Stress, anxiety and depression were the chief reasons for time off work in 2012.
The Confederation of British Industry and Pfizer’s Fit for Purpose Survey 2013 reports that mental health conditions are the most widespread cause of long-term absence in workers. 42% of manual workers, and 54% of non-manual workers list it as a top five reason for long-term absence.
Given that sickness absence cost the UK economy £14 billion in 2012, what are the options available to employers?
One of the main ways to deal with employees suffering stress (often on the recommendation of the GP or OHS) is to offer them flexible working. The Fit for Purpose Survey revealed that 82% of employees use flexible working to reduce the stress caused by competing home and work responsibilities.
Currently, employees have the right to request flexible working where they have the requisite service and provided they meet the requirements in terms of having certain carer responsibilities and that they have not made a request for flexible work in the previous 12 months. The request can include a change to the hours that the employee is required to work, to the times when they are required to work or the location at which the work is undertaken, for example at home.
Currently, once a request is received there is a strict timetable which has to be adhered to in dealing with the request, including a right to appeal. A request can be refused on a number of grounds including for example the burden of additional costs, a detrimental effect on ability to meet customer demand or on quality of performance, or an inability to re-organise work among existing staff or to recruit additional staff.
The current process for requesting flexible working has been long criticised on the basis that it has “no teeth”, and that it is easy for employers to refuse a request. Employers do however need to consider the situation carefully before refusing a request. There may be additional considerations for example in relation to potential discrimination claims. In the case of flexible working on health grounds, the request may constitute a reasonable adjustment for disability discrimination purposes, or in the case of a request based upon child care arrangements, a refusal may be discriminatory on the grounds of sex.
The Government has however announced its intention to bring in new legislation this year to simplify the flexible working system and expand it to a wider audience. All employees will soon have the right to request flexible working once they have accrued 26 weeks’ continuous employment, whether they are a carer or not. The current rigid process for dealing with requests will be replaced with a duty to consider requests “reasonably” (guidance will be issued on what is reasonable or not). Lastly, the reforms will also see the relaxation of the prohibition on making multiple applications in a year.
In addition to flexible working arrangements, employers could consider counselling and training programmes and completing risk assessments in managing employees’ stress levels.
Many forward thinking businesses are also looking to technology to provide an answer. Diagnostic testing equipment, measuring stress hormones, is now available. It has also been suggested that smartphones will come equipped with more health sensors, measuring heart rate and blood pressure amongst other things, so that individuals can monitor their own health. Businesses may therefore be well advised to re-examine their sickness absence and flexible working policies – it’s just what the doctor ordered!
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