By Claire West
Employees took 180 million sick days last year, averaging 6.4 days each, according to the latest CBI/Pfizer Absence and Workplace Health Survey.
The rate of absence is the lowest since the survey began in 1987, and down slightly from 6.7 days per employee in 2007, the previous surveyed year. A small improvement in the public-sector absence rate helps explain the fall, but it remains significantly higher than the private-sector rate.
The impact of staff absence is considerable, with the 180 million sick days costing employers about £16.8bn in 2009, plus indirect costs like reductions in customer service and delays to teamwork.
Unfortunately, so-called “sickies” remain a problem. The senior HR staff surveyed at 241 public and private-sector organisations estimated that around 15%, or 27 million sick days weren’t genuine, and cost the country £2.5bn a year.
The survey also shows that larger organisations had higher rates of absence than small ones, and that firms have increased their use of structured rehabilitation plans to help people with longer-term illnesses back to work.
Katja Hall, CBI Director of Employment Policy, said:
“The rate of employee absence has come down, but it still costs the economy billions of pounds a year. If absence levels across the board could be reduced by 10%, the economy would see annual savings of just under £1.7 billion.
“Unfortunately, bogus sick days remain a problem, and are unfair on hard-working colleagues and employers alike.”
In the public sector, employees took more sick days, with an average of 8.3 days per year, which is 43% higher than the private-sector figure of 5.8 days. The public sector’s record improved since the last CBI absence survey covering 2007, when the average was 9 days. The recent CBI report Time for Action suggested that progress towards private sector absence levels could save £5.5bn by 2015-16.
Ms Hall said:
i]”Although the rate of employee absence has fallen in the public sector, it is still a lot higher than in the private sector, and this issue should be addressed, especially given that the public finances are strained. We estimate that £5.5bn could be saved by 2015-16 if the public sector matched the private sector’s absence rate.[/i]
“Improved rehabilitation and workplace health policies are a key part of achieving this, but so is ensuring that absence, where it occurs, is justified.”
Long-term absence is a particular problem. Although it only accounted for 5% of absences, the longer periods meant that it accounted for 20% of lost days in the private sector and 36% in the public sector. Back pain and mental health issues are key causes of long-term absence, according to the survey.
Dr. Berkeley Phillips, UK Medical Director, Pfizer Ltd said:
“We have long known that mental health, back pain and other musculoskeletal disorders are the leading causes of long-term absence, and this year’s CBI report reinforces this. Whilst employers view loss of productivity as the main impact of absence, as this report highlights, the economic consequences stretch much further and as such, we as a society, need to do more to advance health and wellness at every stage of life.”
Companies are increasingly using rehabilitation plans and support in which getting staff back to work sooner and productively are major objectives. Evidence suggests that this is good for the company and employee’s health alike. The survey showed that 95% of organisations had a formal absence policy – a rise of 10 percentage points compared with 2007.
Asked what the government could do to help, responses were focused on doctors, with 63% of employers wanting to see better occupational health training for GPs, 56% wanting to see better working relationships between GPs and occupational health professionals, and 41% wanting more flexible GP working hours.
The “fit note” was brought in to replace sick notes in April this year, to help ensure that GPs, employers and staff focus on what an employee can do, not what they can’t. Companies welcome this initiative. In the survey, 76% said it would help people get back to work.
As in previous surveys, larger employers tended to have higher rates of absence. For those with 5,000 or more staff the average rate was 6.6 days per year, and for those with 500 to 4,999 it was 6.7 days. However, for organisations with fewer than 50, and between 50 and 199 staff it was 5 days, and for those with 200 to 499 it was 5.8 days.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, rates of absence were higher among manual workers, averaging 7.2 days per year, than non-manual workers, averaging 5.3 days.
Dr Phillips concluded:
“This report, which unites the causes and consequences of absence together with an examination of proactive management strategies is important. It mirrors a change in the attitude of both employers and policymakers, who are recognising the direct and indirect benefits of investment in the health and well-being of the UK workforce.”