By Max Clarke

The UK economy lost 190 million working days to absence last year, with each employee taking an average of 6.5 days off sick, according to the latest CBI/Pfizer Absence and Workplace Health Survey.

Despite the introduction of the new “fit note” in 2010, the rate of absence last year was marginally higher than in 2009, when employees averaged 6.4 sick days, the lowest rate since the survey began in 1987.

The 190 million days cost employers £17bn, including over £2.7bn from 30.4 million days of non-genuine sickness absence — so-called “sickies”. This does not include the other indirect costs of absence, like lower customer service and lost productivity.

This year’s survey is the first since the launch of the fit note — the new medical certificate focussed on what people can do rather than what they can’t, designed to aid returns to work and reduce absence costs.

Despite strong support for the initiative, employers have been disappointed by their experience so far: 66% of firms said that it had not yet helped their rehabilitation policy, and 71% were not confident that GPs were using the fit note differently from the old sick note.

“There’s been no let up in the cost of absence to the UK economy,” commented Katja Hall, Chief Policy Director at leading business organisation, the Confederation of British Industry, “which runs into billions of pounds a year. Although many organisations have been successful in bringing down levels of absence, the gap between the best and worst has widened.

“The substantial costs of absence to the economy put a premium on managing longer-term absence well. The fit note is a great initiative, which could play an important role in helping people back to work and stopping them slide into long-term absence. But employers are far from convinced that the scheme is working properly and don’t think GPs are getting the necessary training.

“The launch of the electronic fit note should be an ideal opportunity for the Department of Work and Pensions to extend the reach of its training programme and address GPs’ engagement. There can be no room for complacency in addressing the so-called sick note culture.”

On the cost of “sickies”, Katja added:

“Sadly, more days were lost to non-genuine absence than in 2009 and the cost of these bogus sick days is over £2.7bn a year. Sickies are unfair on colleagues and damage employers' competitiveness at a critical point in the recovery.”