information and guidance on everyone’s rights and responsibilities. The BCC is calling for any additional statutory payment to be reimbursed or off-set in some way, to reflect the extent to which firms are already struggling with the cumulative cost of employment.”

Peter O’Donnell, Chief Executive Officer, Unum UK, said:

“Sickness absence has a major impact on businesses of all sizes and across all sectors and it’s vital that employers prioritise the health and wellbeing of their workforce.

“Coping with illness can be very hard for employees and their families and good employers want to both support their people as much as possible and manage the negative impact on their business.

“With the financial assistance and rehabilitation support they provide, GIP products are invaluable during a period of illness, but equally access to early clinical help whenever it’s needed is also very helpful and reassuring for both employers and employees.

“After reviewing some of the biggest problems for SMEs and their people, we found fast access to key medical services would bring very tangible benefits. As a result we recently launched [email protected] to provide employees and their families with access to remote GPs, second opinions, physiotherapy and mental health support via an easy to use app. Not only can fast access to these services bring peace of mind to employees, early intervention can help reduce the risk of long-term sickness absence and lessen the operational and financial impact on companies.”

The British Chambers of Commerce surveyed 1,000 business leaders online between 29 April and 16 May 2019. Around 91% of participants were SMEs.

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