Analysis: Productivity and absence - what should your clients care more about?

Do companies now focus more on getting the most out of those actually at work?

Although addressing absence has traditionally been a key driver of uptake of health insurance and related benefits, some employers are beginning to place more emphasis on improving productivity across their ‘at-work’ workforce, as Tessa Norman reports

As the debate around corporate health insurance has evolved in recent years, employers have focused increasingly on getting sick employees back to work as quickly as possible through early intervention and absence management.

And now, according to those on the coalface speaking to employers each day, the debate has moved into a new phase: sickness prevention and maximising productivity.

While the idea of wellbeing is nothing new, intermediaries and insurers are reporting a growing willingness among employers to invest in this area, driven by a mounting body of evidence for the outcomes of wellness and engagement initiatives.

Meanwhile, many in the industry are reporting that absence levels – despite being a focus for years – are no longer top of employers’ concerns, while productivity is becoming increasingly important.

But what evidence should intermediaries be employing when discussing this area with clients, and what are insurers offering to cater for this shift in the market?

'Absence' - yesterday's word?

Despite the industry’s focus on reducing absence in recent years, statistics suggest this has brought about little change in rates.

The latest available Confederation of British Industry (CBI)/Pfizer Absence and Workplace Health Survey shows the UK economy lost 190 million days to absence in 2010, equating to 6.5 days per employee, up slightly from 6.4 days the previous year.

The Chartered Institute of Personnel & Development’s (CIPD’s) 2011 Absence Management Survey puts the figure slightly higher at 7.7 days absence per employee but, crucially, this is unchanged from the year before.

And intermediaries report that a growing number of companies are prepared to accept absence as long as it falls within a level they deem acceptable.

“You are never going to be able to get everyone at work so many companies feel they should keep the people who are at their desk engaged and productive,” says David Dolding, director of consulting at Portus Consulting, the employee benefits adviser.

“It is easy to focus on the minority who are absent and forget that you have the vast majority at work and even if they are primarily happy and engaged, why not make them happier?”

What is more, according to Stephen Hackett, head of health and risk at corporate adviser Bluefin, 'presenteeism' – staff coming into work when ill - both costs employers more than absenteeism and carries greater risks.

“The Centre for Mental Health estimates that presenteeism costs the UK economy £15.1bn a year, whereas absenteeism costs almost only half that at £8.4bn,” he says.

“Presenteeism should be a far greater focus for corporates, because the risk of an employee doing something wrong while they are off sick is minimal, but if someone is at work and under pressure or unwell, there is a greater risk of them making a mistake which could damage the business.”

Buzzword?

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