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Supportive workplaces “can help reduce sickness absence”

6 August 2008

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New research suggests more than 90% of people with health problems can be helped to return to work by following a few principles of good healthcare and workplace management.

A review into vocational rehabilitation has concluded that effective return to work is aided by workplaces that are accommodating – incorporating a proactive approach to supporting return to work and the temporary provision of modified work – and healthcare tailored to meet the individual’s needs.

The review, Vocational Rehabilitation: what works, for whom, and when? suggests that simple measures, alongside structured support, could reduce long-term sickness absence and the number of workers going on to long-term incapacity benefits by up to 60%.

Commenting on the review, Work and Pensions Secretary James Purnell said: “This evidence shows working can be an important step in people’s recovery.

“We are looking at how we can work with employers to make sure people get the support they need in the workplace. We have proposed doubling the amount of money we make available to employers to adapt the workplace to accommodate employees with specific needs.”

In addition, separate research has found that, with the right support, people with mental health problems can get back into work and for many having a job may actually help with their recovery.

James Purnell said: “Mental illness can affect anybody, its causes are complex and everybody’s recovery can be different, but it is clear that working can be an important part of some people’s recovery, or management of their condition.”

The research, from the Social Policy Research Unit at the University of York, also found many employers and employees are very supportive of mental health conditions.

Research conducted found the majority of people with mental health problems, who had talked about their condition at work, reported colleagues were positive and constructive.

Additionally, the research discovered employers were keen to learn more about mental health issues, and would welcome more contact with GPs about individual employees with mental health problems so they could plan better for their return to work.

Social Policy Research Unit’s Professor Roy Sainsbury, who led the research team, said: “Mental health and employment is one of the most challenging policy issues facing the UK.

“While constructive legislation and employer policies and contact between employers, GPs and other health professionals are undoubtedly part of the way forward in improving the employment experiences of people with mental health conditions, long-term progress possibly lies in changing attitudes towards mental health across all groups in society.”

Jane Aston, Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Employment Studies, who led the research with employers, said: “Line managers in any organisation have a vital role in recognising the signs of mental health problems, and being confident enough to talk to staff about it.”

Department for Work and Pensions

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“We have always tried to adopt a similar approach to staff sickness with phased returns to work and allocation of different duties until a person is ready to return to their usual role. It does seem to work in the majority of cases” – Susan Harrigan, Gateshead