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NHS waiting lists and employee absence

A recent webinar hosted by the respected Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) looked in detail at the key challenge facing the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) in the months and years immediately ahead.

The event was entitled “What next for NHS waiting lists”, and, as the name suggests, the key focus was on reviewing the progress made in reducing NHS treatment waiting lists.  This is a particularly important issue, given that those waiting lists have hit record levels of 7.2 million cases in recent months, and this despite the NHS’s “Backlog recovery plan” having now been in place for more than a year.

Where are we now?

What did the IFS research show?
Starting with a positive, there has been significant progress in reducing the longest waiting times. Virtually all cases that have been outstanding for two years or more have now been eliminated. This is a significant moment of progress, but unfortunately, waiting lists have otherwise grown rather than decreased in the last year. The IFS also mentioned that there were fewer people treated by the NHS in 2022 than in the last comparable pre-pandemic year of 2019.

More worryingly still is the reality that – even on the IFS’s best-case scenario – waiting lists will still be above 5 million cases at the end of 2024. Their central scenario has waiting lists stabilising at their current levels (7 million plus) throughout the next 12 months, and only decreasing a little towards the end of 2024.

This matters to us all, as everyone within the UK is reliant on the safety-net of the NHS to some degree. It also matters to employers, particularly as so many organisations are reliant on the NHS to support and or treat their employees should they become ill or injured.

Reliant on the NHS

Indeed a Partners& survey in September 2022 found that just 15% of businesses offered all of their workers access to private healthcare.

The above findings suggest that the vast majority of employers remain heavily reliant on the NHS to efficiently treat their workforce, and quickly return them to health, the workplace, and full productivity.  Yet the current waiting lists – and the IFS scenario planning – suggest that it may be impossible for the NHS to deliver on this business expectation for some years to come.

The employer response?

So what can employers do to mitigate this concern?

The obvious answer to this question would be extending access to private healthcare treatments to all employees through a healthcare trust, group private medical insurance policy, or a quality health cashplan.

These options represent the ideal employer solution to the problem, but rather overlook the stark reality that many businesses don’t have the budget to deliver such a solution to all of their workforce given the economic challenges of 2023.  It follows that some employers may have to seek out other solutions and mitigations to this potential problem.

Below we present a simple three-point plan that may help any HR department in supporting their workforce in the year ahead.


  • Review

The first step for employers is to look at what is already available.

Core benefit offerings such as company-sponsored pensions, group life assurance, and group income protection plans should be well understood by all, but lift the lid on these offerings and you will often find a range of additional free (or very low-cost) tools such as Employee Assistance Programmes (EAP) and a range of counselling services that can also help your workforce.

Employers should therefore carefully explore the offerings available, and direct their employees to the best product in each case.


  • Augment

Having identified what is available, now look to fill some of the remaining gaps with lower-cost options that can still provide some much-needed and meaningful support.

Providing access to remote GP appointments is a cost-effective way of helping your employees bypass the challenges of securing an early and convenient appointment with their local surgery.

Offering wellbeing apps and website access should be considered a preventative step to reduce the number of employees who may ultimately need medical assistance.  Support for physical, mental, and financial wellbeing are also now widely available and are often only a nominal cost to the sponsoring employer.

Financial wellbeing can be further improved by the employer providing access to employee discount schemes for retail purchases (again a low-cost service).

Add those services to the existing benefits package identified in step one, and you are likely to have a more comprehensive offering to support your employees should they need medical interventions, whilst also helping to prevent the need for medical treatment in the first place.


  • Communicate!

Lastly – but certainly not least – any employee benefits offering is only of real value if employees know what is available, where to find it, and how to access it quickly when needed.

So, review your communications, and put in place a plan to relaunch the benefits offering, and a further plan to regularly remind employees of the benefits throughout the calendar or business year.

Following the above three-step plan should ensure you get the best out of your benefits package for the lowest cost and – importantly – help at least some of your employees to avoid joining those very lengthy NHS waiting lists.

For more information on the above options please speak to your usual Partners& consultant, or visit our website.