Government adviser on workplace health Dr. Sayeed Khan gave forum delegates a keynote speech peppered with suggestions for improving their offering. Edmund Tirbutt reports
Despite managing to combine being chief medical adviser at manufacturers’ organisation EEF with clinical work and sitting on numerous government workplace health panels, Dr. Sayeed Khan showed no signs of operating below his optimum level during his keynote session “Is the ‘Work Until You Drop’ Culture Becoming Commonplace?” But a quick examination of his audience suggested they were not on such safe ground.
A straw poll of corporate advisers at the event showed many demonstrating classic traits related to workplace stress and productivity, ranging from failing to take a lunch break or full holiday entitlement to waking up with a headache on a Saturday morning. Khan reported that during his clinical work he had “seen some very reliable people crumble in the current economic climate.”
Khan talked about the way workers are responding to the uncertainty in the economy and the job market. The proportion of employees who never take a single day off work has now reached around 50 per cent and, because more are coming to work when they are not well, this has obvious implications for presenteeism costs. Stress, anxiety and depression inevitably figured prominently here, and targeted cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) was flagged up as a very valuable tool. Early intervention was also deemed crucial by Khan but, unfortunately, line managers were frequently not up to the task.
“Line managers fall into two camps,” said Khan. “In one they simply don’t recognise stress as a proper illness whereas in the other they are overtaken by sheer panic if one of their team says they are a bit depressed, especially if females start being tearful.”
He suggested a “stability zone,” whether it be a potting shed or a church service, as important for relieving personal stress and, from an organisational perspective, the Work Organisation Assessment questionnaire Dr. Khan has developed at EEF was highlighted as a useful resource for preventing stress problems from occurring in the first place.
Khan also attached huge importance to managing chronic conditions.
Just over half of those aged 45 to 64 now have a chronic condition of some sort, which means they need rapid access to specialist nurses or consultants.
”If you have a chronic condition it doesn’t mean you can’t work or can’t cope but the risks are higher, and I see a lot of people with chronic conditions who simply haven’t been treated properly” he explained.
He also emphasised chasing all employees waiting for appointments, diagnosis and treatments as a key priority because medical investigations and undergoing surgery were the main causes of long-term sickness. He pointed advisers to the Healthy Working UK website, for its powerful data on how long it takes people to recover from various operations. Khan suggested health and protection intermediaries could take data from that site and create their own information sheets to give to employers to guide them on when they should expect employees back to work for specific conditions, pointing out that the only reason GPs give six week sick notes is because that is often when the next appointment is available, not because that is how long it will take the person to recover from that particular condition.
Dr. Khan’s non-stop practical advice even extended to how to improve a company’s image.
He strongly advocated that advisers get their clients to commit to The Responsibility Deal, the governmental initiative which aims to get businesses to make a significant contribution to public health by helping to tackle problems such as obesity, excessive alcohol consumption and lack of physical exercise.
“It’s really good and it’s all about brand image” he enthused. “An employer can say it’s a pledge that is in line with Government thinking on these issues. This provides obvious branding and reputational enhancement for larger corporates, so get them to sign up to it.”
But the Government didn’t receive quite the same degree of unmitigated praise when it came to considering its recent response to Dame Carol Black and David Frost’s Sickness Absence Review. Although committing to important recommendations such as the revised fit note guidance and funding for a new Independent Assessment Service, it had “fudged” on several issues.
For example, rather than offer a full free job-brokering service after 20 weeks, the new health and work assessment and advisory service will instead signpost people to Universal Jobmatch, a free internet job-matching service launched in November 2012.The decision on whether to give basic-rate taxpayers tax relief on medical interventions had also been delayed until the 2013 Budget.
“There has been a lot of discussion about tax relief,” Dr. Khan continued, “but the Treasury are such a bunch of old women that they sit around saying that people might abuse it. Why don’t they just go out and do a random audit to see if people are actually abusing the system?”
The keynote session was delivered in such an engaging and passionate manner that Phil Kennedy, business development manager at Legal & General, probably spoke for everyone present when he said “If we could get Dr. Khan in front of employers and talk about the things he talked about they would want to invest in health and wellbeing.”
Kennedy himself had key stats at his fingertips in Tools and Tips to Demonstrate the Value of Group Risk and Health & Wellbeing Solutions, that echoed many of the points raised by Dr. Khan.
For example, Kennedy pointed out that four face-to-face sessions of counselling, which can include CBT, cost £280 on average, yet the average cost of a stress absence approaches £18,000. Kennedy’s rolodex of facts included data showing that presenteeism accounts for 1.5 times more working time cost than sickness absence; prevention and early identification of problems should enable employers to save 30 per cent or more of these costs; there is the potential to return 70 per of long-term absentees back to work before the end of the income protection deferred period; and 40 per cent of income protection claims come from stress.