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Fighting fit

Encouraging staff to work when they are ill is both bad practice and a false economy, explains Janet Wright

Cutting back on staff health measures is a false economy that could cost employers dearly, a new CSP report warns. A quarter of employees claim they work when they’re ill for fear of losing their jobs if they take time off sick, says Sickness Costs, to be published by the CSP next week. And their fears are justifiable, according to research carried out for the Society. Three out of 10 managers admit they do not believe staff who call in sick with a recurring health problem. A third of managers find such absences irritating, and 22 per cent say it’s a cost they can ill afford. ‘The results of this report are a real concern to physiotherapists, as they suggest a culture in which staff with genuine illness or injury are encouraged to work, rather than get the appropriate treatment,’ says Phil Gray, CSP chief executive.  

Lower productivity

But continuing to work when ill can increase an employee’s risk of developing a chronic disorder, such as back pain or non-specific arm pain, or RSI, requiring longer periods of sick leave. ‘It is tempting in difficult economic times for businesses to cut back on health and well-being initiatives, such as a physiotherapy service,’ says Phil Gray. ‘But that is a false economy, because ignoring a recurring condition can lead to lower productivity and high temporary staffing costs. That’s why we have produced simple advice to help businesses keep their staff healthy.’ Addressing employers directly is the latest step in the CSP’s Move for Health campaign, which so far this year has focused on advice for employees and would-be workers. The CSP report shows that the cost of untreated musculoskeletal disorders, in particular, is a serious financial issue, with about 60 per cent of adults experiencing them at some time in life. MSDs account for nearly a third of sick leave from work and lose the country some £7.4 billion a year, according to government figures. The poor performance of staff struggling to work while unwell costs companies up to £15 billion more. Nicola Hunter of RehabWorks in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, had worked with businesses since 1999, when she set up a programme with Anglian Water. As well as treating chronic conditions, RehabWorks offers a triage service with a helpline that staff can ring for advice or a physio appointment, solving many problems before they have a chance to set in. ‘I’m a great advocate of fast-access physiotherapy,’ says Nicola Hunter, the CSP’s physiotherapist of the year. She notes that the new Statement of Fitness to Work, or ‘fit note’, which recently replaced the ‘sick note’, encourages people back to work in a reduced capacity if necessary. ‘That’s helpful for a week or two,’ she says. ‘But if people working full time can only do part of their job, the job’s not getting done. Physiotherapy can get people back to full productivity. It’s a win-win situation.’ Sickness Costs says just 37 per cent of small or medium-sized enterprises provide an occupational-health service, and a third think that only big companies can afford to do so. Nicola Hunter’s answer to companies who say they can’t afford it is that it’s likely to save them money. Anglian Water reports a return of more than £3 on every £1 spent on its physiotherapy-based health service. At the Royal Mail it’s £5, says Sickness Costs, and one call centre reports a £34 return. Sickness Costs is accompanied by a new booklet, Fitness Profits, packed with practical advice for managers. ‘Employers need to encourage a more open culture so employees feel able to report sickness sooner,’ says Phil Gray. That was the change most frequently requested by employees in a CSP survey on how their employers could improve workplace health. fl

The CSP advises employers to:

  • encourage staff to take breaks  from their workstations
  • train supervisors to recognise early signs of MSDs and encourage employees to report these
  • encourage staff participation in sports and other activities
  • work with trade union stewards and safety reps
  • promote flexible working as part of a culture that supports work- life balance
  • members can get free copies of the CSP’s new Fitness Profits  leaflet at


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