A good idea, but is voluntary support enough to help employees and employers?

Last week witnessed the formal birth of the Occupational Health Taskforce (OHT), a concept first mooted almost a year ago in the Spring 2023 Budget Statement by Chancellor Jeremy Hunt.

For those not yet familiar with this new(ish) concept, I would refer you to the press release issued by HM Government which begins:

“Businesses will be urged to tackle in-work sickness and stop people falling out the workforce, following the appointment of Dame Carol Black as the Government’s new Occupational Health Tsar.”

A genuine problem

Any move to tackle employee ill-health is, of course, very welcome, not least because workplace absence is now on the rise.

The official full-year absence figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) were published last year (for the calendar year 2022) and showed the sickness absence rate at the highest level since 2004.  This is not surprising given the ongoing challenges of the National Health Service, not to mention the impact of Long Covid and other complications linked to the pandemic which has doubtless harmed the physical and mental wellbeing of the working population significantly.

And, as I covered here in my Employer News column in September, the annual CIPD survey also suggested that average employee illness absence was up by two full days in the period 2019 – 2023.

The resultant reduction in output and productivity would be difficult for most businesses to absorb in the best of economic times, let alone when the UK economy continues to flatline following the perfect storm of a global pandemic, Brexit, the energy price spike, inflation, and the cost of borrowing.

The taskforce

So, more help and guidance can only be a good thing for employers seeking to tackle sickness absence and support the health and wellbeing of their workforce, particularly as the “Taskforce” will be led by the acknowledged expertise of no less a figure than Dame Carole Black.

The outputs of the OHT grouping may well be helpful to UK employers, yet the cynic in me does question just how much impact it will have on sickness absence.  Indeed, there are valid reasons to temper our optimism in the short term.

A change of government?

Firstly, it will not have escaped anyone’s notice that a UK General Election must take place within the next 11 months.  Recent polling suggests a change of government is likely, and even if the Conservatives do secure a (presumably much-reduced) majority, then the make-up of their parliamentary party and cabinet members is likely to look significantly different from that of today.

It follows that, regardless of the election outcome, the OHT is likely to be reporting to a new government that may – or may not – share similar objectives and planning to that outlined by The Chancellor last year.  Whether a new government will listen to – or even persist with – the OHT is therefore a valid concern.

Financing change?

If we however assume that any future government will also want to tackle sickness absence and accordingly retain the OHT, the next concern will be where the money to support its work and recommendations will come from.

The nation’s finances are in poor shape currently, and after more than a decade of cuts public sector services are crying out for greater levels of state support and investment.  The next government (whoever it might be) may well look to prioritise those areas which are perceived as important to the electorate.  We can safely assume that workplace absence won’t be near the front of that long queue of concerns.



But the biggest hurdle may have been tucked away in the wording of the press release itself:

“a Taskforce that will produce a voluntary occupational health framework for businesses”

I have deliberately highlighted what I believe to be the keyword above.  Experience suggests that voluntary codes in any form of business activity have only a limited positive impact.  Indeed the short-lived Fit for Work scheme launched in 2015 to also tackle the challenges of workplace absence and access to Occupational Health services never truly recovered from being quietly downgraded from a compulsory requirement to a purely voluntary usage system.


What now?

So, the practical impact of the Occupational Health Taskforce work may be muted, at least in the short term.

Yet this is not to say that the outputs from the OHT will be wasted.  Any new research and/or practical ideas are always welcome, and the workplace healthcare sector and employers must look to harness such outputs to improve on their own offerings, lower absence, and support employees.

I will (of course) continue to monitor this situation and will write further on this if and when any significant developments occur.


Steve Herbert is an award-winning HR commentator, Wellbeing, and Employee Benefits expert.