Health | April 2020: the government push for proactive employee wellbeing begins

April 2020: the government push for proactive employee wellbeing begins

By Tracey Ward, Head of Business Development & Marketing at Generali UK Employee Benefits

The imminent amendments to the Statement of Employment Particulars represent just one change in a series of many expected over coming years, all designed by government to try to ensure employers - of all shapes and sizes - play a more proactive role in both preventing and managing employee absence.

Why? Because governments (recent past and present) see a vital role for employers in helping shoulder the state burden with regards to disability and long-term ill health. The goal is to help more people return to work, to proactively support their health and wellbeing throughout their employment and to ensure fairness and transparency whatever their employment status.

All of this arguably starts with the changes to the Statement of Written Particulars this April, which is designed to – amongst other things - help employees take better informed decisions with regards to making their own provisions around aspects such as income protection (where bare minimum statutory sick pay is provided) or to ask their employer to provide company sponsored disability provision.

From the employer’s perspective, it should be viewed as a supporting tool to help them evidence the value to employees, beyond salary, of working for that organisation, comments Paul White, Senior Risk Consultant at Howden Employee Benefits & Wellbeing.

“Many employers invest heavily in benefits and to maximise the value of this, a good communication programme is essential,” he adds. “Where they currently don’t communicate well, the change may encourage employers to introduce Total Reward Statements as a means of sharing details of the benefits.”

What are the changes?

As proposed in the Government’s Good Work Plan on employment rights, published in December 2018 in response to the 2017 Taylor Review of Modern Working Practices, legislation has now been passed that makes changes to the Employment Rights Act 1996.

The Taylor Review set out to help provide clarity around employee / worker status in the face of rapidly growing changes to employment status: from zero hours contracts to gig and contract workers.

Currently, all employees have a statutory right to receive a statement of employment particulars - which must contain specific information such as working hours, notice periods etc - once they reach one months’ continuous employment. Employers are legally required to provide such a document within two months of the start of employment.

The change in legislation, which will be introduced on 6 April 2020, says that the right to be given a written statement is a ‘day one’ right that is extended to all staff - ‘workers’ as well as employees. Also, the information contained therein is to be widened to include: eligibility for sick leave and pay; details of other types of paid leave (i.e. maternity, paternity); and all other remuneration (not just pay) – for example, vouchers, lunch and employee benefits.

In the case of sickness and absence benefits, the statement will provide details of what the employer provides above and beyond any statutory obligations. “This is a step forward,” adds Paul. “It will force employers to be clear about benefit provision. At the moment, many employees have little idea of the benefits the employer provides. In some instances, this is due to no obligation on the employer to share the information. But, in other instances, employers are deliberately opaque about provision.”

Worker vs employee

At the time of writing, final guidance for employers hadn’t been issued. But obviously the clock is ticking. “When it is published, employers will need to grasp the changes and take action quickly,” said Katharine Moxham, Spokesperson for GRiD, the industry body for the group risk sector.

At present, definitions of ‘worker’ are a little grey. It’s worth referring to the definitions of employment status. But it essentially boils down to whether: individuals have a contract or other arrangement to do work of services personally for a reward (the contract doesn’t have to be written); the reward is for money or a benefit in kind – for example the promise of future work; they have to turn up for work even if they don’t want to; and the employer has to have work for them to do.

Better equipped?

“Ultimately, the legislation will help employees [and workers] make a better-informed decision about their own [sick pay] provision, encouraging them either to take out their own protection insurance or ask their employer to provide a group scheme if they do not currently go beyond Statutory Sick Pay,” adds Katharine.

Paul comments that this will only happen in practice if the statement of written particulars “is supported by wider education about the likelihood and impact of long-term illness, as well as the relatively modest support now provided by the state in most cases”.

What else is coming?

With regards to the government push for employer proactivity, additional changes are less concrete as yet. But if consultation papers published last year are anything to go by, we might expect to see:

  • Statutory Sick Pay being extended to cover the lowest paid and rebates for SMEs that proactively support employees on sickness absence. These recommendations1 follow earlier government commissioned research on employer attitudes to health and wellbeing, which showed that most SMEs – and many large corporates – are still taking a very reactive approach to sickness absence management.

  • A focus on Occupational Health (OH) as the cure-all solution. At present, the government seems to be taking a fairly narrow view that OH provision represents the answer to the lack of proactivity, according to industry experts. Readers may remember the Fit For Work service, the government’s free telephone-based return to work advice and support service, which involved access to OH professionals. This closed in 2018 due primarily to a lack of referrals from employers and GPs. Industry body GRiD said in its response to last year’s government consultation2 that employers should instead be incentivised to make use of the wide range of wellbeing services to which they probably already have access, especially via group income protection.

For more information on the difference between various occupational rehabilitation specialists - OH, Occupational Therapy and Vocational Rehabilitation - please read this HR Grapevine article.

Find out more

1 Sickness absence and health: employer behaviour and practice, Department for Work & Pensions, Department for Health & Social Care, June 2019
2 Health is everyone’s business: proposals to reduce ill health-related job loss, Department for Work & Pensions, Department for Health & Social Care, July 2019

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