MSDs and mental health issues are both major causes of absence, but our research highlights significant inconsistencies in how they are dealt with, finds Vanessa Sallows, benefits and governance director – Workplace Health and Protection, L&G

wellness on a budget

The Wellbeing in the Workplace 2017 report found great differences in the likely absence durations and the support available to employees, depend­ing on their illness.

Mental health is twice the problem of musculoskeletal

According to the report, employers are less concerned by absences due to musculoskeletal disorders (MSD) than those related to mental health (MH) issues.

Fewer than one in five employers (17%) said MSD absences were a growing issue for business. Twice as many (37%) felt that mental health was more of a prob­lem. Similarly, 22% felt the impact of MSD was reducing, whereas only 9% thought the same about MH absences.

The report analysed the impact on business by com­paring the length of absences caused by the two differ­ent issues. Respondents said that usually only 20% of MSD absences last more than 20 days. However, 42% of mental health-related absences usually last 20 days or more, with 12% lasting 50 days or more.

Early intervention is vital

Of course, the longer an absence, the greater the impact. At Legal & General we know from the claims we manage the chances of return fall as the length of absence increases. The sooner the absence is notified, the quicker the right support can be put in place. This can be done where there is a clear absence management process, but the report shows there is no consistent approach.

Structured support for absence?

For MSD, most employers refer to occupational health (65%) or HR (50%) for advice. Other sources were: pri­vate medical insurance (31%), Fit For Work (20%), health cash plan (19%), discounted physiotherapy (13%) and group income protection (12%).

There are more varied sources of support for mental health absences. Almost three-quarters (73%) would suggest the employee self-refers to an employee assis­tance programme; 61% say it is the line manager’s responsibility to find the most appropriate solution. Almost one in three (31%) said there was no formal process for managing MH absences. Other referral routes were HR (39%), private medical insurance pro­vider (20%), occupational health (14%), group income protection provider (11%) and Fit for Work (7%).

Although referring to the group income protection provider is not among the most common responses, it may be the most comprehensive solution, as a good policy includes access to a specialist team that can determine the best way forward.

Prompt, appropriate funded treatment

Many employer responses involve referring to various third parties for advice, but few will actually fund treat­ment. Legal & General’s Rehabilitation Team can deal with all appropriate parties and arrange the most suita­ble treatment without the need for a GP referral.

In 2016 our rehabilitation team provided more than 5,000 treatments at no extra cost to the employer. All intervention is outcome focused, with the aim of return­ing the employee back to ‘good’ work where appropriate. This is a different approach to how PMI policies work.

Preventing a relapse

An employee returning to work after an absence is great news but it should not be the end of the process. They may need time and support to help prevent a relapse – however, the report shows that many companies pro­vide no specific support to prevent this happening. A quality group income protection policy can help here as well. Legal & General’s Rehabilitation Team can develop a comprehensive return-to-work plan including relapse prevention strategies and support.

The unsung hero?

As businesses of all sizes become more aware of the benefits of wellbeing and absence management strat­egies, they may be surprised at the extensive addi­tional support embedded in a group income protection plan and the value it provide.

This article first appeared in Reward's new research report, Wellbeing in the Workplace 2017. To read the report in full, CLICK HERE