In a report released exclusively to Insurance Times, the ABI's Malcolm Tarling explains how Britain is still regarded as the `sick man' of Europe, with a lack of resources and commitment to rehabilitation for ill and injured workers

Back in the 1970s, Britain's troubled industrial relations earned it the reputation of the `sick man' of Europe. Now, over 30 years on, a report says that Britain may still deserve this reputation.

The report studied the treatment provided to help injured and ill workers get back to work and found it woefully inadequate compared to other countries.

In the UK, a paraplegic, injured as a result of a work accident, stands only a 15% chance of returning to work, compared to a 50% chance in Scandinavia and 30% in the US.

The report, entitled Getting Back to Work, is the culmination of ABI-led discussions with the TUC, the CBI, the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers, the Forum of Insurance Lawyers, the Loss Prevention Council, the Department of Work and Pensions and the Department of Health.

Crucial challenge
ABI director general Mary Francis says: " Britain's rehabilitation services are far from healthy. The longer someone is out of work ill, the less chance he has of returning.

"This can have far reaching consequences for the injured person, his family and the employer."

This view is echoed by the TUC general secretary John Monks. He says: " With so many people invalided out of work each year, getting them back to fitness and back to work is the crucial challenge of the next decade".

The report highlights the costs, in both human and financial terms, of the failure to provide adequate rehabilitation. It says an estimated 14.5 million working days a year are lost due to work-related ill-health and more than 27,000 people leave the workplace each year never to return as a result of work-related injury or ill-health.

Rehabilitation is widely used elsewhere in the world to aid an injured person's return to work. Yet, disturbingly, the report shows that the UK now lags well behind other industrialised nations in the care it provides (and in some cases does not) for those needing long-term treatment following illness or injury.

Prolonged time off work can cause serious financial hardship and emotional stress for the injured person and his family, employers face reduced and lost productivity and healthcare providers put more strain on often inadequate resources.

So why are Britain's injured and sick workers and their families not getting the care they need?

The report lists the shortcomings of Britain's current approach to rehabilitation, which include:

  • lack of early intervention

  • over-emphasis on major trauma

  • uneven spread of existing rehabilitation services across the UK

  • a highly fragmented approach, with no single government or agency co-ordinating and developing rehabilitation services.

    Control claims
    The business case to support rehabilitation services for insurers in the UK has yet to be made conclusively. But insurers overseas are already involved in rehabilitation and claim to be able to control claims costs more effectively.

    The adversarial nature of Britain's litigation system, with the need to establish blame, has not encouraged the development of early intervention rehabilitation services.

    The publication in 1999 of the IUA/ABI's Code of Best Practice on Rehabilitation aimed to encourage insurers and personal injury lawyers to consider rehabilitation measures at the earliest possible opportunity.

    An example of how early intervention in the rehabilitation process can bring real benefits is the development by one major insurer of a specialist company, dedicated to co-ordinating and arranging treatment to help the injured or ill person back to work as quickly as possible, regardless of any issues of liability.

    In one case, the company arranged an intensive three-week rehabilitation programme for a warehouse operator who suffered a pelvic fracture. This was followed by an eight-week graduated return to work. The cost of rehabilitation was £7,500 - an estimated cost saving of £150,000.

    Getting Back To Work points the way forward, with proposals for improvements including:

  • greater commitment by employers, through for example the introduction of a mandatory rehabilitation policy

  • shop- floor access to a union rehabilitation representative

  • co-ordination of state-funded activity and government initiatives with clear responsibility resting with one government department

  • moves to reduce the adversarial nature of the litigation system

  • shift in focus away from damages and towards getting the injured person back to work.

    Insurers, employers, unions, the legal profession and the government all recognise the deficiencies in Britain's current approach to helping the injured and ill get back to work.

    The publication of the report marks the start of a three-month consultation period with interested parties, aimed at raising the debate on how to improve rehabilitation services in the UK.

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