The Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) published a report on 4 February 2022, which lays out significant variances in access to sick pay between different sections of the population. The report makes recommendations to improve access to sick pay, as well as to encourage health at work more generally.
The report is based on analysis conducted by University College London (UCL) through its ongoing Virus Watch study, which aims to identify how the COVID-19 virus spreads in our community and how to stop it. The results of UCL’s analysis were shared with the think tank to produce the report.
This report comes against a backdrop of increased interest in wellbeing in the workplace, much of which was initiated or encouraged by the COVID-19 pandemic. Although the report focuses on sick pay, it also brings together many strands of the topic of what a healthy job looks like. This includes flexible working, which has been the subject of a recent government consultation, and quality of work, one of the themes that emerged in the 2017 Taylor Report on Good Work.
The effect of COVID-19
The report, A Healthy Labour Market, notes that the COVID-19 pandemic has been fundamental in bringing to light the relationship between work and health. Although this relationship is complex, several clear discrepancies have emerged. Using occupation type as a proxy for class, the report notes the far-ranging differences in COVID-19 mortality rates between those in the lowest-paid and highest-paid jobs, with the figure being five times higher for the lowest paid. Those in “working-class jobs” more broadly have been twice as likely to die from COVID-19 as those in positions considered “middle-class”.
The IPPR praises the coronavirus job retention scheme (the “furlough scheme”), recognising the positive effect it may have had not only on reducing viral transmission, but equally its likely role in preventing large rises in unemployment-related illness of the kind seen after the 2008 recession. However, the report notes that work-related health issues are not just a challenge of the pandemic and makes the case for health to be placed at the heart of work moving forward.
Summary of findings
The report focuses on levels of access to sick pay in the UK, particularly when broken down into different societal groups. It notes that many people in the UK are not able to access basic levels of sick pay and that some of society’s most vulnerable groups, including poorer households and older workers, are more likely to be negatively impacted by this.
The findings reveal, for example, that households with an income below £25,000 are around twice as likely to lack access to sick pay compared to households whose income exceeds £75,000, given statutory sick pay (SSP) entitlement in the UK is conditional on earning above an income threshold of an average of at least £120 per week. Additionally, workers in roles traditionally considered working-class were more likely to lack access to sick pay than those in traditionally middle-class roles, such as managers and senior officials.
The IPPR also found significant discrepancies in access along age and race lines. The report found that workers are less likely to have access to sick pay as they get older, with workers aged 65 and over being five times more likely to lack access compared to workers aged between 25 and 44. The report also highlighted differences in access based on race, with South Asians being 40% more likely to lack access to sick pay than White British and black workers. Differences in access between age and racial groups remain even when income, occupation and employment status are taken into account. On this basis, the report concludes that age and race-based discrimination in the labour market may have some role to play in these discrepancies.
Calls for reform
The IPPR therefore advocates for the improvement of access to paid sick leave to be made a policy priority and makes several recommendations in this area. In particular, it proposes that SSP should be increased to 80% of earnings, up to a limit, and that the lower earnings threshold of £120 per week be abolished. The IPPR also recommends the continuation of the pandemic-era policy of paying SSP from day one of illness, rather than only from the fourth day of illness, and for this to be applied more broadly than COVID-19 to all illnesses.
In addition, the report makes broader recommendations for the improvement of work-related health, recognising the complex relationship between health and other aspects of working life, such as macroeconomic policy, income and job security. Propositions include raising the national minimum wage to meet the living wage, improvements in job security and a shorter working week.
What can employers do?
The report makes clear that not only government but also employers have a role to play in rethinking the post-pandemic workplace. The report covers a wide range of steps that employers can take to improve physical and mental health amongst staff, from improved ventilation to workplace mental health support.
The report suggests that, in order to improve the health of their employees, employers need to take the same steps they would take to improve job satisfaction and labour productivity, as the effects will also be beneficial in this area. Particularly in the domain of mental health, in order to improve health outcomes, employers should focus more on factors such as autonomy at work, opportunities for development and greater flexibility.
It is especially important for employers to be proactive about these kinds of initiatives in times of labour shortages, such as the one we are currently experiencing. As there is a temporary power shift from employers to employees, businesses need to make more of an effort to attract and retain workers.
Where to now?
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought to light workplace issues previously less well known and these cannot now be ignored. There is likely to be an increased interest in studies such as this one, in the area of work-related health. Employers should be proactive in pre-empting potential reforms, allowing them to reap the benefits of a healthier workforce.