Peter Hamilton: Vocational Rehabilitation tends to be the poor relation; it’s overlooked and forgotten

“This campaign is about recognising the absolute need, realising the story hasn’t been told well enough so far, and harnessing the power of real-life stories,” said Peter Hamilton, Head of Market Engagement at Zurich Insurance.

Related topics:  Zurich,  Vocational Rehabilitation
Tabitha Lambie | Editor, Protection Reporter
29th February 2024
Peter Hamilton Large
"This is one of those rare occasions where employee, employer, and insurer interests are aligned."
- Peter Hamilton, Head of Market Engagement at Zurich Insurance

According to the latest research commissioned by Zurich Insurance, the number of employees with long-term health conditions has risen by 27% in the last six years. This figure now sits at a record high of 10.3mn with a total of 112.5mn sick days registered in 2023. As we speak the Government is looking to tackle these worrying figures with the Department for Work & Pensions’ (DWP) new Occupational Health Taskforce, led by Dame Carol Black.

This taskforce was established after the DWP found only 28% of employers in the UK provide any form of occupational health for employees with long-term health conditions – major corporations (89%) are nearly three times more likely to provide support than small & medium enterprises (SMEs).

READ MORE: DWP announce new Occupational Health Taskforce in desperate bid to reduce NHS waiting lists

However, as Peter Hamilton, Head of Market Engagement at Zurich Insurance, rightly points out, “while there are many aspects of occupational health, vocational rehabilitation tends to be the poor relation; it’s overlooked and forgotten […] rehabilitation is the unsung hero, it’s the difference between people getting back to work or not.”

Speaking with Protection Reporter, Peter Hamiliton said the insurer’s latest campaign is about “recognising the absolute need, realising the story hasn’t been told well enough so far, and harnessing the power of real-life stories.”

READ MORE: Zurich Insurance calls on UK Government to mandate rehabilitation support in the workplace

Last year, Jeremy Hunt told The Times, “You can have an enormously rich life by continuing to make a contribution to the economy. It doesn’t just have to be about going to the golf course.” At the time, employment experts hit back; “I’m not sure anyone who’d left the workforce during the Pandemic is going to come back from the golf course […] but there are plenty of people who want to stay in work but can’t,” Peter clarified. Thankfully, with the UK facing a “disturbing” loss of £66.3bn a year by 2030 due to long-term health conditions, there’s growing recognition that workplace health is important.

“If you’re sick, that’s not great for you, but it’s also not great for your employer because they’ve got to work around the fact, you’re not there.”

According to the Association for British Insurers’ (ABI) ‘Futureproofing Workplace Health’ report, services provided by insurers prevented 14mn absences and helped 12.5k full-time employees remain in work in 2021. Today, 4.4mn people are now insured through their employer with over 1mn claims made in the last twelve months, according to ABI’s latest data. Yvonne Braun, Director of Policy, Health & Protection at the ABI, said these “striking figures show that health and protection insurance is vital for the health of the UK.”

Unfortunately, the ABI found that despite nine in ten employees remaining in work as a direct result of vocational rehabilitation, only three in ten employees have access to this support. “I think there’s a perception that insurance is just about providing financial help […] it’s a good part of what we do, but people tend to overlook the benefit of rehabilitation,” explained Peter, who highlighted the compounding impact of musculoskeletal injuries and mental health when an employee isn’t offered rehabilitation support in the first instance. This lack of understanding motivated Zurich’s focus on the big picture as well as personal experience.

In the past, industry bodies such as Group Risk Development (GRiD) have highlighted the growing need for vocational rehabilitation, especially to support an ageing workforce. As far back as 2016, research commissioned by GRiD found that only 7% of employers had refocused their health, wellbeing, and absence management procedures to assist with age-related conditions, while only 2% had continued to provide group risk benefits for those aged 65 or above. Katharine Moxham, spokesperson for GRiD, emphasised that “services offered alongside group risk policies are invaluable for employers looking to create an inclusive and supportive working environment.”

“We’re echoing what GRiD has said before.”

Zurich’s research identified that 76% of the UK’s 2023 long-term sick bill (totalling £24.7bn) came from smaller SMEs. Peter isn’t convinced that most SMEs have heard about vocational rehabilitation; “certainly a lot of advisers won’t necessarily view themselves in the marketplace, so reach is part of the problem.” He highlighted that several initiatives have been launched to assist with setting up smaller schemes but remains acutely aware that SMEs have finite resources. Consequently, Peter hopes Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) is a ‘hot topic’ for the DWP’s Occupational Health Taskforce; “SSP today is part of the problem rather than part of the solution […] there’s no incentive for employers to do more because they don’t financially suffer if an employee is absent.”

“If employers aren’t going to focus on SSP, there’s certainly an argument to focus more on health.”

“We can’t overlook that cost will always be an issue for SMEs but having said that, it’s one of the cheapest benefits they can buy for employees, reducing levels of disruption and keeping their workforce healthier,” he added.

Peter highlighted that the major culprit for absent employees has been mental health, with 40% of calls to Zurich’s Employee Assistance Porgramme (EAP) helpline linked to mental health in 2023. He believes this spike in mental health-related absences has been exasperated by both the Pandemic and NHS waiting lists. “If you’re mentally unwell and don’t have access to a group scheme, you could be waiting forever – the waiting lists are significant,” he explained.  

“When you have queues around the block for a GP appointment, it’s hard for the NHS to say, ‘we’re focusing on prevention now’ […] but in a way, that’s how insurers have a role to play.”

Peter believes the more tools made available to employers the better; “this is one of those rare occasions where employee, employer, and insurer interests are aligned.”

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