When Liverpool football club manager Gerard Houllier was rushed to hospital with chest pains at the recent Leeds fixture at Anfield, many pondered the future of the football club.

Since he joined the club in late 1998, Liverpool has tasted cup success for the first time for six years and, in a game where transfers and sales are par for the course, he is currently the one figure the Anfield board cannot afford to lose.

This case highlights the predicament facing organisations where there is heavy reliance on key members of staff for business success.

It also challenges the cavalier "it won't happen to me" attitude of many UK workers - an attitude that Unum chairman Lawrence Churchill has been attempting to counter since he joined the income protection and disability insurance company in September 1998.

"Gerard Houllier is a great case in point," he says. "He is talent so unique that, no matter how good Phil Thompson is, you have to say there is a risk of a gap that is going to damage Liverpool's business."

It is this message that many UK businesses are now beginning to take on board - last year, Unum saw its sales increase by 42% on the previous year. "With unemployment having been at a historic low, there is now a war for talent and, although the problem is how to get a good quality workforce, another issue is, if they become incapacitated, how do you get them back into work?" he adds.

A new niche
Churchill was headhunted to join Unum after he resigned as chief executive of NatWest Life and Investment Services, which he launched in 1991. "I left NatWest when it restructured yet again. Then Unum approached me and the more I talked to the people there, the more enthusiastic I became. It is a speciality niche area that is very technical, but it has a wonderful social purpose in terms of protecting people against probably the most traumatic event of their lives which we all hope will never happen to us.

"What you do is pay them a cheque, but you can also help find them a new life - the best life in the circumstances - through rehabilitation and training. I think this is a noble purpose."

As a market leader, Churchill is all too aware that the company needs to seen to be championing the cause of the people it sets out to protect. As a result, the company launched its "New Beginnings" initiative this year, which is an action plan urging industry, government and the voluntary sector to set challenging standards to improve employment prospects for the disabled.

He says: "When one looks at how disabled people are treated in the UK, there is a lot of stereotyping going on. It's made out of sympathy and charity and not intended to create offence. But when you study incapacity, it's not an event in someone's life, it's actually a process.

"Through lack of recognition, we now have more people drawing incapacity benefit actually wanting work than we have on the whole of the so-called unemployed register. We need to connect more powerfully this source of labour in UK with people that are looking for talent.

A challenge
"Through `New Beginnings', if we want to take a quarter of the people out of the million looking for work and get jobs for them over a ten-year period - that doesn't look like too much of a challenge. However, if you look at studies from the Joseph Rowntree foundation, not much has happened on a net basis. What we need to do is form a more powerful, intelligent alliance of people working in this field to see where we can achieve more beneficial outcomes.

"In case that sounds too much like a social crusade, let me tell you that, commercially, one of the key ingredients for Unum is to persuade employers that it is OK to employ disabled people because we pride ourselves on getting disabled people on our books back into work. No one wants to sit looking at a wall waiting for an annuity cheque to drop through the post - there is more to life than that for everybody, so they want to get back into fulfilling aspects of work."

At Unum, 10% of the workforce is disabled, which Churchill says is perfectly fitting for a company that is seeking to inform the companies that insure with them what it is like. "I regard ourselves as a practical research test bed."

He knows it will take a long time to change things, as it is not a straightforward issue. But he says the future for the UK labour force is one where incapacity is much more prevalent - society is getting older and there is a strong correlation between ageing and impairment.

He adds: "When you look at welfare reform, it's about two issues - retirement and disability. Retirement is fully understood and is relatively straightforward, as it is about savings.

"The bigger issue is incapacity benefit. How are we going to differentiate those that can't work and those that, with reasonable adjustments, could go back into the workplace?"

He says the government needs to do something about benefit structure because under the current system you are either completely disabled or you are not disabled at all.

"Let's put some reassurance and safety nets about the place and look at the risk we are asking disabled people to take when they go back into work. This includes losing their benefits and the difficulty within the system of getting it back once they have lost it.

"There have been some positive experiments in terms of employment links in areas of huge unemployment, so it would be good if there were similar public/private partnerships in the disability field too."

He says there are a number of potential ideas, such as looking at statutory sick pay. "In the current system, you don't get to see someone who becomes long-term disabled until after 28 weeks, as the employer pays for this period, and then it cuts into us. Everyone knows that the best way to get someone cured is early intervention. The very system prevents you finding out about them until much later than you should and we need to find ways to circumvent this."

Although sales have recently been high, Churchill is aware that a change in the economic climate might have an effect, as businesses look to cut back on frills. But he says: "What we have found in past economic cycles is that it doesn't necessary follow that sales dry up as you get a different dynamic going on. You obviously lose business when companies fold and that is why you have to ensure you have enough reserves to cope.

"After the events of September 11, people have a much higher appreciation of risk and are now thinking `that could have been me'."

He adds: "You can't say that, in a market that is only 10% penetrated, you have brought the message home, but we have started to take steps forward on the long journey."