Currently employees must earn at least the equivalent of 14 hours on the minimum wage to qualify and statutory sickness pay (SSP) is only for those who earn more than £118 a week. But the government is looking at whether to extend eligibility to those earning below this threshold.
The proposals from the DWP also include money for small businesses in the form of a sick pay rebate, so that they can help people with disabilities and those with long-term conditions get back to work when they are ready.
The government's consultation will seek views on the level and duration of statutory sick pay, which risks disincentivising returning to work, according to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). It will explore allowing phased returns to work, in which people would continue to receive statutory sick pay.
The proposals include statutory guidance to employers to take 'early, proportionate and reasonable steps to support an employee to return to work, before dismissing them on health grounds'. Employees will have a right to request modifications to the workplace on health grounds. They will be encouraged to raise issues and employers to accommodate them where possible.
According to the DWP 100,000 people every year fall out of work completely after a sickness absence. Nearly half (44%) of those who are off work because of illness for a year do not return to the workplace.
Work and pensions secretary Amber Rudd said she wants to work with employers to help more people with health conditions into work. “I want Britain to be an environment where disabled people and those with health conditions can thrive, not just survive – not only in work but every area of their lives," she said.
“With three in five employers facing challenges when supporting employees to return to work it’s time we took a closer look at how businesses can retain staff. Good work is good for our mental and physical health, and by working closely with employers we can help prevent the loss of talent when people unnecessarily leave the workplace.”
"These people are at greater risk of falling out of work, and once people fall out of work the barriers to returning are high. But with the right support and adjustments in place many could remain in employment,” a DWP spokesperson said.
“If someone currently earning below the lower earnings limit were given the full rate of SSP it is likely that this would be above what their weekly wage is. If they can get the same amount or more from staying off work then this removes the incentive for employees to return to work. It is a balance between supporting this group when they are off work sick while also providing an incentive for them to return to work,” said the spokesperson.
“Too many still face challenges returning to work after sick leave. We need to remove the barriers that stop people with disabilities or health conditions from reaching their full potential – these steps will help us achieve that,” said health and social care secretary Matt Hancock.
“Businesses will also benefit from being able to retain talent and build workplaces that support the physical and mental health needs of their employees.”
However, chief executive at Scope Mark Hodgkinson said that while he welcomed the news the proposals do not address the details of statutory sick pay, meaning that many with disabilities may remain locked out of work: “The SSP system is out of date, inflexible and poorly enforced, so it’s great news that the government is consulting. The proposed increased flexibility and better enforcement of SSP could help keep more disabled people in work," he told HR magazine.
“But current flaws in the system with the level and length of the SSP provided aren’t included. Disabled people would still face the stark choice between working when unwell or struggling to make ends meet. A sick pay system that offers support that is flexible, fair, and right away should be a priority for the next government.”
Matthew Fell, the CBI’s chief UK policy director, said: “Managing sickness absence effectively and reducing it through proactive health and wellbeing initiatives and policies makes good business sense. Where this helps disabled people to contribute their best at work it can also be an important part of employers’ diversity and inclusion efforts.
“With the UK’s productivity performance under the spotlight many employers know that a well thought-out health and wellbeing strategy can help boost performance and make their company a better place to work.
“Adding greater flexibility to statutory sick pay so it supports mental as well as physical health makes sense, and reflects the reality that one in four people will experience such an illness each year.”