Health Pressures on the Public Sector
The Health & Safety Executive’s latest statistics suggest that in the public administration sector there are an estimated 79,000 work related injuries or illnesses reported each year. These can be broadly split into 3 categories. Stress, anxiety and depression represent the highest proportion of this with 48%, followed closely by Musculoskeletal (MSK) disorders at 36%, and all other injuries at 15%. From this we can see there are 2 main issues within the sector with a high proportion coming from mental health disorders and MSK issues. This leads to around 2 million days lost each year to absence with mental health issues contributing 0.8 million days to this figure and MSK issues making up 0.7 million.
When you couple the above with increasing pressures to cut costs due to historic (and ongoing) budget cuts, it has meant that managing absence in a controlled and financially advantageous manner has become a huge challenge within the sector. What is encouraging is the main contributing factors in the public sector are treatable. Both MSK and mental health disorders respond really well to a number of methods of treatment and often, go hand in hand with one another. It is very common for someone suffering with chronic lower back pain for instance to also have anxiety or depression, the two are closely linked. So a holistic and encompassing approach is often essential to dealing with absence. It’s important for organisations within the sector to have the requisite tools to ensure sustainable wellbeing for their employees and not just a quick fix. Of course this comes at a price and as purse strings tighten universally employees can find this to be a scary prospect.
So it’s important that key stakeholders are aware of the return on investment they can see from implementing these services. We know that the cost of absence is significantly higher in the public sector (£835 avg. per employee per year) compared to the private sector so it’s really imperative for public sector organisations to have robust and effective systems in place to stem these losses. Personally the public sector clients we provide services for have found that for every £1 they invest in MSK alone they receive a return on investment of £3.50 - £4.00. Really these services keep public sector organisations running, keeping employees in work and stemming those significant losses.
But the public sector also faces other pressures as the employee count shrinks, seeing a 7% drop since 2010 with estimates indicating this will double by 2020. When we consider that public sector workers are more likely than those in the private sector to stop work because of a health condition/ disability (84% compared to 70% respectively) the sector needs to consider its strategy around retaining talent. It certainly seems that more needs to be done to support public sector employees’ mental and physical health and increase retention in respect to these issues. So it’s not just about a financial investment but an investment in staff, so at the end of the day someone is receiving the support they need to improve their quality of life; keeping them healthy and in work. And of course more staff healthy and in work ensures those crucial front-line services are being delivered, so the health and wellbeing of public sector staff really does affect us all.
Yet the public sector is leagues ahead when it comes to collecting absence data, with 95% of organisations collecting this information and 93% having a written absence management policy. So if they’re taking all the right steps why does absence remain so high? Well, the sector needs to become more proactive, rather than reactive. When job roles have the tendency to become high intensity and pressured, as they so often do in the Public Sector, you need to equip your employees with the tools to be able to deal with these demanding roles.
There are a number of preventative tools for both mental and musculoskeletal health and it’s imperative that within the UK we develop a work culture that understands these issues and the best ways to deal with them. In a recent study from the Department of Work & Pensions it was found that those with mental health conditions were: less likely to have discussed their condition with an employer, more likely to feel employers had not been supportive and less likely to find adjustments helpful. So what we need to be looking at are adjustments in work culture as opposed to physical adjustments. When dealing with mental health issues it’s important to both build a network of support within the workplace and equip the individual who may be suffering with their own tools to combat their condition. By identifying issues early and working alongside employees to develop coping techniques the number of employees taking sickness leave for mental health issues can be significantly reduced. We know that often taking leave can have further adverse effects on an employee’s mental health making it more difficult for them to return to work in the future, so it’s important we do all we can to prevent this occurring.
Looking to musculoskeletal issues, ergonomic assessments can provide solutions for both ends of the spectrum; on the one hand they can prevent the exacerbation or cause of a musculoskeletal injury but they can also be used to aid those returning to work after an injury. But of course no two organisations are the same and to really be ahead of the curve it’s important to have data on the kind of issues that affect your organisation specifically, something we know the public sector are adept at collecting. Analysing this data can identify trends and give you a real insight into issues that can easily be overlooked. At IPRS Health we’ve seen how such analysis can really make a difference to an organisation’s absence.
For a large county council, we work with we’ve seen the ratio of employees attending work during treatment rise to almost 90% (89.62%). This is down to really integrating our service with the organisation, not just using one tact but many. So when we talk about things like trend analysis we looked at the sort of injuries that were coming in, their causes and how the work they were doing was affecting this. We found that a large portion, over 30%, of patients could significantly improve their recovery by a reassessment of their workstation. So we introduced DSE assessments to improve recovery times and in some instances prevent the need for sickness leave altogether. Another important step to keeping so many employees within work relates to this change in working culture mentioned earlier. At IPRS Health we actively engage with those staff making referrals, encouraging them to recognise issues early and make a referral into us as soon as possible. By working with key stakeholders we can really stress the importance of early intervention, resulting in this fantastic rate of keeping patients in work. We would love to see this figure replicated amongst all our public sector clients. Of course this relies on them being educated on the subject and realising the true value of this kind of service. Often these relationships are strongest when someone with a clinical background is involved with the contract, as they understand the wider repercussions around prevention and early intervention and how this can really stop issues snowballing and becoming more difficult to manage and as a result costly. Using this knowledge, they can demonstrate to key stakeholders those definitive cost savings.
As the issue of wellbeing becomes more prominent in popular culture we’re hoping to see this understanding spread deeper among organisations. With the statistics we looked at earlier; increased budget cuts, continuing staff cuts and continually high absence figures, it’s important that this realisation comes sooner, rather than later to safe guard against losing valuable staff and valuable revenue, both of which are in persistently short supply within the public sector.
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