By Daniel Hunter

Absence from work in the UK has dropped to a new record low, according to the latest CBI/Pfizer Absence and Workplace Health Survey out today (Monday).

The thirty-year survey found the average absence rate was 5.3 days in 2012, down from 6.5 days in 2010 - saving business £3 billion.

Absence rates in both the public and private sector were down to 6.9 (from 8.1) and 4.9 (from 5.9) days respectively.

Mental health conditions emerged as the single most widespread cause of long-term absence from the workplace.

The report, Fit for Purpose, found overall absences still cost the economy £14 billion a year, according to the ONS.

Almost £1.8 billion was lost from an estimated one-in-eight sick days taken for non-genuine reasons, with one in five employers believing employees take “sickies” as an occasional perk.

The report argues more than £1.2 billion a year can be saved if public sector absence levels were brought in line with the private sector average — on top of the £700 million saved from the fall since 2010.

Meanwhile, two-thirds of employers claim the new fit note system is not being used to its full potential. The fit note sees doctors outline for employers what staff can actually do in work - unlike the old sick note system which simply signed people off.

HR managers in 153 public and private sector organisations, employing 850,000 workers, responded to the survey.

Neil Carberry, CBI Director of Employment and Skills said: “The record low shows employers are getting much better at tackling the root causes of absence. This is down to stronger staff engagement, initiatives to foster employee health and better re-integration plans after longer-term sick leave.

“But there is no room for complacency. Clearly, when staff are sick, they should not be in work, but there’s a lot more employers can do to tackle absence at a time when growth is fragile.

“The cost of non-genuine sick days is high and it is worrying that more than one in five employers think staff take paid absence as an occasional perk.”

On the public/private absence gap

“Public sector managers must save every single penny when budgets are under such immense pressure. The falls in absence over the last two years are good news but there is much more to do. We need to make sure this progress continues.”

On mental health conditions emerging as the single most widespread cause of long-term absence

“These findings show mental health issues are a major cause of absence, so it’s no surprise that nine out of ten businesses are taking positive action to manage mental illness.”

On the fit note’s impact

“The fit note is designed to stop doctors signing workers off sick too readily, when staff could get back to work with the right support. It’s clear that it’s fallen short of expectations and to date is not being used much differently to the old sick note system. Ministers need to listen carefully to concerns that doctors are not trained well enough to use the notes properly, with little understanding of the modern workplace.”

Jonathan Emms, Pfizer UK Managing Director, said: “It is welcome news that absence from the workplace has fallen to record low levels.

“The report highlights the importance of early intervention and proactive management strategies in tackling the underlying causes of absence.

“By drawing together data on both absence trends and management strategies, this report highlights how greater progress can be made towards maximising wellness, minimising illness and helping people to stay in, or get back to, work.”

The key findings of the CBI/Pfizer Absence and Workplace Health Survey 2013 were:

- The average rate of absence in 2012 was 5.3 days per employee, down from 6.5 days in 2010

- Average annual employee absence levels have fallen by more than a quarter since the 1980s

- There is a gap of more than three days a year in average absence levels between the best-performing quartile of organisations and the worst

- One in five employers think employees take “sickies” as an occasional perk

- Absence remains higher among manual employees than non-manual but the gap is narrowing over time

- Average levels of absence climb with organisation size. Smaller firms average under five days of absence per employee while larger firms average nearly six days

- Average absence levels remain significantly higher in the public sector than in the private sector. Closing the gap could save the Exchequer more than £1.2bn a year

- Mental health conditions are the single most widespread cause of long-term absence, with more than half (54%) of employers citing non-work related stress, anxiety and depression as a cause of long-term absence for non-manual workers, and slightly fewer (42%) for manual workers.

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