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Last Updated: Monday, 17 March 2008, 19:48 GMT
Counting the cost of sick-note Britain
By Laura Kuenssberg
BBC Political Correspondent

Dame Carol Black, the national director for health and work, wants support for workers who are off sick. In one South West town, being long term sick is all too common.
Devonport has seen a high rate of illness

In Devonport, physical evidence of decline is all around.

There have been efforts to regenerate the area but some buildings are empty, boarded up and abandoned.

One resident told me the area was "taking its last breath". Reliant on jobs from the docks for many decades, many people here, around half of the population in fact, now rely on state benefits.

'Jobless' families

One man I met, an old docker, was typical. He had become ill in the mid nineties, been signed off sick, and then never gone back to a job.

Now he said he feared he just wouldn't be able to work, even though he might be physically capable of it. "I'm not a very educated man," he said, fearing he just wouldn't cope in the modern workplace.

Depressed woman
I can't help wondering if this kind of help had been on offer at their workplaces might the people I met in Devonport never have gone sick in the first place?

But some residents were angry that those on state-funded sick pay, which about 2.7 million people claim nationally, don't go out to work when they might be able to.

One woman echoed Dame Carol Black's concern that sometimes more than one generation in the same household had never had a job.

She didn't want to be identified but said: "One goes unemployed, then another and's a knock-on effect."

A mile or two down the road, Trevor Jago has been seriously ill, and is on incapacity benefit himself. He is frustrated that some people seem to be able to claim the benefits they shouldn't.

He said: "Depression is easy for people to pull,... they can go break down and cry, then they get signed off...I don't think some of these people are depressed."

Different story

Trevor wants to go back to work but on previous occasions, it has been a struggle. He has even tried taking his illness off his CV, fearful that some employers might be put off by it.

He is still being monitored for his illness, but he is determined to start back, even if part time, as soon as he can.

Half an hour's drive away at the Ginsters bakery just into Cornwall, it is a very different story.

A staff gym, health advice, even free fruit in the canteen, are visible efforts to stop their staff going off sick in the first place.

Jake Johnston, a baker, had a heart attack in 2006. But working out in the gym he looks as fit as a man many years his junior.

Healthy example

With fitness advice, and support from his bosses, he came back to work after his illness.

After working with the local council to provide a gym and health advice, Ginsters say their productivity is up, their sick leave is at an all time low and the numbers going off on long term sick is falling fast too.

I can't help wondering if this kind of help had been on offer at their workplaces might the people I met in Devonport never have gone sick in the first place?

Doctor writing a prescription
Ill-health is costing the economy 100bn a year

Dame Carol Black wants fewer people left like some of those I met in Plymouth: unchecked, unsupported, out of work and costing billions in benefits.

And she wants more of the same from employers like Ginsters taking the lead to set healthy examples for their staff.

Ministers say they will look at her ideas, such as introducing health teams to help people when they first go on sick leave, but there is no estimate yet of how much that might cost.

Yet a price can't be put on the human cost of ill health in communities like Devonport.

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