'Ignoring the root cause' | Critics of Sunak's 'sick note culture' claim say good HR is the best fix for rising absenteeism

Critics of Sunak's 'sick note culture' claim say good HR is the best fix for rising absenteeism

Rishi Sunak has called for an end to “sick note culture” as he outlined sweeping reforms to the UK’s welfare and benefits systems.

In a speech delivered today (April 19), the Prime Minister announced that the disability benefits system is set to be reformed, in a bid to "more accurately target those who need it most and deliver the right kind of support for people with disabilities and health conditions."

He also revealed plans to remove GP powers to sign people off work. Under his new plans, sick notes in England will instead be issued by "specialist work and health professionals".

"We don't just need to change the sick note, we need to change the sick note culture so the default becomes what work you can do - not what you can't,” said Sunak.

He went on: "Building on the pilots we've already started, we're going to design a new system where people have easy and rapid access to specialised work and health support to help them back to work from the very first Fit Note conversation.

"We're also going to test shifting the responsibility for assessment from GPs and giving it to specialist work and health professionals who have the dedicated time to provide an objective assessment of someone's ability to work and the tailored support they need to do so."

Sunak also announced that the Work Capability Assessment will be tightened so that people with less severe conditions will be expected to engage with the world of work and supported to do so. Downing Street says that, under the current Work Capability Assessment, too many people are effectively being written off as unable to work.

The PM added that, if the Conservatives win the general election, anyone who has been out of work after 12 months after support from a work coach will have "their benefits removed entirely".

Sunak’s speech comes as many more working age people are being awarded Personal Independence Payments (PIP) for mental health conditions than when it was first introduced over a decade ago, as well as concerns that the assessment process is significantly easier to game by individuals who seek to exploit the system.

In 2019, there were an average of around 2,200 new PIP awards a month in England and Wales where the main condition was anxiety and depression - this has more than doubled to 5,300 a month last year

A call for evidence will be published today to seek responses from a diverse range of perspectives, including those with lived experiences, healthcare professionals and employers, both on how the current process works and how it can better support people with health conditions to start, stay, and succeed in work.

‘Cracking down on barriers to work’

In a statement after Sunak’s speech, Health and Social Care Secretary, Victoria Atkins MP, said: “These ambitious reforms will give people the help they need in their return to and stay in work.

“We know that people in work often lead happier, healthier lives which is why it’s fundamental to shift attitudes away from sick notes towards fit notes.

“We are seeking the advice of those who understand the system best so we can break down these unnecessary barriers to work. Through tailored care and reasonable adjustments, we can build a healthier workforce for a healthier economy.”

Could sick note reforms lead to more presenteeism?

In a time where stigma around taking sick leave is already prevalent, could the Government's new approach to sickness and absence exacerbate the problem?

In a poll conducted by HR, payroll, and finance specialists MHR, 71% of employees have admitted that they have worked while unwell because of the negative perception of calling in sick.

The main concern is it will damage career progression, reported by nearly three quarters (74%) of respondents.

The findings spotlight a harmful culture of presenteeism across UK organisations, which senior leaders must address – not only for the wellbeing of their employees, but the wellbeing of the business as a whole. Employees that work while unwell are less productive and more prone to making costly errors, which can hurt a company’s bottom line.

While only 20% of employees admitted to having ‘pulled a sickie’ in the last 12 months, the reasons they cited for doing so are concerning. Of those who did admit to this, nearly a quarter (22%) said it was because their company culture made them feel demotivated, meanwhile almost half (46%) put it down to overwhelming workloads.

Technology is an invaluable tool for helping employees to manage workload, especially HR professionals. Digital tools can be embedded to automate routine work processes, helping free up time for more complex, people-oriented issues – such as conflict resolution, engagement, and talent development – that play a huge role in improving employee wellbeing and creating a better company culture.

Jeanette Wheeler, Chief HR Officer at MHR, said: “The findings of our research are alarming and point towards a worrying culture of presenteeism in the workplace. It almost goes without saying that employees should be encouraged to take days off when they are sick – either this is not happening, or the message is not being communicated properly and employees don’t believe it when they are told this.

"HR teams need to commit themselves to promoting a healthy work-life balance and fostering a positive work culture where employees feel valued and empowered to prioritise their own wellbeing.”

Goverment should sort itself out first, says campaign group

Darwin Friend, head of research of the TaxPayers' Alliance, said: “The prime minister is right to call for an end to the ‘sick note culture’ that has contributed to the poor health of the economy.

“But given the public sector continuously posts far higher levels of sick leave than the private sector, taxpayers will be questioning why ministers can’t even get their own house in order.

“As well as tightening welfare rules, ministers need to deliver some cold hard truths to bureaucrats thinking they can bunk off on the taxpayers’ dime”

Workplace health CEO criticises Sunak’s speech

Dave Capper, CEO at Westfield Health, warned that the root causes are being overlooked and UK employers are vital in tackling long-term sickness.

“The Prime Minister has said many times that the government is serious about tackling the UK's long-term sickness crisis,” Capper said. “While it is optimistic to hear more from the government about public health, we need a greater focus on implementing key support for those with long-term sickness and encouraging preventative care rather than targeting the “sick-note culture.”

Capper went on: “Workplace health and wellbeing must be at the centre of any government response to the long-term sickness crisis of our employees.

“Research shows that a strong wellbeing culture helps people thrive and lead happier, healthier and more productive lives. Failure to recognise this is ignoring the root cause, leading to lower economic growth, wasted potential and a higher benefits bill.

From our content partner

“The government also can’t ignore the sources of stress on UK workers, which can lead to increased long-term illnesses. Our research has revealed that nearly three-quarters of UK workers (74%) are worried about the cost of living rising in the next year, while high interest rates, the UK recession, and conflict around the world are also top concerns for the upcoming year. At least four-fifths of people feel the issues are impacting their mental health.”

Capper added: “We would like to see the government go further and invest in new initiatives designed to increase wellbeing support for UK employees. We ask that this includes clear guidance for employers on how they can support their employees’ physical and mental health, preferably in the form of a legally binding and regulated framework, as well as clearer routes to access for employees.

“We know that healthy people are happier and more productive, but we need a collaborative effort to improve the nation’s health.

“Employers must also do what is necessary to support employees with their health. While developing a robust sickness policy is important, businesses must review the bigger picture.

“Long-term sickness is on the rise, and a more holistic approach will be key to keeping people in work. A strong workplace wellbeing strategy with tailored benefits and support can significantly improve people’s mental and physical health with easy access to preventative support and treatment.”

You are currently previewing this article.

This is the last preview available to you for the next 30 days.

To access more news, features, columns and opinions every day, create a free myGrapevine account.