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A solution to long-term employee sickness? Government confirms extra funding to boost the health of working Brits

| Heidi Thompson | 12 December 2023

To tackle economic inactivity at the source, the government has released fresh plans to boost workers' health and energise the economy.

Tuesday 12 December marks International Universal Health Coverage Day, so we’re exploring how the recent public health consultation launched by the government plans to help reduce the 2.55 million Britons currently absent from the workforce due to long-term sickness.

What are the results of the consultation? More importantly, how will it seek to invest heavily in initiatives to address issues with both the physical and mental health of workers to boost productivity on a national scale?

The business benefits of investing in employee health

Less than half of Britons have access to occupational health (OH) services. On top of this, SMEs are five times less likely to offer OH support to employees than larger enterprises - which is actually costing businesses money.

It may seem like an extra cost, but investing in the health of workers offers a wealth of benefits to individuals that constitute your workforce, your company’s bottom line and indeed the overall wellbeing of the nation.

The consultation stresses that investing in widespread OH coverage for businesses is likely to lower the costs of sickness-related absences, cut recruitment costs and, through higher tax receipts, reduce the national spend on disability benefits and NHS costs.

Boosting support for physical and mental health issues

Musculoskeletal (MSK) and mental health conditions are the two biggest drivers of economic inactivity, confirms the results of the consultation. With around 186 million working days in 2022 lost due to sickness, clear measures are needed to bolster the support available to employees who suffer from physical and mental health problems, such as anxiety and depression.

These issues affect as many as one in four people across the UK but the average waiting time to receive initial treatment through talking therapies is 21 days from referral. Clearly, greater access to high-quality healthcare is needed.

The government has analysed the opinions of businesses nationally who have contributed to the consultation to advise on these essential issues, and I’m pleased to announce that the result is good news for SMEs as well as their employees - as the scheme aims to promote more flexible working and healthier habits.

The proposals aim to stimulate “higher retention rates, more productive workers, and fewer work days lost due to sickness”, according to Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Mel Stride MP.

Flexible working and employees

The scheme also aims to further emphasise the availability of flexible working for employees. With 44% of Britons currently splitting their time between home and the office in a form of hybrid working, the plans hope to reduce burnout and ultimately boost employee morale and productivity by allowing greater access to flexible working conditions.

The plans also aim to promote more active lifestyles, facilitating regular breaks for physical activity and greater uptake of wellness programs.

Reducing the financial barriers for Occupational Health coverage for UK SMEs

The results of the consultation are promising and it shows a clear intent to incentivise employers to invest in Occupational Health programs. Additional tax relief is set to follow as the government confirms that “a new financial subsidy scheme to tackle financial barriers to purchasing OH to improve SME access is being developed” in addition to the existing Benefit-In-Kind relief.

While these ideas will ultimately bode well for the economy, employers must take due care to ensure that the benefits are tangible to their employees and not just their balance books, warns Nicholas Smith, head of ta at Duncan & Toplis.

"My personal view is that using the tax system can distort employer behaviour. I am sure it will be welcomed by employers who take occupational health seriously but it could equally lead to the provision of spurious and ineffective resources, which are really just designed to capture tax reliefs.

“So often we see proposals which benefit the provider and employer without achieving the desired effect of such proposals. I hope businesses understand the value of being absolutely honest when it comes to employee health."

For the health of employees and the improved efficiency of their own workforces, employers must be impartial and accountable to truly reap the benefits of this sizable investment.

Businesses can read the full results of the consultation on the government website, and those interested in taking advantage of increased funding to improve the health of their employees, lower their sickness-related expenditure, and drive operational improvements are invited to get in touch with our expert team.


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