· Features

Minimising sickness absence in the face of NHS cuts

Brutal NHS cuts will hit hard in the coming years - and UK plc and HR professionals will feel the aftershocks.

By 2015, the health service has been told to shave £20 billion from its budget, producing far-reaching consequences for businesses in every sector and raising the spectre of increased workplace absenteeism.

As funding shrinks, NHS trusts have started to de-prioritise certain procedures and cut back on a range of services - in exactly the kind of areas that could provide severe headaches for HR directors.

Cuts to musculoskeletal services and increased waiting times in the treatment of stress and mental illness are likely to result in a potential void in employee healthcare, with the onus on businesses to react.

A recent survey by the Chartered Society of Physiotherapists highlighted growing numbers of patients are receiving less hands-on physiotherapy treatment, while routine operations, including hip and knee replacements, are increasingly being seen as 'low priority'.

Preventive healthcare is also at risk of serious budget cuts, while mental health charity Rethink believes mental health services are being considered a soft target.

Musculoskeletal disorders, along with stress and mental illness, are considered the biggest causes of employee absence in the UK, so the implications of NHS cuts are instantly clear.

By scaling back on services, the Government has inadvertently pushed a burden of responsibility onto employers, who will increasingly be forced to explore possible options to help fill the growing gaps in state healthcare provision.

A range of employee benefits - from comprehensive corporate medical insurance schemes to cash plans - can go a long way to help prevent businesses suffering at the hands of perceived and emerging NHS weaknesses.

Providers too are being forced to re-examine their own procedures and adapt existing plans to meet the demands of a rapidly changing landscape.

Certain schemes offer treatment only when a condition impacts upon an employee's work, dependent on assessment and authorisation by an occupational health physician. In the past, there has been limited take-up for such schemes but they may increase in popularity as employers look for ways to return staff to work.

Assessments can also establish whether the conditions are expected to result in protracted delays for NHS treatment. Ultimately, the results will determine whether employees are eligible to claim against the insurance scheme.

Possibly the most worrying aspect of the changes to health services are increased waiting times for the treatment of stress and mental health conditions, which account for more than half of all working days lost every year.

Recent data collected under the Freedom of Information Act revealed that patients are being forced to wait for more than six months to see a trained counsellor in at least 10 PCTs throughout England.

The possible consequences are all too clear, particularly when you consider that treatments such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can provide an extremely cost-effective way of reducing sickness absence or losing valued members of staff from a company's workforce. Employers simply cannot afford to turn a blind eye.

Even when patients have been referred for CBT - supported by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) for tackling anxiety and depression - the situation remains difficult. Currently, the waiting time for treatment stands at more than six months in at least eight PCTs.

By the time employees have received treatment, it may have come too late for them to avoid disruption to working life - and for businesses to avoid disruption to their own operations

In light of this, as well as the increasing difficulty of receiving treatment at short notice for a range of other non-life threatening conditions, one potential solution would see employers funding treatments such as CBT themselves on a case-by-case basis.

But there are pitfalls to such action, particularly as it would mean a benefit-in-kind tax liability on all relevant treatments.

As a result, the more logical option for businesses could prove to be the introduction of an employee benefit scheme that covers these treatments, whether PMI, employee assistance programmes (EAP) or cash plans.

By introducing appropriate benefit schemes, companies are not only fostering staff loyalty and positioning themselves as employers of choice but tax is also being levied more cost effectively on the benefit premiums.

Either way, employers must be ready to meet the challenge.

Mike Blake, is a director at PMI Health Group