There's no denying that these formal notices have caused companies to spring into action. Employers who received a letter are currently exploring how they can avoid a fine. Proactive efforts to improve the health of employees and prevent long-term absenteeism is certainly one avenue worth exploring. This is reflected on the government side too: the intention is to invest every cent raised by the fines in funds for prevention.
And that's certainly a laudable idea, as with nearly half a million people on long-term sick leave, we urgently need to take action as a society. Fines can certainly form part of that, but the risk is that they will also provoke evasive behaviour: employers may think twice before hiring employees with a history of illness, for example, or they might report absenteeism less readily out of fear of a fine. As such, a situation in which talent goes underutilised or people with a disability find it harder to get into work is not entirely inconceivable.
The current approach risks becoming a rather one-sided process that mainly focuses on incentives for employers. That said, it takes two to get people back into work, and there seems to be little or no encouragement for employees under the current plans. To ensure that both parties actively take part in the return-to-work process, the employee also shouldn't find themselves in a situation where it's all too easy to drag their heels.
At the same time, we must avoid a scenario in which staff on long-term sick leave find themselves under pressure to come back into work. And what about the underlying causes of absenteeism? Imagine a small-scale employer having the bad fortune to have a couple of staff on its payroll who are suddenly faced with a serious illness: is that a situation that deserves a fine?
On top of that, it doesn't seem like a reasonable notion to tar all sectors with the same brush. The fact that a third of the organisations who currently find themselves in the crosshairs are healthcare facilities should serve as enough food for thought on this point. These organisations had it extremely hard during the coronavirus crisis, all while being frequently understaffed. Financial sanctions are the last thing they need.
With that in mind, it would seem like a good idea to add a few extra elements to the mix when considering whether a monetary fine is a good idea or not. For example: which efforts have been made to facilitate the return-to-work process? Which actions have been taken to improve the wellbeing of employees or to prevent illness? And when it comes to sectors where there are shortages on the labour market, should we perhaps not apply a little more leniency in our decision whether or not to impose a fine?
No one can deny that the formal notices have acted as an incentive. But without any accompanying measures, they will surely hit wide of the mark. Aside from punishment, encouragement or even reward should be an element in any approach too. The latter might include grants for prevention or intervention vouchers enabling businesses to deploy multidisciplinary interventions (partnerships between occupational physicians and prevention specialists) in a quicker and more targeted way. A more balanced package of incentives along those lines might have a better shot at effectively curbing the chance of long-term incapacity for work.