Soldiering on…



01 December 2020


Matt Hancock, Secretary of State for Health, made a significant statement on workplace absence last week.  Hancock said;

"I want to have a change in the British way of doing things where 'if in doubt, get a test' doesn't just refer to coronavirus but refers to any illness that you might have.  Why in Britain do we think it's acceptable to soldier on and go into work if you have flu symptoms or a runny nose, thus making your colleagues ill?”

And the Health Secretary certainly has a point.  The British culture has traditionally been one of workplace presenteeism, even with the inherent knowledge that any such attendance might ultimately spread illness amongst colleagues, clients, and suppliers. 

A financial factor?

But is there more to it than that?  Certainly there is a financial aspect to be considered here too.

On the one hand we have the rise of self-employment and “gig” working, both of which offer very little in the way of income protection if an individual cannot work through illness.  This doubtless results in many being forced by financial reasons to continue working, even if they know that they really shouldn’t. 

But the problems also extends into the fully employed population of the nation. 

Although a legally required basic level of sick pay is hardwired into the UK employment system, at only £95.85 per week this often won’t be enough to persuade a financially stressed individual to stay off work, even if they continue to experience potentially infectious symptoms. 

Many employers do more

Of course many employers can and do offer far more advanced levels of sickness income support, at the very least for short-term absences.  Yet no less a body than the CIPD reported earlier this year that 89% of employers still see people attending the workplace when ill.

It follows that offering financial support is only part of the battle.  The key surely has to be that of making certain that every employee is aware of – and fully understands – the nature of the absence support made available to them.  So how successful are employers in this objective? 

A recent survey of 1165 employees published by Group Risk Development (GRiD) highlights that more than a third of workers either don’t know what absence support is on offer (24%), or don’t believe they will be provided with any support at all (11%).  This clearly represents something of a communications failure on behalf of their employers, and even more so where the employer actually does offer a robust sick pay policy to support their employees.  In reality it’s in the interest of every employer – and all their workers – to present a cohesive and structured approach to short, medium, and long-term sickness absence. 

Communications are key

For some employers this might mean undertaking a new exercise to communicate and embed an already established package of support measures.  For others it might firstly require a review and improvement on what is currently on offer.  And for both groupings it will help to also promote other employer-funded features that might help the employee and speed a healthy return to the workplace.  Such options might well include Employee Assistance Plans (EAP), remote GP appointments, healthcare support, and the early intervention services provided free alongside many Group Income Protection plans.

The reality is that 2020 has already demonstrated just how quickly infectious illness can spread, and by extension the dangers of unconstrained workplace presenteeism too.  So now would be the ideal time for employers to look again at their absence policies, income support options, and of course employee communications too.

For more information on any of the above topics, please speak to your usual Howden Consultant in the first instance, or visit our website for other contact options. For the latest details on COVID-19 & Employee Benefits provision please visit our coronavirus hub.

(Published 01/12/20)

Steve Herbert

Steve is Head of Benefits Strategy, Howden Employee Benefits & Wellbeing, and is an award-winning thought leader on Pensions, Employee Benefits, and Human Resources issues. He is occasionally accused of making Employee Benefits interesting.

Steve Herbert

More insights from the Employee Benefits and Wellbeing team

This article is one of many insightful opinion pieces.

archery field targets

EB statement