Our popular blogger, Steve Herbert discusses why NHS waiting lists, which have grown fast in the last year, signals problems for both employees and employers ahead…

The UK’s National Health Service (NHS) and its legion of employees has risen well to the horrific and unexpected challenges of the last year, and we all have great reason to be grateful to the men and women that have worked themselves into the floor since the start of the COVID-19 crisis for the overall good of the nation.

Of course the crisis is still not fully over.  COVID-19 restrictions and wards are likely to remain in healthcare settings for many months to come, and a risk of yet another wave of a mutated version of the virus certainly can’t be ruled-out either.  But at the moment the signs for the UK are more promising than they have been since the start of the pandemic.  Thanks to both the NHS and an army of volunteers the national vaccination programme has proceeded incredibly well, and as a direct result the national and devolved governments are all looking more confidently towards a steady reopening of the economy.

This is great news for all, and not least those hard-pressed employers that have been existing on a mixture of reduced activity, reduced income, and state support.  But of course there will be new employment challenges ahead now.  And one such area is likely to be potentially increased levels of employee absence.


Waiting lists and treatment

For the truth of the matter is that NHS waiting lists for routine treatments were already growing prior to the arrival of COVID-19, and the pandemic has simply added-to and amplified those existing issues.

Indeed last week NHS England announced that their waiting-list for operations and treatment stood at a record high of 4.7 million – with 388,000 on that list waiting more than a year for treatment.  I have no doubt that the NHS in the other UK nations are experiencing a similar problem.

Now on the face of it this might seem like just another personal-health related media story, and indeed it will be those awaiting treatment that are (rightly) the most immediately concerned by this development.  But in practice this issue will also represent some very real challenges to employers too.


Employer problems

The problem for employers is that the health conditions which may now experience the longest waiting times for treatment are likely to be those conditions considered routine and non-urgent by the national healthcare system.  Yet a non-life-threatening condition usually remains extremely problematical to the individual patient who is experiencing and coping with that issue.

At best such minor conditions might limit some of the individual’s daily routines or output, and at worst they could be serious enough to involve long periods of absence from the workplace.  And this at a time when so many organisations are in a desperate need of a return to full productivity just as quickly as the easing of restrictions allow.

So this is a problem for employers as much as employees.  Questions that an employer might need to consider include:

  • What impact will the condition have on the worker’s productivity?
  • Are there any adjustments or alterations which can be made to help the situation?
  • When will a return to work be possible?
  • Is temporary cover needed (and can it be afforded)?
  • How long can the employer afford to support the absent employee’s salary?

Any or all of the above are potentially significant challenges for employers at any time, but never more so than in post-crisis Britain.  And of course employers also have the new absence risk of Long Covid to consider now too.


Mitigating the issues

There are no easy answers to most of the above challenges, but employers can and should ensure that they throw everything within their Employee Benefits armoury towards solving – or at the very least mitigating – the problem of every individual ill-health absence in the months immediately ahead.

In particular I would highlight:


  • Remote GP access tools to avoid any unnecessary delays in early diagnosis
  • Occupational Health and Early Intervention Services (often provided free with Group Income Protection plans) to assess the situation and provide a plan for an early return to the workplace where possible
  • Employee Assistance Plans to provide valuable free advice to steer employees towards appropriate solutions and planning too.


And, of course:

  • Private Medical Insurance and Health Cash Plans to speed access to private healthcare solutions and treatments, hopefully avoiding the worst of the NHS waiting lists in the process.


Should the illness be one that might result in an absence from the workplace for a period of months or years, then the provision of Group Income Protection policies will provide some certainty of income to the worker, whilst also enabling the employer to look at alternative options to cover the absent employee’s workload with less concern around the costs of doing so.

Most good employers will have at least some of the above Employee Benefits on offer to their workers. So it’s important that all the available elements are promoted, understood, and used whenever possible.

The reality is that every single employee represents an important cog in the corporate machine.  The loss of any one such cog – even if only for a few weeks or months – can really impact productivity, and this at a time when employers need to maximise the output of each worker, and indeed their wider organisation too.

Steve Herbert is Head of Benefits Strategy at Howden Employee Benefits & Wellbeing

By Lisa Baker, Senior Editor

Senior Editor Lisa Baker is the owner of Need to See it Publishing Group, providing contract news for business and news sites across the UK. Lisa is an experienced HR writer and commentator, editing HR publications for more than 5 years.

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