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Business coalition calls for improvements to workplace health

26 Jul 2019 By Elizabeth Howlett

Coalition of employers and experts urges overhaul to the occupational health system to combat rise in sickness absence

Employers need to take a leading role in promoting good physical and mental health in the workplace, a coalition of businesses has said.

In an open letter, published in The Times, the Working Well Coalition – a group of businesses, MPs and health experts – said employers have an important role to play in alleviating the challenges brought on by the rapidly changing world of work.

The letter said mental health and musculoskeletal conditions were the two biggest causes of workplace absence, after minor illness, accounting for more than 43 million lost working days per year – and said four in five UK workers claimed support from their employer could help them recover quicker. 

The coalition is spearheaded by John Lewis Partnership (JLP), with other members including the CIPD, the Federation for Small Businesses and technology firm Siemens, among others.



The coalition has also called for the existing occupational health (OH) system to be simplified, for early access to help and support and support to be made more widely available to employees, and for all OH-related services to be made a non-taxable benefit.

Currently, employer-provided OH services are a taxable benefit to the employee and subject to both income tax and National Insurance, which the JLP said could result in an effective tax rate of more than 40 per cent for those employers that wish to settle the taxes on behalf of their employees.

Rachel Suff, the CIPD’s senior policy adviser, said that despite the government giving workplace health increased attention, many organisations want to see an increase in the pace of change.

“There’s momentum, but for a lot of organisations – particularly small employers – the resources and know-how aren’t in place to really take health and wellbeing seriously,” Suff said. 

She also called on employers to respond to the recently launched government consultation, Health is everyone's business, to help ensure the right policies were being put in place.

Tracey Killen, director of personnel at John Lewis, said: “For business, a healthy, engaged workforce can boost performance and productivity. The report highlights that if employers, health experts and the government all work together, we can achieve great things for the UK economy, businesses and workers.”

The letter follows the release of the JLP’s Working Well Report, which revealed the total cost of absenteeism and reduced productivity due to mental health and musculoskeletal conditions for UK businesses could rise to as much as £87.8 billion by 2025 – a £14 billion increase from today’s rate of £73.8 billion.

It estimated that by investing in early clinical interventions for musculoskeletal and mental health conditions, UK businesses could save £38.1 billion by 2025. 

However, Nick Pahl, chief executive of the Society of Occupational Medicine – which is also part of the Working Well Coalition – has raised concerns the letter would become about tax breaks for OH.

“There is a risk that the government produces some minor tax tweak and declares ‘job done’ in this area… It is very important that the breadth of proposals in the consultation are not replaced by just [tax breaks],” said Pahl.

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