Is Health Everyone’s Business?

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Is Health Everyone’s Business?
By James Kidd, Partner, Mills & Reeve LLP

Earlier this year the Government launched a consultation on its proposals to reduce jobs lost to ill-health: ‘Health is everyone’s business’. So, what is the plan and how should employers respond?

The UK’s workforce carries on ageing. Figures released by the ONS in September show that the employment rate for the over 50s continues to rise, with the gap between the rates for men and women narrowing.

That means more people in work or seeking work with long-term health conditions. Of these by far the most common are musculoskeletal disorders and poor mental health. We also know that, excluding minor ailments such as colds and flu, these conditions are the most common reasons for sick leave.

Although the Government’s proposals address health in the broadest sense, there is evidence that workers with poor mental health are more likely to lose their jobs than people with other long-term conditions.

Back in 2017, the Stevenson/Farmer review ‘Thriving at Work’ set out a framework for workplace mental health through core mental health standards that can be implemented by employers of all sizes. The Government is now looking to give a legislative nudge to encourage what is already emerging as best practice in the mental health field and elsewhere.

‘Health is Everyone’s Business’ focuses on two main areas: changes to the legal framework for employers and reforming the occupational health market.

As far as the legal framework is concerned it is consulting on the following:

·       A new right for employees who are not covered by the Equality Act definition of disability to request workplace adjustments. This would be less onerous for employers than the duty to make reasonable adjustments for disabled workers, since there would be a right to refuse on ‘legitimate business grounds’.

·       Strengthening statutory guidance to encourage employers to support a sick employee to return to work. This wouldn’t involve changing the law of unfair dismissal, but employment tribunals would be able to take the guidance into account when assessing the fairness of a dismissal on capability grounds.

·       Reforming statutory sick pay to allow greater flexibility in returning to work after a sickness absence. Eligibility would be extended, and it would be possible for employees to receive part wage and part SSP during a phased return to work.

Turning to occupational health, the Government is looking at changing the incentives to encourage employers to take up OH support and measures to improve capacity within the OH workforce.

There is no time frame for any of these measures. However, as the UK’s population continues to age, any future Government will wish to improve older peoples’ participation in the labour market. With Brexit likely to result in labour shortages in many sectors and leaving aside existing legal obligations, there is a strong business case for employers to take steps voluntarily.

Evidence suggests that mental health is an area where employers most commonly fall short. The six-point core mental health standard proposed in Thriving at Work’, which begins with developing a mental health plan, would be a good place to start.

James Kidd is a Partner at Mills & Reeve LLP. Contact James on E: james.kidd@mills-reeve.com T: 01603 660155 For more information visit: mills-reeve.com

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